Is French Press Coffee Bad for you?
The modern French press, contrary to what its name suggests, is an invention accredited to an Italian designer, Ugo Paolini. The creation made it possible to make and drink filtered coffee in a mere matter of minutes, accentuating speed and efficiency. However, while it took a shorter time to make than paper cone filtered coffee, it is now known that the French press also compromises the health of those that drink from it.
Having been a French press fanatic for as long as I loved coffee, I recently came across the dangers drinkers of coffee face when drinking it. Being a busy person, I found myself in a dilemma, negotiating between health and convenience, prompting me to ask how unhealthy French press coffee really is and whether I can ever have unfiltered coffee without it impacting on my wellbeing.
Is it Really that Harmful?
Firstly, I would be remiss not to note that the debate online on whether coffee as a whole is healthy or not is largely oversimplified. Caffeine, the most highly consumed psychoactive drug in the world often presents as the only factor on the effects of coffee regardless of the fact that coffee beans are a concoction of thousands of different chemicals and naturally occurring aromas.
The contents of what end up in the piping hot cup depend on three things, how the bean is harvested, how it is processed and how it is filtered. We are in charge of the latter step and can use a French press to do so.
It plays the role of filtering out coffee grounds and other bitter oils for both taste and health reasons. Unfortunately, the way it is made means that this process, though highly efficient, is nowhere near as effective as other filtering alternatives.
With this in mind, moderation is always key. As will be explained later on, casual drinkers of coffee need not be too panicked by this information providing they consume it in moderation somewhere below four cups of it a day. I myself still use my French press when convenient and implore you to do the same.
Also see: Coffee 101: Everything You Need to Learn About Coffee and Its History
French Press and Cholesterol
The French press, like Moka pots and coffee percolators, uses a metal filter. Though this differs from traditional paper filters, it does successfully fulfil the task of removing coffee grounds before you drink it. At surface level this seems sufficient, however, that’s not the whole picture.
The metal filter fails to extract all of the harmful contents of a coffee bean as well as its paper alternative can. Even after straining, French press coffee contains relatively high volumes of diterpenes, organic compounds that, when digested, increase the body’s levels of harmful cholesterol.
Drinking about 5 cups of coffee a day myself, if I were to be consuming poorly filtered coffee, I would fall within the category most at risk of raising harmful cholesterol levels and thus increase my risk for both heart attacks and strokes. Luckily, I’ve since switched from faulty filtration and much prefer the sweeter, fruitier and more refined cups of coffee that I get from using paper cone filtration.
So why is the metal filter insufficient and how do the diterpenes get through? Simply put, the filter isn’t manufactured fine enough. Whereas sifting hot coffee through paper retrieves almost all of its unwanted impurities, the holes in a metal filter large enough to be seen and thus let harmful substances, including diterpenes through.
Why French press coffee is bad for you?
The two main diterpenoids the French press struggles to sieve out are cafestol and kahweol. Though these are present in trace amounts in paper filtered coffee, their harmful effects are insignificant in such low doses. These chemicals block cholesterol homeostasis in the intestine meaning that the body struggles to regulate the amount of cholesterol it produces, negatively impacting the health of blood vessels, especially in and around the large intestine.
Cholesterol homeostasis is a process vital for the function of cells in the human body. Damaging this system often causes an increase in heart disease and other degenerative diseases such as cancer. Though the French press itself hasn’t proven to be carcinogenic, it has shown conclusive increases in both heart disease and blood clots.
In fact, it has been found that French press users that take upwards of 5 cups of coffee a day have a 6-8% higher bad cholesterol content than their paper filter using counterparts. This, according to a scientific news article by Baylor College of Medicine titled “How Coffee Raises Cholesterol”.
Not only that, but these diterpenes cause an even steeper rise of triglyceride levels, a type of fat stored in the body. At healthy levels, triglycerides work as stores for energy that can be burnt when hungry. However, excess levels of these fats are associated with liver and pancreas problems as well as heart disease.
In a study investigating the effect of cafestol on the body, Doctor Marie-Louise Ricketts from the Baylor college of medicine calls cafestol “the most potent cholesterol-elevating compound known in the human diet”. Not only did addition of this diterpene to the diets of subjects (rats) of this study result in a 40% higher cholesterol content but serum triglyceride levels also went up by around 60%.
That said, though the kahweol present in French press coffee has the same cholesterol heightening tendencies as cafestol, research coming from the Department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry in the University of Málaga seems to have found evidence that its effects aren’t all negative.
The article concludes its findings by stating that kahweol has anti-inflammatory and anti-angiogenic properties, meaning that it can be effective in stopping tumours and cancers. Furthermore, the findings within the study show that it might prevent DNA damage but does not decisively conclude it.
However, Doctor Eric Rimm, epidemiology professor at Harvard School of Public Health contradicts this, suggesting that using the French press doesn’t have any effect on cancer rates in patients. It seems, unfortunately, that cons of metal filters are much more prevalent and easier to prove than the alleged benefits.
The grim reality of it is clear, there is an almost definite correlation between French press overconsumption and heightened cholesterol levels in the body. And with that come all of the consequences of too much low-density lipoprotein cholesterol such as increased chance of strokes, jaw pain, brain blockages and gallstones (small stones that build in the gallbladder)
Is all unfiltered coffee bad for you?
Regrettably, yes. Though boiling the kettle and pouring coffee powder right into the cup may seem enticing, it’s just too good to be true. Even if the powder is pre-ground, like in the instance of instant coffee, the grinding process fails to remove any harmful substances.
In fact, studies show that entirely unfiltered coffee raises cholesterol levels even higher than metal filter processes, reaching increases in cholesterol of around 8% for men and 10% for women.
The average amount of LDL cholesterol the human body needs ranges from around 100 to 129mg/dL. Unfortunately, depending on where you’re from, there’s a high chance you have more than that. In the United Kingdom, according to a survey taken by ForthWithLife, 39.65% of people have more than 130mg/dL whereas more pessimistic research points to more than 60%.
The inclusion of French press coffee alone, depending on how much you have, has been shown to increase cholesterol levels by more than 15 mg/dL, thus putting a large amount of the subjects that drink it at risk of cardiovascular disease.
Not only is it true for all unfiltered coffee, but all coffee making methods using metal filters too. It is, however, important to note that espresso, since it is usually taken in such small amounts, is rarely the cause of any significant health impedances.
Is there a better alternative?
So, what now? The answer is quite obvious really, if you have high cholesterol already, make the switch to paper filters. Not only are they healthier in the long run, but a simple paper cone filter, takes no time to set up or clean up. The filtered coffee they provide makes something that, in my opinion is entirely superior to the stuff from a French press.
If you take regular exercise and feel fit and young then the occasional cup won’t do you much harm, but it is important to consider whether you have a family history of heart disease or cholesterol problems.
After my own personal revelations about poorly filtered coffee, I reluctantly made the switch and now regret not having done so sooner. Offering a noticeably less bitter and much smoother taste, it may take a tiny while longer in the morning but to me it’s worth it.
All of this to say that the risks that French or Italian presses present seem to definitely outweigh the benefits. Sure, if you prefer a more bitter, rougher taste, a cup a day of the stuff won’t kill you. But, if you fall under risk of heart disease like 47% of Americans or a little under 40% of Brits, it’s definitely something you should consider changing.