Between the full-bodied flavor, aromatic scent and convenient brewing process, it’s no surprise that French press coffee is popular. Even the brewing process itself is an act of mindfulness that levels up the morning coffee experience long before the first sip. But could it actually be raising your cholesterol?
The how-tos of French press can get particular when it comes to ratios and water temperatures, but essentially the process goes something like this: Add ground coffee beans to your French press container, pour in hot water, let it steep, and plunge the metal filter down to strain out the grounds. Pour your coffee, and that’s it.
If you’re wondering how this process could possibly raise your cholesterol, let’s get into it.
“Without the use of paper filters, a mesh filter plunger is used to press the coffee grounds to the bottom of the pitcher and the remaining liquid is poured and consumed,” Emma Laing, director of dietetics at the University of Georgia and national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, told HuffPost. “This is what gives the finished product that bold flavor.”
The catch? Research suggests that unfiltered coffee can raise your LDL (bad) cholesterol levels — the waxy, fat-like substance that can cause plaque buildup in your arteries.
The connection between French press coffee and cholesterol
Coffee itself isn’t a source of dietary cholesterol — the oily materials released from the beans during steeping, known as diterpenes, have been linked to elevated blood cholesterol when consumed in larger quantities (six cups or more per day, according to a 2022 review published in the cardiology journal Open Heart).
Paper coffee filters used in other brewing methods typically catch diterpenes and prevent them from ending up in your coffee. Because French press coffee is unfiltered, it contains significantly more diterpenes than traditionally filtered or instant coffees.
“The concentration of cafestol, a type of diterpene, in French press coffee is about 300 times greater than paper filtered drip coffee,” said Robert Fishberg, a New Jersey-based board-certified cardiologist with Atlantic Health System.
Decaffeination and levels of roasting have little effect on diterpene concentrations. “In general, the higher the temperature and the longer the coffee grounds are steeped in water without filtration, the more oils are released into the finished brew,” Laing said.
The actual mechanism behind why diterpenes raise cholesterol is unclear. One possibility is that it can raise levels of cholesterol ester transfer protein, known as CTEP, Fishberg said, which influences how the body metabolizes cholesterol. Lower CTEP levels promote HDL (good) cholesterol formation, while higher levels can raise LDL (bad) cholesterol production.
Diterpenes may also affect two nuclear receptors (a class of proteins found in cells), called FXR and PXR, that play a role in keeping cholesterol levels balanced.
Much more research needs to be done, though.
“It’s important to note that all of the studies looking at the French press had relatively small sample sizes and only documented the higher cholesterol levels,” Fishberg said. And the higher cholesterol levels were indicated after drinking quite a bit of French press coffee — anywhere from five to nine cups daily, or more.
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There were no outcome studies, either, meaning the studies show correlations, but cannot prove cause and effect or define interventions addressing the issue.
The takeaway from these studies
“There are important considerations when evaluating results from the French press coffee and cholesterol studies,” Laing said. “These include variations in the coffee itself (diterpene levels vary based on coffee species, roasting degree, particle size of the ground coffee beans, brew method and serving size), the health and demographics of the people studied, what they choose to add to their coffee and use of medications — those that lower or raise blood cholesterol are of particular importance.”
Though diterpenes have been linked to higher levels of cholesterol in the blood, studies have also shown their potential as having anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer and anti-diabetic effects. “More research is needed to prove these effects, but it’s likely that diterpenes and other compounds in coffee have multiple health effects that occur simultaneously,” Laing said.
How to enjoy French press coffee while minimizing the effects on your cholesterol
This depends on how much French press coffee you drink on a daily basis and what you add to it, if anything, to enhance its flavor.
“For many individuals, enjoying coffee as part of an overall balanced eating pattern shouldn’t raise cholesterol, nor should it raise a health concern,” Laing said. “If you add cream, half-and-half, butter or coconut oil to your cup though, be mindful that these ingredients contain saturated fat, which can also impact LDL cholesterol levels.”
Fishberg recommends switching to a dark roast, which has a lower concentration of diterpenes. Also, consider limiting the number of cups of French press coffee a day or alternating with drip coffee.
The Food and Drug Administration recommends adults limit their caffeine intake to 400 mg per day, or roughly four cups of coffee. “There are no published guidelines to date on the amount of filtered versus unfiltered coffee that will prevent health issues, so the safest amount of French press coffee depends highly on the individual,” Laing said.
Drinking one to four cups per day of French press coffee generally shouldn’t have negative health effects, Laing explained. However, those who are sensitive to caffeine, have a heart condition, are pregnant or take medications known to alter blood cholesterol should consume less.
And if your otherwise normal LDL cholesterol levels are suddenly high after a checkup, then curbing your French press coffee intake may be recommended by your health care provider, in addition to other lifestyle changes.
“Having your blood cholesterol levels checked regularly will help your health care provider determine if changes need to be made to your dietary or activity patterns and if there’s a need for medications,” Laing said.
French press aficionados not willing to alter their coffee habits can look to other ways to support healthy blood cholesterol levels, such as ensuring your plates are filled with fruits and veggies, whole grains, lean meats and healthy fats, as well as making sure you’re exercising regularly.
“People with familial hypercholesterolemia (a genetic disorder that causes high cholesterol) who have very high LDL levels may want to avoid French press coffee,” Fishberg said. “The same goes for patients with coronary disease with high LDL — especially if they’re statin intolerant.”