Coffee doesn’t just feel like a magic elixir that reinvigorates your body, mind, and soul — there are reams of research showing that it does have incredible benefits for all of the above. But you have to brew it right, which has nothing to do with half-caf, double-hot, no-foam, or any other of the hyphenated adjectives baristas yell out.
Maxing out the potential of this morning miracle worker involves choosing the right roast, grinding properly, brewing style, water temp, and more things you’re probably not doing, or not doing correctly. Not to worry; we consulted experts on how to brew the single healthiest cup, and they were willing to spill the beans.
The Healthiest Coffee Bean
According to science, there’s practically nothing coffee can’t do. Drinking it has been associated with reduced the risk of liver cancer, per a review published in May 2017 in BMJ Open; reduced risk of colon cancer in women, according to an analysis published in July 2018 in International Journal of Cancer; as well as reduced risk of type 2 diabetes and even strokes in women (both older), per past research. A meta-analysis published in June 2019 in the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, which examined 21 previous coffee studies totaling more than 10 million participants, found that drinking one cup of regular or decaf coffee daily will reduce your risk of death by 3 percent, while drinking three cups a day decreases that same risk by 13 percent.
The majority of these health benefits are thanks to polyphenols, plant-based compounds found in coffee beans. Polyphenols have been shown to support brain and digestive health, and help protect against heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers.
Since polyphenols are key to extracting the most health benefits from your coffee, you should aim to get the maximum number of these compounds, says Bob Arnot, MD, author of The Coffee Lover’s Diet and former chief medical correspondent for NBC News. Some beans do a better job of this than others. The beans with the largest number of polyphenols are those that are grown in high-altitude spots, such as Ethiopia and Latin America, according to a review published in the journal Antioxidants. Dr. Arnot suggests looking for beans from the Huila region of Columbia, or those from Peru, Bolivia, Costa Rica, or Ethiopia. Arnot tends to find 19,000 milligrams (mg) of polyphenols per cup of coffee if he uses beans from East Africa; those from major national chains have as few as 2,500 mg per cup. The goal is to get at least 650 mg of polyphenols daily, but the more you ingest, the better.
The roast also matters. Roasting beans deepens their flavor but the heat also breaks down healthful compounds like antioxidants and polyphenols. So light roasts (which are also denser and therefore have slightly more caffeine per scoop than dark roasts) tend to be higher in antioxidants, says Ali Redmond, the founder of Coffee Belly. Light roasts also contain higher concentrations of chlorogenic acid, a compound found in coffee that has been shown to help protect the body against inflammation and cell damage, according to a study published in June 2017 in the Journal of Medicinal Food.
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The Healthiest Way to Brew Coffee
After selecting the best beans, the next step is to grind them. Coffee aficionados say you get the best flavor when you grind just before brewing, because otherwise the contact with the air causes oxidation that degrades flavor over time. But pre-ground coffee isn’t any less healthy for you.
The main benefit of grinding the beans yourself is controlling how finely you grind them. And that does affect the number of health-promoting compounds in your cup. When it comes to brewing, the goal is to extract the most polyphenols from the beans, and the finer the grind, the more polyphenols you’ll get. This means that espresso, which requires a very finely ground bean, is one of the healthiest choices.
If the flavor of espresso alone is too strong, you can use a pour over-method, which also uses a pretty fine grind. Making pour-over coffee also involves using an inexpensive device (Arnot recommends the Kalita Wave Pour Over, $29) and a filter, which can have cardiovascular benefits, according to a study published in April 2020 in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology. In examining the data on more than 46,300 people over a 20-year span, researchers found that people who drank filtered coffee had lower rates of death from cardiovascular disease than both unfiltered coffee drinkers and non–coffee drinkers. This could be due to the fact that coffee brewed without a filter contained as much as 30 times more cholesterol-raising compounds than filtered coffee.
The last component in brewing the healthiest cup of coffee is the water temperature. Ideally, it should be just below boiling, between 195 to 205 degrees F, for optimal extraction, says Chris Clark, the founder of Brew Coffee At Home, a site that helps consumers brew better coffee at home. If it’s colder, you’ll have underextracted coffee (you won’t get all those key nutrients), while if it’s too hot, the flavor will taste burned. Don’t have a thermometer? Wait 30 seconds after the water boils to pour, and the temperature should be perfect.
Of course, if all this sounds like a lot of work and you’re not a coffee snob, you can always stir up some instant coffee. A study published in July 2017 in the Journal of Food Science and Technology found instant coffee yielded the highest antioxidant concentration compared with espresso, filter coffee, and Turkish or Greek coffee brews.
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The Healthiest Way to Serve Coffee
After going to all that trouble to brew the perfect cup, you don’t want to offset all those perks by adding cream and sugar. The healthiest way to drink your coffee is black, and if you start with a flavorful, high-quality bean, you shouldn’t need to add anything. “The reason people started putting milk in coffee during the World War II is because they were drinking terrible coffee,” Arnot says. “If you’re adding sugar or milk or fat to the beverage, it isn’t as healthy as having nothing in it.”
How to Make Your Coffee Healthier
So, there you have it. The absolute healthiest cup of coffee uses high-altitude beans, a lighter roast, a fine grind, a filter, hot but not boiling water, and is served black. Most of the health benefits that have been studied result from drinking between four to five 8-ounce cups of coffee daily, Arnot says. While that amount does fall within the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) recommended limit for daily caffeine intake (around 400 mg), using these guidelines to prepare your brew in the healthiest way can pack more polyphenols into a single cup, you you can get the same benefits by drinking less. And if you’re sensitive to caffeine, don’t worry: Decaf coffee has many of the same health perks (though caffeine itself has its own benefits, including improving mental function and helping with memory).