Some people might view coffee as a guilty pleasure but there is a growing recognition that coffee can actually be pretty healthy. After all, it is a surprisingly good source of antioxidants, especially when you consider just how much coffee we actually drink.
But, the benefits of coffee come from natural compounds and those benefits can be influenced by a range of factors, including the way the coffee is brewed.
Instant coffee is the version of coffee that many of us turn to, especially if we’re making a cup of coffee just for ourselves. After all, instant coffee can be pretty cheap and it’s fast to make. That’s perfect if you want your coffee without much mess or much hassle.
With that in mind, is instant coffee good for you - or are you better off sticking with brewed coffee?
Health Benefits of Coffee
I’ve talked about the health benefits of coffee (and caffeine) in the past, so I’m not going to go into this topic extensively here. But, we are trying to answer the question ‘is instant coffee good for you’, so we do need to look at coffee itself to some degree.
One of the most interesting outcomes is that coffee consumption has been associated with reduced chance of death (1), suggesting that, on average, coffee drinkers live longer than those that do not drink coffee. Likewise, some studies have found a dose-dependent impact of coffee on risk of death, suggesting that higher levels of coffee intake offer an increased protective benefit (2,3).
In fact, the official USDA 2015 Dietary Recommendations concluded that 3 to 5 cups of coffee per day (or up to 400 mg of caffeine per day) is not associated with any health risks and may offer significant health benefits (4).
The report did also note that people should be careful to watch any extra calories from sugar, milk and cream, which are often added to coffee. Likewise, there are other health risks if you use creamer, as Don't Waste the Crumbs has pointed out.
This stands to reason and if we want to the health benefits from instant coffee and coffee in general, watching what we add to it is a pretty important step.
Coffee and Caffeine
People vary a lot in how they view caffeine. For many of us, caffeine is one of the key reasons to drink coffee to start off with, as this stimulant often makes us feel better and more alert.
However, having too much caffeine can be a bad thing. For example, caffeine can contribute to anxiety and people often get shaky and irritable after they have had too much caffeine.
People vary considerably in how susceptible they are to caffeine. Some people will strongly react to caffeine while others barely react at all (9). For example, one person might find that even one cup of coffee in the morning can stop them sleeping at night and make them anxious throughout the day. Other people could have multiple cups during the day and even drink coffee right before bed and the coffee would have little to no effect on their nervousness or ability to sleep.
Because of this, the best advice is to simply pay attention to how your own body responds to caffeine. If you react strongly to caffeine, then it may be worth keeping your levels low.
It is also important not to make assumptions about how much caffeine coffee contains. Researchers have noted that the amount of caffeine found in products from coffee shops are often much higher than people assume, which can be an issue for pregnant women and people who are sensitive to caffeine (10).
This issue may actually make instant coffee an appealing choice for getting health benefits from coffee and caffeine. If nothing else, instant coffee does potentially provide people with a greater ability to control their intake.
A Note on K-Cups
As we’re on the topic of instant coffee, there is one distinction that I want to make.
Instant coffee refers to the powdered or granulated coffee that you buy, where you simply need to add water to make a cup of coffee. Typically, instant coffee is an inexpensive way to make coffee and it’s great for people in a hurry.
One area of confusion is Keurig brewers or similar products.
If you just look at the pods, you might assume that the company is basically selling instant coffee. But, that isn’t the case. Instead, the pods do contain a filter and the end result is brewed coffee, not instant coffee (11).
However, if you are after brewed coffee, you should be careful with any knockoff brands, as some of these have tried using instant coffee (12).
Instant Coffee versus Other Types of Coffee
We know that coffee itself is good for health. So, when we’re looking at the question ‘is instant coffee good for you’, we’re really asking whether there is anything about instant coffee that would compromise those health benefits.
Well, one thing might be quality.
Now the quality of coffee does vary considerably from one brand to the next. However, it is likely that many brands of instant coffee are of lower quality than other types of coffee. After all, the low price of instant coffee is one of the appealing factors.
There isn’t a clear relationship between the quality of coffee and health benefits. Nevertheless, in theory, low-quality coffee would have a greater chance of containing contaminants, which could compromise health.
Some research also suggests that filtering coffee is important to reduce the presence of cafestol, which is associated with an increase in cholesterol levels (13,14). Research into this effect did not specifically consider instant coffee but it is possible that instant coffee does contain the compound because you certainly don’t filter instant coffee.
If that is the case, then instant coffee may be less healthy than filtered coffee – but this is an area that needs to be specifically researched before we have any answers.
Overall, there are a lot of different ways to make coffee and as you might imagine, each approach has its own features and its own quirks. One interesting difference is that, on average, instant coffee tends to have less caffeine than other methods of brewing (15).
However, this is very specific to the type of coffee and the brewing methods you are considering. So, most instant coffee will be lower in caffeine than brewed coffee, but some instant coffee products might have the same amount of caffeine or more.
The site Caffeine Informer is a useful resource for comparing the caffeine content of various types of coffee - including instant coffee. This is worth looking at if you want to make sure you get instant coffee with decent caffeine levels.
This could also mean that instant coffee contains less healthy compounds from plants in general - although we don't know for certain whether or not this is the case. So, cup-for-cup, instant coffee could potentially offer fewer benefits than other types of coffee.
Nevertheless, that pattern might not be especially significant, as instant coffee is easier (and cheaper) to make than most other types of coffee. This means that people may often have more cups of instant coffee per day than they would have of a different type of coffee. As such, the reduced benefits within a cup of instant coffee could be balanced out by increased levels of consumption.
When it comes to health benefits of instant coffee, there is one other thing to consider – the research.
There hasn’t been much research that compares instant coffee to other types of coffee. However, some of the studies that have looked at the health benefits of coffee in general have used instant coffee as their coffee of choice.
For example, one study found that the consumption of caffeinated and decaffeinated instant coffee was associated with decreased blood glucose levels (16). Another study indicated that instant coffee had some impact on cellular concentrations of compounds that could potentially contribute to beneficial metabolic outcomes (17).
Researchers have also found that instant coffee does have antioxidant properties, like other types of coffee (18). With how frequently people consume instant coffee, it’s likely that many of us get a significant amount of antioxidants through instant coffee. Another study also indicated that instant coffee processing had no impact on the levels of chlorogenic acids, which are one group of healthy compounds that are found in coffee (19,20).
The Case of Acrylamide
There is one potential issue that comes with instant coffee, which is the compound acrylamide. Acrylamide is a compound that is found in coffee (and in some other foods) and is considered to be a carcinogen. This compound is created when food rich in starch is cooked at a high temperature (21).
In general, there isn’t a lot of evidence about the damage that acrylamide can cause in humans.
The World Health Organization suggests that the compound can cause cancer in animals and high doses can cause nerve damage in humans. However, actually consuming high enough doses of the compound to cause that damage would be pretty difficult. But, the compound could (potentially) cause DNA damage, which could (theoretically) lead to cancer (22).
Overall, there isn’t much evidence that this compound actually will cause harm and the odds are incredibly slim. Nevertheless, the chemical mechanism suggests that it is at least possible.
Now, acrylamide is in a large amount of food (the FDA has an extensive list), with French fries actually being one very significant source. Likewise, you find relatively high levels of acrylamide in some brands of instant coffee and in non-instant coffee as well.
The differences appear to be brand-based more than anything, so instant coffee may not be much worse than its brewed counterparts (23).
The fact that coffee has been associated with decreased risk of death and even decreased risk of cancer (as I discussed above), suggests that the cumulative effects of this compound aren't substantial.
Likewise, the amount of acrylamide in the coffee that consumers actually drink tends to be too small to cause any real damage (24,25). Realistically, consumers are better off decreasing their consumption of products like French fries, rather than worrying about coffee intake.
Instant coffee is lower in caffeine than other types of coffee and may also be lower in some plant-based nutrients. Nevertheless, instant coffee is likely to offer most of the same benefits that regular coffee does and does not appear to have any additional risks.
Is Instant Coffee Good for You?
At the end of the day, instant coffee is another variation of coffee and that alone means that it does offer health benefits.
Now, the nature of instant coffee compared to other types of coffee does suggest that it contains fewer health benefits.
After all, instant coffee does have less caffeine and may well have a lower amount of other healthy compounds as well. Likewise, you really have no guarantee about the quality of what you are drinking.
It is certainly possible that the type of coffee you drink has some impacts on the health benefits that it offers. However, there is a good chance that any differences are not significant.
Nevertheless, there has been relatively little research conducted that compares the benefits of instant coffee with other types of coffee. As such, we don’t really know whether instant coffee is better or worse for your health than other types of coffee.
Realistically, factors like the method and degree of roasting are likely to have much more impact on health than whether or not the coffee you drink is instant. Likewise, you will tend to get much fewer benefits from coffee if you add in things like cream and sugar when you drink your coffee, especially if you have multiple cups per day.
So, there is no evidence to suggest that instant coffee is unhealthy and it can still be a good way to get the health benefits that coffee has to offer.
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