What is Vietnamese iced coffee?
Anyone who has tried coffee in Vietnam will no doubt remember the thick, sweet drink that is the result of combining sweetened condensed milk with dark-roasted Vietnamese coffee. The practice of making coffee with condensed milk is so common in Vietnam that if you order a coffee it is likely that it will arrive complete with a generous portion of condensed milk. If you like your coffee with more of a European slant then you’ll need to order “fresh milk.” However, Vietnamese coffee is so renowned that ordering an alternative when you’re over there could give you a reputable of being a little unadventurous. Part of the joy of travelling is in embracing new cultures, exploring new cities and trying new tastes and flavour combinations. However, for the health-conscious among us, is Vietnamese coffee a good option? Although, coffee isn’t always associated with healthy living, it is for many of us a daily ritual and with fresh research constantly revealing new facets to caffeine and coffee specifically, the general consensus seems to be that coffee in moderation is fine and in many cases can even provide some health benefits. It’s not just the consumption of coffee that people are drawn to in their quest for better health, unorthodox practices such as coffee enemas are increasing in popularity, often giving coffee a bad name and detracting from the true value of coffee.
Whether you opt for the hot variety or a glass of iced coffee, in Vietnam you can expect it to be served with condensed milk.
What is the history behind coffee in Vietnam?
The coffee produced from Vietnamese coffee beans is notoriously strong and dark, which might account for the need to sweeten it with rich, smooth condensed milk. The addition of condensed milk is also due to the fact that dairy farming was in its infancy when coffee was first introduced to Vietnam and fresh milk was not readily available. Few people realise it, but Vietnam is actually the second-largest coffee producing country in the world after Brazil. A whopping 16% of the world’s coffee is produced in Vietnam, which is the main producer of Robusta. Robusta is known for being bitter with a high acidity, making it the ideal choice for espresso and instant coffee. It is also commonly used with other ground coffee beans, as a sort of filler. As the name suggests, Robusta is very strong but it’s not just the flavour that is robust. The plant itself is hardy and unlike its popular big brother Arabica, it is great at fending off diseases. Robusta thrives in Vietnam, with its cool winters, hot summers and plentiful rainfall. It is the French who we can credit for bringing coffee to Vietnam in the 19th century and the Vietnamese government who instigated a vast coffee production program after the Vietnam war. It’s only in the last thirty odd years that coffee production in Vietnam has really taken off, and they currently produce a staggering 1.73 million tons a year.
In 1994 a devastating 60% of the Vietnamese population were living below the poverty line, nowadays, thanks to the booming coffee economy this figure has dramatically reduced to less than 10%.
The environmental implications of Vietnamese coffee
According to the WWF over 40,000 square miles of forest have been destroyed to make room for projects such as coffee farms since 1973. Steadily, the land used to farm coffee is being exhausted. This is true for much of the world, with sustainable coffee growers being few and far between. Unfortunately, in Vietnam, excessive amounts of both water and fertiliser are used which is having a knock-on effect on the environment. Experts claim that this is due to Vietnamese farmers having no training and having to work out agricultural methods for themselves.
Café culture in Vietnam
Globally, café culture forms an integral part of our lives with independent coffee shops and international coffee chains popping up all over the place and more pubs and restaurants jumping on the bandwagon and adding a variety of coffees to their usual fare. In Vietnam this social focus on gathering together over a cup of coffee is just as popular, with coffee being consumed all hours of the day from swanky café to street-side stalls. With the sweltering heat of a Vietnamese summer, the iced variety tends to a more popular choice on warmer days though hot coffee is readily available throughout the year. In establishments that offer fast food and even faster coffee, the coffee is ready brewed and good to go. This is often the case for iced coffee of course, to allow it to cool down before the condensed milk and ice is added. However, traditionally, hot Vietnamese coffee is brewed in individual portions using a phin. This is a special cup with a lid and filter chamber, that means you have to sit and wait for your coffee to slowly drip through into your cup. Drinking your coffee so freshly brewed not only enhances the flavour of the coffee and provides an exquisite aroma that adds to the whole experience; but it also forces you to sit, slow down and wait. This change of pace is invaluable in any thriving metropolis, and especially welcome in the thriving hubbub of Vietnam.
The unique Vietnamese way of preparing coffee is something that several Vietnamese entrepreneurs are hoping to successfully introduce to the rest of the world and there are already several outlets where you can try Vietnamese iced coffee for yourself. In America it is readily available in Vietnamese restaurants and it’s taking off in Australia too. Several companies sell ‘Vietnamese coffee beans‘ in a clever marketing ploy, as many would be turned off by the idea of a coffee labelled as Robusta, assuming it to be too bitter and strong yet will happily part with their cash for the appeal of Vietnamese coffee as it hails from a distant land with a rich and intriguing culture.
With café culture forming such an important part of our social lives, there is always a new buzz word regarding interesting new ways to prepare coffee. Coffee with condensed milk might sound a little sickly sweet, but label it as Vietnamese iced coffee or it’s real title, the exotically appealing ca phe sua da and people are starting to opt for it as a break from their chai lattes and flavoured soya infusions. One of the latest crazes in the world of coffee is bulletproof coffee which comes with a host of claims of health benefits including improved mental clarity and weight-loss. Vietnamese iced coffee doesn’t tend to be touted as any sort of miracle cure and it would be hard to argue that it was in any way healthy. The combination of condensed milk, sugar and coffee is clearly intended to be tasty rather than nutritious or an aid weight-loss. That being said, how unhealthy is it really?
How does Vietnamese Coffee affect our health?
The Robusta coffee bean that forms the basis of Vietnamese coffee contains double the caffeine of your average coffee bean, yet it also contains many more antioxidants. As studies are still investigating the good and bad properties of coffee, it is worth noting that according to recent studies the link between coffee and mortality is dubious. A recent study also determined that there is a definite link between caffeine intake and lower cognitive decline in women, which means that a coffee such as Robusta which is packed with even more caffeine than your average coffee bean is potentially a better choice. One (6 fl oz) cup of Robusta contains up to around 200mg of caffeine (as opposed to 75-130mg of Arabica coffee in the same sized cup). The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) advises that anything up to 400mg of caffeine a day should be safe for most adults, meaning that just one cup of Robusta fulfils half of the maximum level for safe caffeine consumption.
Depending on how much coffee you like to drink, the extra caffeine in Robusta could prove to be a problem. Yet it’s not just the additional caffeine that makes Robusta stand out, the extra antioxidants that are found in this Vietnamese coffee are also intriguing. We are all well-versed in the benefits of antioxidants, but does the antioxidant content of this Vietnamese-grown coffee make it a substantially better choice for coffee drinkers than the popular Arabica? According to Joe Vinson, ph.D, a chemistry professor at the University of Scranton who thoroughly researched the field of coffee and antioxidants, “Americans get more of their antioxidants from coffee than any other dietary source.” Antioxidants are known to fight the free radicals that can lead to cancer, as well as supporting the immune system and numerous other health benefits. Ideally, we will be consuming enough fruit and vegetables to boost of levels of antioxidants, but if people’s diets are lacking in fruit and vegetables then is coffee a good substitute and is Robusta really the best option? We all have been lead to believe that green tea is packed with far more antioxidants than any other hot beverage.
One study unravels this truth and determines that in fact, soluble coffee had the highest level of antioxidants. The same study also showed that although green Robusta beans have as much as twice the level of antioxidants as Arabica coffee beans, this level declines so much during roasting that it is no longer significant. Studies such as this one are a clear indication that our coffee consumption should not be led by a desire to consume more antioxidants. Other options for packing in the antioxidants are black grapes, blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, nuts, leafy greens, sweet potatoes, squashs and oily fish. So the caffeine and antioxidant qualities of Robusta don’t make it stand out from the crowd, what about the other elements that make up Vietnamese iced coffee?
Coffee itself contains barely any calories, which is what makes black coffee such an appealing drink for those who are watching their weight. However, condensed milk is highly calorific and the sweetened variety that is so popular in Vietnam means added sugar. Just one tablespoon of sweetened condensed milk contains 61 calories, 10 grams of sugar and 1.7 grams of fat. Considering that Vietnamese iced coffee usually involves a generous addition of anything from 2-4 tablespoons of condensed milk to a quarter or even half a cup, then you are looking at a seriously calorific drink with a high sugar and fat content.
Condensed milk is made by evaporating some of the water from the milk and adding sugar until the sugar to milk ratio is almost 50%. This is a staggering amount of sugar, especially when you consider that some Vietnamese iced coffee recipes use half a cup of condensed milk! That’s almost a quarter of a cup of sugar. The sugar was initially added as a form of preservative but the sweet flavour makes it a popular choice with children and as an extra ingredient in desserts.
According to the American Heart Association sugar should account for only 100 calories of a woman’s daily diet (25 grams or 5 teaspoons) and for men the recommended consumption is 150 calories (37.5 grams or 9 teaspoons).
Time to try a Vietnamese iced coffee?
If you take your Vietnamese iced coffee with 4 teaspoons of condensed milk, then it isn’t that different to a coffee with milk and two sugars. One of these a day, isn’t going to significantly improve your health but is well within your sugar limit for the day. However, as the iced form of Vietnamese coffee tends to involve much more sweet, thick condensed milk then it is possible that you’ll exceed your RDA (recommended daily amount) of sugar in just one drink. The bitterness of Robusta means it begs to be sweetened and as the raised antioxidant levels are only worth noting in the green beans, there are no health benefits to a cup of Robusta aside from those attributed to any coffee beans. If you limit the amount of sugar (in the form of condensed milk) in your Vietnamese coffee then one cup a day could be a nice treat. In fact, the biggest health benefit in the Vietnamese coffee drinking could be in the method of slowly waiting for your coffee to brew before enjoying it. This practice of sitting and waiting, slowing down your pace and taking a few minutes out from your busy schedule is a much healthier way to enjoy coffee, as opposed to grabbing a cup of take-out java and knocking it back as you dash to the office. If Vietnamese coffee intrigues you, then let yourself be drawn to the culture that surrounds it and the laid-back manner of drinking it rather than significantly increasing your daily sugar intake in a syrupy sweet iced coffee drink.