Bulletproof coffee: a damn fine cup of coffee or well-marketed snake oil?
Caffeine forms a pretty integral part of many people’s lives. Whether we use it to get going in the morning, to keep a clear head during a working day, to keep us going late at night or even in a social setting when meeting friends, there is no denying that few people go without. Most of us are aware of the health implications of relying on caffeine but new studies also show that there are substantial benefits. Yet with coffee companies constantly trying to find new ways to be ahead of the market, the choices we are offered can feel a little overwhelming. The latest buzz word in coffee is bulletproof, which is far more than just your regular cup of joe. So what is bulletproof coffee and what really happens to you when you drink it?
What is bulletproof coffee?
Bulletproof coffee is a combination of coffee, butter and oil; thought to improve cognitive performance and aid weight loss. According to the founder of this concept, the ingredients are pretty specific with a preference for grass-fed butter and “Brain Octane oil” blended with “upgraded” black coffee. The upgraded coffee beans are said to be low in mycotoxins due to a secret process that founder, David Asprey is keeping very close to his chest. Mycotoxins are the compounds that are formed as a bi-product of mould and Asprey relies on his low mycotoxin recipe as a promotional tool. Asprey claims that mycotoxins cause regular coffee to taste bitter, he also believes that mycotoxins are “performance-robbing” and “steal your mental edge and make you weak.”
As well as the special coffee and grass-fed butter (which according to the strict bulletproof guidelines, must be unsalted), the oil isn’t too easy to come by either. Brain Octane oil is formed from MCTs (medium-chain triglycerides) which are known to contain fatty acids. MCTs are known to be more quickly digested and less likely to be stored in fatty tissue in comparison to longer-chain fats. According to the bulletproof website Brain Octane oil “contains the most ketogenic MCT in coconut oil, C8, from the heart of the coconut.”
Can I make it at home?
You can, but without David Asprey’s secret formula for “upgraded” coffee beans you’ll need to purchase the key ingredients from the Bulletproof company. All you need to do is grind some Bulletproof coffee beans and brew your cupped lightning in the regular way. Add 1-2 tablespoons of Brain Octane to your cup of hot coffee, along with a tablespoon or two or grass-fed, unsalted butter or ghee, whizz it all up in a blender until frothy and knock it back. The way that Bulletproof coffee is marketing is very clever, as it creates an idea that you need to use the company’s unique products to really get the full benefits from this strange combination of ingredients. Some people are firm believers in the benefits of bulletproof coffee but choose to get their basic ingredients from other sources. Popular alternatives include combining black coffee, any unsalted grass-fed butter and a 100% pure MCT oil or organic coconut oil.
A few trendy cafés do serve bulletproof coffee, but on the whole it is something that is prepared at home.
More about the intended benefits
More mental clarity and substantial weight loss both sound rather appealing. What other benefits is this new “miracle” coffee linked to? The combination of the butter and oil is meant to keep you feeling full and energised for a number of hours. It is also thought to provide good fats and healthy cholesterol. MCT oil is rumoured to have unique fat-burning qualities too. According to Dave Aprey, this trendy coffee can “supercharge your brain function and create effortless fat loss with no cravings.”
What about mycotoxins?
The idea that there is something derived from mould in our usual coffee, that could potentially affect our mental clarity and health is more than a little worrying. However, mycotoxins are commonly found in many foods (including breast milk and meats). In fact, in one study it was discovered that drinking four cups of coffee a day resulted in people having just 2% of what is considered a safe level of mycotoxins. In theory, you could drink 199 cups of coffee a day and still not exceed the level of safe mycotoxins. So in reality, we needn’t worry too much about how coffee contributes to our mycotoxin consumption.
Can MCT really help with weight loss and brain function?
There is no conclusive evidence that MCT can help with brain function in healthy adults. However, there it has been known to repair some brain function in people suffering from Alzheimer’s and Type 1 Diabetes. There are numerous studies that do back up the claim that MCT really does help with weight loss. With one study determining that a “weight-loss diet that includes consumption of medium-chain triacylglycerol oil leads to a greater rate of weight and fat mass loss than does olive oil.” There is no denying the science, but perhaps incorporating coconut oil into a nutritionally balanced breakfast would be a healthier option. You could slip some into a smoothie, add some to your oats or yoghurt or even add it to a fruit salad. Coconut oil is not 100% MCT but is a healthier way to glean the benefits.
If you are interested in the health benefits of grass-fed butter, then combining it with carbohydrates is probably a tastier option, as well as a healthier one. In fact, grass-fed butter is substantially richer in Omega-3 fatty acids than your usual butter. Cutting back on carbohydrates is a popular diet fad (think Atkin’s, Paleo etc) but can lead to ketosis which isn’t always a welcome process.
Most of us burn carbohydrates as our main source of energy, however if someone is in a state of ketosis they will produce energy by processing fats. Using ketosis to lose weight is a popular tool that many companies have started using, usually without advertising the use of ketosis. Ketones are a result of ketosis and they can actually be quite dangerous if they build up, resulting in dehydration and potentially a change to the chemical balance of your blood. So when Asprey refers to the ketogenic properties of his Brain Octane oil, he is simply saying that they are high in fat and low in carbs. Although, a well-balanced diet with plenty of carbs would help any bulletproof coffee drinker to avoid ketosis this is not Asprey’s intention and he recommends drinking the coffee as part of a Paleo-style diet that includes high fats, plenty of meat and vegetables.
The weight loss benefits of ketosis and Asprey’s own references to it do indicate that ketosis is one of the intentions of this method of blending coffee. The health risks associated with ketosis mean that it is something that should only be embarked on with adequate medical supervision and/or advice from a nutritionist.
What will happen to me if I drink bulletproof coffee?
Just one tablespoon each of grass-fed butter and MCT oil contain more than 100% of your RDA (recommended daily allowance) of saturated fat. Considering Asprey’s recipe recommends up to 2 tablespoons of each, this is a little concerning. Each cup contains between 200 and 400 calories, which is a significant addition to your daily intake and over time could lead to significant weight gain. This means that you would need to avoid saturated fat throughout the rest of your diet and cut some calories somewhere if you were to try a cup of bulletproof a day. With advocates of the bulletproof trend suggesting that this liquid energy be used to replace your usual breakfast, the calorie issue can be side-stepped. However, what about the nutritional benefits of breakfast? With MCT oil being 100% empty calories, it’s far from an ideal way to start the day. Grass-fed butter contains vitamins A and K2, CLA and butyrate but the whole drink is low in protein, minerals, vitamins and complex carbohydrates, leaving us lacking in essential nutrients.
The dangers of bulletproof coffee
One of the main dangers of drinking bulletproof coffee is that most people use it as a meal replacement. No matter how healthy the oils are, we all know that a combination of caffeine and oil is no substitute for a nutritionally balanced meal. The idea of replacing your usual breakfast with a cup of bulletproof coffee will tackle the extra calories but will also mean that you won’t have consumed any carbohydrates since dinner the night before and will also mean a substantial lack of essential vitamins and minerals.
The other danger is the high levels of saturated fats that you you consume in one drink. We know that too much saturated fat can lead to high levels of LDL cholesterol. The high levels of cholesterol combined with the dangers of ketosis are enough to make anyone think twice about trying this morning beverage. Research shows that this new craze may be causing an increase in hyperlipidemia (elevated levels of lipids in the blood) in patients who were otherwise healthy.
The way forward
Evidence shows that grass-fed butter is a healthier choice than standard butter and including some amount of MCT in your diet could help with cognitive function on some level, as well as being a possible aid to weight loss. However, it would be advisable to consider replacing your usual butter with a grass-fed alternative, rather than consuming 2 tablespoons of the stuff in your morning coffee. Rather than fuelling up on the high saturated fat levels of MCT, you could include some coconut oil in your diet. Breakfast should be nutritionally balanced, involving slow-burning energy, fresh fruit and protein. If a cup of coffee accompanies all of this goodness, then so be it. From what we’ve uncovered about the bulletproof variety, your regular cup of joe doesn’t seem half as terrible.