Instant Coffee: Is It Good or Bad For You?

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Picture of a Jar of Nescafe Gold Instant Coffee.

Coffee is one of the world's most popular drinks.

It tastes delicious and, for most people, it is a very healthy drink.

However, there are many different types of coffee, and some people claim that instant coffee isn't as healthy as the freshly ground variety.

There are a lot of facts and myths behind this claim, so this article aims to set the record straight. 

In this article, we will examine instant coffee's nutrition profile and how it compares to regular coffee.

Most importantly, we'll look at what the studies say.

What Is Instant Coffee?

Picture of a Cup of Hot Instant Coffee Next To the Coffee Jar.

Instant coffee is a powdered and water-soluble version of regular coffee.

To make the drink, all you need to do is add a spoon of powder into your cup and add hot water.

Unlike some claims to the contrary, there are no additional ingredients, and the product is made from 100% coffee.

However, due to the processing involved, many people don't class this variety of the drink as "real coffee." 

This belief is especially prevalent in Italy and the Mediterranean region, where instant coffee barely even exists.

How Is It Made?

First of all, instant coffee starts the same way regular coffee does; the coffee beans are roasted to increase their flavor.

Following this, manufacturers use a water-extraction technique to make a coffee extract from the soluble contents of the coffee beans.

After this stage, there are two ways that manufacturers produce instant coffee; freeze-drying and spray-drying (1).

  • Freeze-drying: Despite being more expensive, this method is preferred since it is perceived to result in a higher quality cup of coffee. Freeze-drying involves quickly freezing the coffee extract and then breaking it into small granules. These small, frozen granules then enter a drying chamber.  
  • Spray-drying: this method is cheaper, quicker, and thus more economical than freeze-drying. It works by spraying the liquid coffee extract into a hot air stream, which flash-dries the coffee into tiny granules.

Key Point: Instant coffee is purely 100% coffee beans that have been roasted, extracted, and dried.

Types of Instant Coffee

There are a variety of different instant coffee products you can buy, and these include;

  • Instant Coffee Granules: This product is just the pure coffee granules, and it usually comes in a glass jar or a plastic pouch. It will always be 100% coffee.
  • Coffee Sticks and Sachets: You can buy these in boxes containing a set amount of single-serving sachets or sticks. These could be pure coffee, but they often contain sugar and various creamers too. They are also much more expensive gram for gram.
  • Ready To Drink: Coffee that comes in a ready-to-drink can or a bottle. These drinks also often contain sweeteners and/or creamers, and they are available in a wide variety of flavors. Since they cost from $1 to $3 per drink, they are the least economical choice.

Key Point: Instant coffee comes in a variety of forms, but for health (and value for money) it is best to opt for a jar of the granules. 

Differences Between Instant Coffee and Ground Coffee

Picture of a Jar of Percol Fusion Instant Coffee Jar.

For me, instant coffee can't compete with a nice cup of freshly brewed coffee.

However, there are more things to consider than taste.

Despite the fact that both varieties are made from 100% coffee beans, there are a few nutritional differences between the two.

1. Instant Coffee Contains Higher Amounts of Acrylamide

Acrylamide is a chemical that forms during a reaction between amino acids and sugar while heating certain foods.  And yes, coffee beans contain sugars; in fact, coffee beans are approximately 50% carbohydrate by weight (2, 3).

Most commonly, acrylamide is found in starchy foods that have been cooked at high temperatures. For instance, potato chips and french fries tend to contain higher concentrations of the chemical (4).

In experimental rat studies, exposure to acrylamide throughout life increases the risk of cancer (5, 6). 

However, despite many large-scale epidemiological studies on acrylamide and human health, the link with cancer has not been confirmed in humans (7, 8).

While all kinds of coffee contain acrylamide, they do so in different proportions, and instant coffee contains the most.

A recent study measured the acrylamide content of various coffees to see how they compared (9);

  • Instant Coffee: 358 mcg/kg
  • Roasted Brewed Coffee: 179 mcg/kg

As we can see, instant coffee contains double the amount of acrylamide compared to regular coffee.

This higher concentration is likely a result of high heat processing during its manufacture.

Further studies are necessary to determine the true risks of acrylamide for human health.

Key Point: Instant coffee contains double the amount of acrylamide as regular coffee. This chemical is a suspected (but not proven) carcinogen in humans.

2. Caffeine Content

The Chemical Molecule For Caffeine.

When it comes to our health, caffeine is a double-edged sword.

Firstly, it can have numerous benefits which may include;

  • Sports and physical performance benefits (10
  • Improved alertness, mental focus and concentration (11)
  • A potential protective effect against cognitive health conditions and dementia (12)

However, it isn't all good news.

Caffeine seems to affect different people in different ways, and studies demonstrate that caffeine can sometimes aggravate gastrointestinal issues such as acid reflux (13).

Additionally, higher caffeine intake increases levels of anxiety and stress in some people (14).

Instant coffee contains less caffeine.

Depending on how caffeine personally affects you, instant coffee containing less caffeine could be either a positive or a negative.

For instance, a typical cup of freshly brewed coffee contains around 95-165 mg of caffeine.

However, an equivalent sized cup of instant coffee only provides about 63 mg (15).

It is worth remembering that instant coffee was actually brewed coffee liquid before it was dried.

In other words; when you add water to the coffee granules, it is the second time that the coffee has been diluted.

Key Point: Since it contains a smaller amount of caffeine, instant coffee may be a better choice for those with caffeine sensitivities.

3. Polyphenol Content

Green and Roasted Coffee Beans Forming a Heart Shape Together.

Coffee is one of the most polyphenol-rich substances in the world, and one of the primary compounds it contains is chlorogenic acid.

Chlorogenic acid is a phytonutrient that has a range of health benefits relating to blood pressure and blood glucose regulation (16, 17).

For a full guide to chlorogenic acid, see here.

Chlorogenic Acid Content by Type of Coffee

Notably, the chlorogenic acid content of coffee is dependent upon the degree of heat processing involved.

For example, green coffee beans and light coffee roasts contain much higher concentrations of chlorogenic acid than medium and dark roasts.

Since some instant coffee undergoes high-heat processing, the levels of chlorogenic acid are likely lower than lightly roasted ground coffee in these products.

Despite a study from 2013 showing that instant coffee processing has no significant impact on chlorogenic acid content, a later study that tested various commercial coffees found some differences (18, 19). 

In fact, this recent study analyzed the chlorogenic acid content of various coffee preparations bought in cafes across three different countries. 

The table below shows the study's data on the median chlorogenic acid content for espresso-based drinks and instant coffee (20);

A Table Showing the Polyphenol Content of Instant Coffee and Espresso.

As the data shows, instant coffee contains more chlorogenic acid than Italian espresso, but less than Spanish brewed coffee.

Since heat processing can reduce chlorogenic acid content, this makes sense. The difference is likely due to the Italian preference for drinking longer, dark roasts of coffee. 

Spanish coffee emphasizes light, mild roasts, and this reflects in the coffee's chlorogenic acid content.

Key Point: Chlorogenic acid is coffee's primary phytonutrient. Instant coffee contains a lower amount of this compound than lightly roasted brewed coffee but more than dark roasts.

Health Benefits of Instant Coffee

A Picture of a Cup of Coffee With Coffee Beans Making a Heart Shape.

Instant and ground coffee have relatively similar nutrient profiles, and they contain the same polyphenolic compounds.

As a result, there should be no significant differences when it comes to the health benefits they offer.

Various studies have found that coffee may provide a range of beneficial effects on our health. 

Some of these are related to the positive effects of caffeine, and others are due to chlorogenic acid and other polyphenols.

While some of these benefits are observational, others have been proven by way of randomized trials.

To summarize, instant coffee may offer some of the following health benefits;

  • Lower risk of cancer (observational).
  • Boosts physical and mental performance.
  • Lowers the risk of melanoma (animal studies).
  • Improves blood-glucose regulation.
  • Provides a wide range of health-protective polyphenols.
  • May lower the risk of Alzheimer's disease and dementia (observational).
  • May help prevent type 2 diabetes and liver damage (observational).
  • Coffee drinkers live longer lives (observational).

Key Point: Instant coffee has the same health benefits as regular coffee.

Instant Coffee: Pros and Cons

Now that we know instant coffee has most of the same benefits as the freshly ground variety, lets consider the general positives and negatives.

Pros

  • Much cheaper than ground and store-bought coffee.
  • It is the most convenient option and only requires a cup and hot water.
  • We can take it with us to the office or when travelling.
  • Contains less caffeine (a benefit for caffeine-sensitive people).
  • There is a wide variety of choice, and some instant coffees contain a blend of green and roasted beans.

Cons

  • Contains less caffeine (for those wanting an early morning/pre-workout boost).
  • Can't compete with the taste of a freshly brewed cup of ground coffee.
  • Contains higher concentrations of acrylamide than regular coffee.
  • Some types of instant coffee (ready to drink and coffee sachets) may contain various sweeteners and creamers.

Key Point: It isn't black or white, and using instant coffee has both positive and negative points.

Recipes

Diagram Showing Typical Ingredients In Coffee Recipes.

One of the interesting things about instant coffee is that it can work well in a variety of recipes.

Since it is water soluble, the granules dissolve in hot food/drinks and the coffee flavor can create nice flavors in some dishes.

Here are a few recipe ideas (to serve 1) that taste great;

  • Instant Coffee Mocha: Mix a teaspoon of coffee and a teaspoon of cocoa with a cup of milk, some vanilla extract, pinch of cinnamon, and a topping of heavy cream. Use a sweetener if desired.
  • Mocha Mousse: Whip (or food process) 2 teaspoons of coffee, 2 teaspoons of cocoa, 1 tablespoon of butter, 1/2 cup of sour cream, and 2 oz of cream cheese. Add vanilla, cinnamon and a sweetener if desired, and serve in a glass.
  • Coffee Rubbed Steak: Keeping it simple works best with cuts of meat, but if you want to try something different, consider trying a coffee-rubbed steak recipe.

Key Point: Instant coffee can be used in various recipes to give food that slight coffee flavor.

Final Thoughts

For a real coffee connoisseur, instant coffee is never going to match up to a properly brewed cup. The taste just cannot compare.

However, that isn't what instant coffee is trying to be.

Instead, it offers a cheap and convenient option that is simple to make and easily transportable.

It is also a gentler option for those who don't metabolize caffeine well.

The health benefits are fairly similar, and the risks posed by acrylamide to human health haven't been firmly established.

With this in mind, instant coffee is a decent option for those who don't care about drinking the best quality coffee.

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