Coffee... upgraded? Is "Bulletproof Coffee" all it's cracked up to be? | Precision Nutrition

Coffee... upgraded?
Is "Bulletproof Coffee" all it's cracked up to be?

By Brian St. Pierre

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Bulletproof Coffee introduced the world to “coffee hacking” and the novelty of butter in one’s morning brew. As a result, it’s become something of an internet sensation. People are talking about it. People are trying it. Many even claim it works wonders for them.

But what is it about this magical concoction that has people pimping their cup of joe? More importantly, do the results actually match the hype?

“Hacking”: The quest to improve everything

Everyone knows that a healthy lifestyle is a journey, not a destination.

Indeed, it’s a life-long project defined by the “relax, slow down, and take one day at a time” approach we share in our nutrition coaching programs for men and for women.

But hey, who doesn’t love shortcuts? Or tweaks and fiddling?

Enter “the hack” — a way to improve, individualize, and/or streamline a process — like a computer hacker who messes around with the original software.

“Hacking” has become a defining concept in our culture. There’s IKEA hacking. Home hacks. Body hacking. And if you want to go all the way, life hacking.

In the exercise or nutrition area, if you’re more advanced, you might have wondered:

Is there some way I could “hack” my nutrition or fitness?

Or perhaps if you feel a certain ennui about your morning brew:

Is there some way I could make my coffee more science-y and awesome?

And if you’re that sort of curious person who hunts for better ways to do things, you may have already stumbled across Bulletproof Coffee.

What is Bulletproof Coffee?

Bulletproof Coffee (BPC) is actually a recipe.

In essence, it’s a combination of coffee, grass-fed butter, and medium-chain triglyceride (MCT) oil.

(Some people even add nootropics — cognitive enhancement supplements or drugs — to the mix.)

Of course, with Bulletproof Coffee, not just any coffee will do. You can’t just pull out your ol’ Dunkin’ Donuts or Tim Hortons blend and think it’ll work. Remember — hackers gotta be optimal.

So they fancy things up with so-called Upgraded Coffee. (Yes, that’s trademarked.)

For starters, Upgraded Coffee promoters claim it improves energy, mood, productivity and overall health… much more than regular old coffee.

And also unlike regular coffee, Upgraded Coffee is supposedly mycotoxin-free. (We’ll explain that idea more in a minute.)

OK, so you take super-duper coffee, then add grass-fed, unsalted butter and MCT oil. Now you’ve got Bulletproof Coffee. This is next-level Space Age stuff right here.

Here’s the recipe:

  • 2 cups (500 ml) of black Upgraded Coffee
  • 2 tbsp (30 ml) of unsalted grass-fed butter (or more, up to 80 grams of butter)
  • 2 tbsp (30 ml) of MCT oil
  • Blend (ideally in a high-speed blender) until the oil emulsifies and it looks like a latte

Bulletproof Coffee fans claim that it’s satisfying, kills hunger, eliminates jitters often caused by high caffeine intake, and keeps drinkers humming all day.

Do these claims pan out?

Time to explore.

First, I’ll look at what the research says about coffee, mycotoxins, saturated fat and MCTs. Then I’ll try some Bulletproof Coffee myself.

Let’s start with coffee.

cup-of-black-coffee

Is it good for you? Or bad for you?

Based on the research it’s hard to make a blanket statement about coffee.

Like a lot of nutrition science, most of the data on coffee are correlational. Correlational data don’t tell us cause and effect. They just tell us what things tend to go together.

Coffee’s potential benefits

On one hand, regular coffee consumption (1 to 3 cups per day) is consistently associated with a lower risk of:

  • diabetes
  • Alzheimer’s
  • Parkinson’s
  • many cancers
  • overall mortality

Coffee and caffeine are also widely recognized performance and brain boosters.

Coffee’s potential harm

Unfortunately, many of the potential benefits seem to disappear if we drink too much coffee — say, more than 3 cups a day.

And coffee consumption is also associated with:

  • higher risk of miscarriage
  • disrupted sleep
  • worsened PMS symptoms
  • increased blood pressure, even in people without hypertension

So, kinda mixed results here. No clear winner.

(For more, see All about coffee: Is it good for us? Or a disease waiting to happen?)

Coffee’s benefits (or harms) definitely seem to depend, in part, on how much we drink.

But there may be other factors at work. Such as:

Caffeine metabolism

One reason that coffee studies are hard to interpret is that humans are diverse. Genetically, we don’t all respond to coffee or caffeine in the same way.

About half of you reading are… a little slow.

No, seriously, half of you have genes that make you a “slow” caffeine metabolizer. If you’re a slowpoke and you consume a lot of caffeine, your chances of stuff like heart disease go up.

The other half of you are “fast” caffeine metabolizers. You won the genetic lottery here — habitual caffeine consumption actually lowers your heart disease risk. (Don’t get too cocky. You still have to keep your coffee intake to no more than about 3 cups a day to see benefits.)

(If you’d like to know which type you are, check out 23AndMe. And for more on this, see Dr. Berardi’s interview with nutrigenomics researcher Dr. Ahmed El-Sohemy here.)

Of course, there are many other factors in maintaining good health and avoiding cardiovascular disease. But if you’re interested in nutrition and fitness (as we’re assuming you are), you probably want to control all the factors that you possibly can.

Now, here’s another possible risk factor you may not have known about: mycotoxins.

Do mycotoxins matter?

Much of the discussion of Bulletproof Coffee revolves around the potential mycotoxin content of coffee.

“Myco” comes from the Greek mukēs, which refers to fungus or mushrooms. Coffee is grown in tropical countries close to the Equator. And due to the climate of these regions, fungal growth is more common.

Thus, mycotoxins are a form of potentially toxic mold (specifically, metabolites produced by fungi) that can develop on coffee beans, among other foods.

Researchers have known for decades that a high intake of mycotoxins can cause health problems in both animals and humans.

Six major mycotoxin strains — aflatoxins, ochratoxins, citrinin, ergot alkaloids, patulin, and fusarium — commonly occur on or within food products.

However, as with many environmental compounds, the dose makes the poison. As far back as 1980 researchers have noted that:

  • Mycotoxins are not often found in commercial coffee grinds.
  • If they do appear, their levels are low.
  • Roasting destroys 70-80% of mycotoxins (and recent research actually shows reductions of 69-96%).

This is not a universal finding, however. More recent research has had some differing results.

Ochratoxin A (OTA)

When it comes to coffee, ochratoxin A (OTA) is the most studied mycotoxin. It’s toxic to the kidneys, suppresses your immune system, can cause birth defects, and is classified as a possible human carcinogen. Sounds pretty bad.

A 1997 research team analyzed 633 different samples of coffee from several European countries, and tested them in 9 different labs.

They found that more than half of the samples had no detectable levels of OTA, and the rest had, in their words, “a rather low level”.

According to their estimations, consuming 4 cups of coffee (32 oz) would provide 19 ng (that’s nanograms) of OTA.

By comparison, in 2010 some French researchers tested 30 roasted coffees that were widely available in French supermarkets. They found that a 300 ml serving (about 10 oz) contains 31 ng of OTA.

Clearly this is substantially more than the roughly 5 ng per 8 oz that the 1997 research team found.

These researchers state that OTA in coffee is generally underestimated because there are other substances in coffee that interfere with quantifying total OTA content.  Hence why their numbers were substantially higher.

What’s a safe OTA level?

Researchers aren’t sure what a safe dose of OTA would be.

Opinion 1: 1.5 nanogram per kilogram of body weight per day according to the Virtually Safe Dose (VSD) discussed by the French researchers.

Opinion 2: 5 ng/kg/day according to the European Commission and the FDA.

Opinion 3: 14.3 ng/kg/day according to a joint committee of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Health Organization (WHO).

OK, so I’m 86 kg (about 190 lb). Let’s put that into real terms.

Opinion 1: I’d have to consume 5-27 cups of coffee a day to exceed the safety limits.

Opinion 2: I’d have to drink 17-91 cups a day to exceed the safety limits.

Opinion 3: Over 250 cups a day. Sonnyboy, fetch me mah coffee hose!

Well, it seems that I’m in no danger regardless.

As I’ve mentioned, mycotoxins appear in other foods too. OTA occurs in small amounts in:

  • raisins
  • cereal grains
  • peanuts
  • beer
  • wine
  • legumes

A mixed diet containing reasonable amounts of all of these foods, in conjunction with a modest coffee intake (1 to 3 cups per day) probably won’t push me past the safe OTA consumption limit. That’s right, even if I get a little crazy with Mr. Peanut or the California Raisins.

However, if:

  • you’re concerned about optimizing — perfecting — your intake;
  • you’re still worried about OTA and mycotoxins;
  • you have a very low risk tolerance;
  • you’re willing to spend twice as much for the same amount of coffee;

then something supposedly low in mycotoxins, such as Upgraded Coffee, might make you feel more comfortable.

But remember — again, according to the research — most of the coffee you drink is really low in mycotoxins anyway.

And there’s no evidence to suggest that this one trademarked brand of coffee has a better mycotoxin count than any other brand.

Coffee with fat added?

The second controversial component of Bulletproof Coffee is the addition of copious amounts of saturated — and total — fat from butter and medium-chain triglyceride oil.

While BPC might seem like modern chemistry, the idea of putting butter in the brew is pretty familiar to traditional Ethiopians (who sometimes put butter in coffee) or Mongolians (who consume yak butter tea).

So it’s not really as weird as it might sound.

Fat and calories

I’ll look at saturated fat and MCTs in a minute, but let’s start with the calories.

Not surprisingly, when you dump a big glop of fat into your coffee, you increase the calorie count of that coffee dramatically — over 10 times more than your standard coffee with cream.

Nutrient comparison of coffee add-ins

Calories Fat (saturated) Carbs Protein
Bulletproof 468 kcal 52 g (44 g) 0 g 0 g
Half & half,
(2 tbsp added)
40 kcal 3 g (2 g) 1 g 1 g
Whole milk
(1 oz. added)
18 kcal 1 g (0.6 g) 2 g 1 g

An extra 400+ calories is a lot. Especially you have more than one BPC a day, as many people do.

Now, if BPC is your “meal” — in other words, if you actually drink this instead of eating breakfast — you can probably get away with those calories. Although, consider: one fully tricked out Bulletproof Coffee has the same amount of fat as 12 (!) egg yolks.

Also keep this in mind: In order to make the rest of your day’s intake adequately nutritious, you’d have to make sure you ate a lot more protein and colorful fruits and vegetables at other times.

You’d also want to lower your fat intake at other meals, and you’d need to choose mostly monounsaturated (avocado, nuts, olive oil) and polyunsaturated sources (nuts, seeds, fish oil) to keep your fats balanced throughout the rest of the day.

So what you save in time with BPC, you might lose elsewhere in careful food prep and planning to ensure you nourish yourself properly.

Saturated fat in context

At PN, we don’t worry too much about saturated fat. We think the whole “saturated fat will kill you deader than rat poison” hysteria is grossly overstated.

A reasonable amount of saturated fat from whole food sources (coconut, dark chocolate, whole fat dairy, animal sources) is fine, especially if you’re eating a wide variety of minimally processed foods, such as veggies, fruits, proteins, whole grains, and other healthy fats.

Three recent reviews of the literature have overtly stated that there is no significant association between the intake of dairy products, including full-fat dairy products, and increased risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke.

However, that doesn’t mean that saturated fat is entirely harmless. Or that you should consume a day’s worth (or more) of saturated fat in one shot.

Especially if you aren’t careful to have a well-balanced, diverse, nutrient-rich food intake at other times.

Saturated fat and blood lipid indicators

We won’t give you a full lipidology review in this article, but here’s something to consider.

Many clinical case studies have shown that when people suddenly increase their intake of things like coconut oil (which is the richest source of MCTs), their blood lipids go up dramatically.

Here’s a 2013 example from the Journal of Clinical Lipidology. A 52 year old woman started eating coconut oil every day.

Her blood lipids looked like this:

  • Total cholesterol: 303
  • LDL-C: 178
  • HDL-C: 106
  • Triglycerides: 94
  • Non-HDL-C: 197

Doctors then advised her to stop the daily coconut oil supplementation. Her numbers dropped dramatically after only 6 weeks.

Post-coconut oil lipids:

  • Total cholesterol: 201
  • LDL-C: 127
  • HDL-C: 58
  • Triglycerides: 77
  • Non-HDL-C : 143

Many will argue that blood lipids don’t matter, because cholesterol is not the true problem.

While this may technically be true, there are elements of blood lipids that definitely increase risk for heart disease.

  • Total LDL particles (as well as apolipoprotein B particles, which are the carriers of all non-HDL cholesterol, including LDL-C) seem to best predict CVD risk.
  • Non-HDL-C is a good general proxy for this measurement (as it requires fancy lab work to find out your LDL-Particle or apoB numbers).
  • Your HDL-C and LDL-C are simply the cholesterol content of those particles, not the size or number of particles (and there are many other components of these lipoprotein particles besides cholesterol).

This patient’s non-HDL-C dropped quickly after stopping the excessive saturated fat supplementation, which suggests that her LDL particles (as well as her apoB particles) had gone up from the coconut oil.

In other words, it seems the added coconut oil increased her heart disease risk.

Dr. Spencer Nadolsky has now seen more than 100 patients following the BPC protocol. Many have come in with explosive blood LDL-particle / apoB numbers. After dropping the protocol, these blood markers go back to normal.

Here is a case study of one of his patients, in his own words:

Bulletproof Coffee Case Study

How does Bulletproof Coffee affect blood lipid levels? Let’s explore that in this case study.

A 25 year old male came to see me for blood work.

He had no health problems. All he wanted were some advanced lipid / lipoprotein lab tests.

I ordered his LDL-Particle (LDL-P) number along with apoB levels, and a regular cholesterol / lipid panel.

His numbers came back very high with his LDL-P at 2759 nmol/L and LDL-C at 253 mg/dL (these are both over the 95th percentile).

I was quite worried this patient had clear familial hypercholesterolemia and needed a statin (cholesterol lowering drug).

When I brought him back to talk about it, I asked about his diet. He told me he ate a very low carb, high fat Paleo diet. I had a few patients that ate like this but with much better numbers, so I asked about specifics.

He said he started his day out with Bulletproof Coffee, into which he put gobs of butter. I told him to stop the Bulletproof Coffee so we could retest in a few months.

When I re-tested, his LDL-P had dropped to below 1683 nmol/L and LDL-C dropped to 161 mg/dL. Both are still on the higher end but definitely don’t need any medication.

Was it purely the extra calories added or was it the excess saturated fat changing his LDL / apoB metabolism?

I’m not sure, but I’ve seen this happen often. It seems to be a trend: Many people consuming Bulletproof Coffee have high lipids, though it doesn’t happen in all BPC users. Once those with super-high levels stop BPC, their levels drop to normal.

What does this mean?

Like coffee and caffeine, there might be genetic or environmental differences in how bodies handle lots of extra saturated fat.

Some people’s blood lipids will go up dramatically when they consume too much saturated fat.

Other people will be fine.

The only way to know is to get tested.

If you’re a BPC fan (or at least trying it), and/or if you’re an ardent low carb / high fat eater, get checked.

  • If your lab tests show no changes to your blood lipids, and an overall healthy lipid profile, keep doing whatever you’re doing.
  • If, however, your labs show elevated blood lipids, consider changing your intake.

Medium chain triglycerides

Along with superstar coffee and high-end butter, medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) add to the chemical allure of BPC.

Fat normally has to be packaged into lipoproteins, enter the lymphatic system and then get into our bloodstream.

MCTs are a special type of fat that is absorbed into our portal vein and sent straight to the liver, bypassing normal fat digestion and absorption.

The research on MCTs is a bit of a mixed bag.

  • MCTs don’t seem to make people feel more full or satisfied than other fats. In a 2012 systematic review of the MCT literature, only 1 of 7 studies found that MCT oil improved satiety.
  • MCT may help people get leaner and improve body composition. The 2012 review found that 6 of the 8 studies on MCT and body composition or bodyweight showed a positive effect. While promising, these were generally short studies of 4-16 weeks. And they tended to have poor overall dietary makeup in the studies (such as inadequate protein).
  • Adding MCTs to a diet won’t result in sudden fat loss. You still need to be in a caloric deficit overall.
  • MCTs may help the body burn more calories than other fat sources. However, this benefit is modest. And, again, must be balanced against any issues with blood lipids.
  • MCTs may have some mild body composition benefits, but only if they are used in place of some other fat or calorie sources. In and of themselves they will not make you magically leaner.

BSP’s BPC experiment

OK, that’s the clinical research.

Time to take one for science and put my coffee where my mouth is. Literally.

I ordered the Bulletproof Coffee Kit — Brain Octane Edition. This came with 2 bags of Upgraded Coffee and 1 jug of Upgraded Brain Octane Oil (100% MCT oil). Total cost: $64.95 USD.

And I bought some unsalted grass-fed butter (Kerrygold, as recommended). Total cost: $4.99 USD.

Experiment 1: Black Upgraded Coffee

Protocol: Plain coffee, no extra stuff.

Result: Delicious. It definitely tasted like high-quality coffee. My wife agreed, going out of her way to tell me how good it was. It definitely cleared my head a bit and I felt good after drinking it. But I can’t say for certain that I felt any better or worse than my usual cup of black coffee first thing in the morning.

Possible confound: Freshly ground beans. These will always taste better than pre-ground.

I usually buy pre-ground coffee because of the convenience, and because I make and drink my coffee while my kids are still sleeping. Freshly grinding coffee beans every morning is simply not an option — at least not until they get old enough and I can train them to make daddy’s coffee like good little baristas.

Experiment 2: The full BPC monty

Protocol: About 2 hours later, I got serious. I followed the Bulletproof recipe carefully:

  • 500 ml (2 cups) of Upgraded Coffee
  • 2 tbsp (30 ml) of unsalted grass-fed Kerrygold butter
  • 2 tbsp (30 ml) of Upgraded Brain Octane Oil (100% MCT oil)

I blended all ingredients in my 1500 watt Ninja blender until there was a thick head of foam.

Result: This tasted pretty good. I drink black coffee almost exclusively, so I can’t compare the taste and feel to lattes or other fancy concoctions. It was very rich. A tad greasy. But enjoyable nonetheless.

I certainly felt energetic and alert. But that’s normal for me.

I didn’t feel jittery, anxious, paranoid, or like slapping invisible bugs off my skin. Also normal. I already drink 3 cups of coffee a day, and I can handle my brew like a boss.

Possible issue: OK, “too much information” time. As many people, including me, have discovered via… ahem… experiential learning, gastrointestinal distress is common with large amounts of MCT and butter.

If you want to try BPC, start with less fat and ease in to it slowly. Or else you’ll be running to the bathroom…quickly.

Was BPC an amazing spiritual-chemical experience? Not really.

I enjoyed it. But it wasn’t particularly special.

I wonder if some of the effects people are feeling are simply due to caffeine’s magic, or perhaps little bit of the ol’ placebo effect. After all, if you spend a lot of money on coffee and go through the trouble of preparing it, you probably really want it to work.

What this means for you

Self-experiment, gather data carefully, and make informed conclusions about what works for you. As you’ll know if you’re a regular Precision Nutrition blog reader, the only “science” that truly matters is the evidence of your own unique body.

In moderation, coffee is reasonably healthy for most people. Keep it under 3 cups a day and even if you’re a slow caffeine metabolizer, you should be fine.

Mycotoxins don’t seem to be a major problem in coffee. However, they do occur in other foods. Still, the amounts are usually small.

Focus on the big picture. Get your fundamentals solid first, before worrying about the details. Eat a varied, nutrient-rich diet of minimally processed foods. Balance your fat intake, and get it from “real-food” sources as much as possible.

If you’re curious, experimental, concerned about coffee quality, and have money to burn — errr, brew — try BPC. But be safe and sane about it. Do you really need 54 grams of fat in your coffee? Could you make due with less?

Consider other coffee “hacks”. In reality, with most coffee hacks, you probably won’t see significant benefits beyond what you’d get with regular coffee or tea. For an interesting experiment, check out Nate Green’s advice on how to make the perfect cup of coffee.

Get tested. Blood lipid indicators are one sure way to know what’s happening in your body. If you’re going to roll the dice with an extremely high fat coffee, hit the lab and find out what’s in your veins.

Eat, move, and live… better.

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References

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