While instant coffee may seem to have fallen out of favour in recent years, not only is it still incredibly popular in many countries, it’s having a comeback after the ‘you know what’ made people a bit more reticent about hitting up their local coffee shop but perhaps didn’t have room, or want to splash out, on a coffee maker.
Instant coffee sales have also surged recently because of the trend for Dalgona Coffee, or TikTok coffee. This whipped up confection doesn’t work with fresh coffee, it only works if you make it with the instant type and while people bought it to whip up the trend, they kept drinking it realising that it’s a cheap and quick way to get a caffeine fix.
But, whether you’re a long term fan, or a new convert, you might be wondering is instant coffee healthy? And how does it compare to the more expensive beans in terms of its effects on health … so, we decided to find out, so, let’s answer the question
Is Instant Coffee Bad for You?
What is Instant Coffee?
How is instant coffee made? Well, let’s start with the basics, instant coffee is not a synthetic product. It has exactly the same basic ingredients as fresh coffee – coffee beans! These beans are also roasted and ground, just as fresh coffee is.
But, it’s at this point that the production differs.
Those roasted ground beans are now made into what’s basically an industrial-size version of a cup of coffee, and then they go through processes that removes the water from them.
This happens via either the process of either spray drying – where a fine spray of liquid coffee is pumped out into extremely hot heat which dehydrates it.
Or, freeze-drying, which (as the name might suggest) freezes the coffee into a giant coffee ice lolly and chipped into bits. The ice is then removed, which takes out all of the water leaving granules behind.
You then add the water back in when you make your brew.
Why Does Instant Coffee Taste Different?
Reading the above, you might be wondering, therefore, why, if it comes from the same source does instant coffee taste different from coffee made from fresh beans.
There’s a few reasons for this – the first is that mass-produced instant coffee doesn’t tend to use the most sublte beans. The most common beans used in instant coffee are robusta coffee beans which are hardier to grow – but also stronger tasting, a bit harsher and, some say, more bitter.
The processing also impacts on flavour – the dark roasting process used on the beans can reduce more subtle flavours in the beans homogenizing their taste and, the high temperature associated with spray drying can also affect the flavour of the beans.
But if that processing changes the taste of coffee, you might be wondering does it also change it any potential health benefits of instant coffee (because yes, coffee is good for you) … and to determine the answer we need to look at the levels of heath enhancing ingredients vs those that, potentially, we might want to cut back on.
Does Instant Coffee Contain Antioxidants?
Coffee beans come from plants – and, that means that coffee comes with many of the benefits of fruits, vegetables and other plant foods – antioxidants and other beneficial plant-based compounds called polyphenols.
In fact, according to at least one nutrition study, coffee is the main source of antioxidants in the diet for many people.
And while you might think that instant coffee has fewer of these than more expensive fresh beans, that seems to not actually be the case.
Numerous studies have confirmed a good antioxidant profile for instant coffee and one study from Croatia found that ‘instant coffee brews showed the highest values in content of total phenols, chlorogenic acid derivates, caffeine and antioxidant capacity,’
They did however also discover that adding milk decreased those levels so, if you want the best health boost from instant coffee, you should try and drink it black.
How Much Caffeine is in Instant Coffee?
In theory, instant coffee should contain more caffeine than fresh coffee does, because robusta beans are higher in caffeine than arabica beans, but actually the opposite occurs because caffeine levels change during the manufacturing process.
The dark roast method used to prepare the beans reduces caffeine levels more than light roasting. And the fact that the coffee is slightly diluted during the production process also reduces caffeine.
However, do remember, the exact amout of caffeine that ends up in any cup of coffee is ultimately determined by how much coffee you actually add to the cup!
As a general rule, each 1 heaped teaspoon of instant coffee will contain around 60g of caffeine – Nescafe say that one of their sachets can contain 50-90mg of caffeine. That’s slightly less than you’d end up with in a brewed coffee but about the same amount in an espresso. But use more coffee and that could go up.
However, according to studies and the UK NHS, there is no health risk for the average person consuming under 400mg of caffeine per day (although if you are pregnant, you shouldn’t consume more than 200mg), so, whether instant is ‘healthier’ because it contains less caffeine is debateable unless you’re drinking A LOT of it.
Does Instant Coffee Contain Chemicals?
Yes, but possibly not because of the way you think.
The production process of instant coffee doesn’t add chemicals to the blend, instead, the main potential chemical of concern with instant coffee is one called acrylamide which is formed naturally when coffee beans are roasted.
Acrylamide occurs through something known as the Maillard reaction which occurs when sugars in a food react with an amino acid in the food at high temperatures. You also find it in potato chips and other foods cooked at very high temperatures.
Acrylamide is known to be carcinogenic and may also harm the brain – and, while we don’t know for sure that that happens when it’s consumed via the diet, health experts do say it’s something we should try and avoid.
Both roast and instant coffee contain acrylamide, but according to analysis, levels are twice as high in instant coffee.
The good news is though, the ‘safe’ intake of acrylamide is suggested to be 2.6 micrograms per kg that you weigh – and analysis of diets in the population show most of us consume far less than that – around 0.4 micrograms per kg so, while you should be cautious of the overall content in your diet, the odd cup of any kind of coffee won’t hurt you.
If you are still concerned, this article puts things in perspective in far more detail than we have room for here.
And What About Mould?
I’ve seen it suggested that one of the reasons instant coffee tastes more bitter than coffee made from beans is that the beans can carry moulds that affect the taste.
That bit about taste is not true, but it is true that coffee beans can be affected by mould – and that instant coffee is often more affected than freshly ground beans.
As ucky as that might sound, mould per se is not a concern. But, that moulds can produce substances called mycotoxins that can have negative effects on health.
However, studies have shown that the level that is left in most of the coffee that we consume in the US, UK, Australia (and other countries with regulated food standards) is not harmful to health.
According to research drinking four cups of coffee would only see you consume two per cent of the amount of mycotoxins that would be deemed harmful to health.
The reason is that while the mould might be there whenthe coffee is harvested or stored, roasting coffee beans kills up to 95 per cent of certain mycotoxins and almost 50 per cent of others. Caffeine also inhbits its growth.
That’s probably why when over 100 different types of coffee were tested in Spain, no caffeinated instant coffees contained more mycotoxins than is permitted by law – but some decaf coffees did (but that’s a story for another post perhaps).
If you’re really worried about it, you can buy coffee beans that claim to be totally mycotoxin-free (like Bulletproof Coffee).
Does Instant Coffee Dehydrate You?
Now this is my soap box. Instant coffee doesn’t dehydrate you any more than normal coffee does – and, guess what, normal coffee doesn’t dehydrate most people either!
Caffeine is a diuretic, but, in most people the amount of liquid in the drink you have it with negates the effect of the fluid you lose with coffee.
In a trial at the UK’s University of Birmingham, it was found that coffee was as hydrating as water for men used to drinking it. The study authors go on to say that past trials have shown that caffeine is only dehydrating in people who never drink it (or who haven’t had any for four days), given a lot in one go.
Instant coffee is therefore no more dehydrating than a glass of water!
Is Instant Coffee Good For Weight Loss
Kind of. A cup of black instant coffee contains just 4 calories. If you add a splash of milk that will only go up to around 10 calories.
If you swap to that from something like a short cappuccino made with whole milk (85 calories) and you’re going to be saving around 75 calories a cup – which, if you have one a day (and everything else remains equal) could see you lose around 8lb a year simply by making the swap to instant coffee. (Although not, you will be taking in less calcium.)
If you were looking for something a bit more ‘miraculous’ in this answer, coffee does contain a substance called chlorogenic acid which has a number of health benefits – weight loss potentially being one of them – and, as that Croatian study showed, instant coffee has more of it than fresh coffee.
Unfortunately simply drinking instant coffee is not a magic way to make yourself thin! The instant coffee used in this trial that showed fat loss, for example, had been altered so it contained a lot more cholorogenic acid than you’d find in a normal cup.
Is Instant Coffee Gluten-Free?
It should be. In most cases, the only ingredient in instant coffee is instant coffee. However, as with any processed food there is a risk of cross contamination with instant coffee and there is some evidence that this does occur with instant coffee.
The small amount of gluten this could expose you to is unlikely to matter if you’re just giving up gluten because you think it’s better for you, but it could matter for someone with coeliac disease so make sure that the brand you choose makes a clear declaration re cross contamination on their label.
And definitely double check any products that also include creamer or flavouring.
So, Is Instant Coffee Healthy?
Let’s look at the positives – more antioxidants, potentially less caffeine and potentially fewer calories (depending on exactly how you make it) than fresh coffee.
The neutral – it doesn’t dehydrate you any more than fresh coffee
The negative. It does contain more acrylamide and mycotoxins than fresh beans – but, neither contain more than has been currently deemed safe.
So, I’m coming down on the side of yes.
However, with that news you might have one last question….
How Do You Make Instant Coffee Taste Better
I’ve got this far into the piece without confessing my secret. I hate coffee.
I don’t just not like it, I HATE it. Everything about it – the smell, the taste – I can’t even drink tea if someone has stirred it with a coffee spoon and I think I’d rather kiss a smoker than someone with coffee breath, I may not therefore be the best person to ask about improving the taste of any coffee, but thankfully there’s a lot of advice out there that can help.
Some instant coffees now combine robusta beans with arabica ones which changes the taste.
It’s said that spray-drying coffee leaves more of the flavour intact so, try and look for a brand that uses that method.
Mix the coffee with a little cold water before you add the hot water.
Let that hot water sit for a bit after boiling. It shouldn’t be exactly at boiling point.
Cream and milk can help – but, remember that they do reduce the effects of antioxidants in the coffee so, you need to weigh up taste versus health benefits there.
Serve it in a clear mug. A researcher called Charles Spence at Oxford University has done a whole load of fun experiments looking at how the tastes of items change depending how they are served – and he has found that coffee tastes more bitter if it’s served in a white cup.
Considering the biggest complaint about instant coffee is that it’s more bitter, that’s not something you might want to happen. In his trial, however, a clear mug led to the coffee tasting smoother.
If it’s still not working for you, you might also help to choose what’s known as a third wave instant coffee brand. These are trying to do for instant coffee what every coffee shop out there has done for the roasted beans – improve the quality from the ground up.
One example of these is Alpine Start – a company you have to love because it was started halfway up a cliff when the owner was trying to make coffee with a coffee press (while suspended in the air). They therefore decided they needed to make a good instant coffee.
Also have a look at Blk and Bold who offer coffee bags! You just steep them like teabags.
When you drink it, use all your senses. Taste is fundamentally associated with smell – and one reason why instant coffee doesn’t taste the same as fresh is that the process used to make it affects the strength of the coffee smell. You might therefore want to make a greater deal of inhaling the scent before you drink. One of the worst things you can do to instant coffee therefore is to put it in a to go cup with a lid on!
And of course you could try making instant coffee into the Dalgona Coffee TikTok trend we talked about right back at the beginning of this piece – and if you’re wondering whether Dalgona coffee is healthy, you might want to check out our post on that here.
So, there you have it. Our analysis of the benefits of instant coffee and the answer to the question is instant coffee healthy? Do you have any other questions about it – add them to the comments if you do.