This morning, I was scrolling on my phone and came across a headline that grabbed me: “Rethink that cold brew. Hot coffee might be better for your health.”
Double take! What?! I’ve been writing about coffee for 3 years, and I’d never heard anything along these lines. So, I eagerly clicked and…
Sigh. I was duped by the thing I hate most: Coffee Clickbait. It was essentially a fluff article, mentioning recent work by some local “over caffeinated researchers.” Their findings can be boiled down to this: cold brew and hot coffee have similar pH (acid) levels, and “hot coffee had more beneficial antioxidants than cold brew.” (The article contained zero explanation of antioxidants, why they matter, or how they correlate to health, but I digress.)
Initially, I was surprised that the pH levels were so similar because cold brew has long been revered as less acidic and easier on the stomach. Cold brew has been around since at least 1964, when Toddy launched their first system. There are pages and pages of anecdotal evidence that switching to cold brew helped some people feel better. Not to mention my own personal experience with acid reflux and coffee.
But the similarity in pH levels is really not so surprising when you choose to acknowledge that perceived acidity and measured pH are different. Coffee contains multiple kinds of acids (Five Senses has a great deep-dive on this), and different brewing methods can draw out these acids in different proportions, affecting the taste and perceived acidity. So, maybe cold brew is extracting just as much acid, but it’s possibly extracting less of the particular acid that causes uncomfortable symptoms.
When I clicked to the real study to read it, I found actual science and I was happy. The researchers used single-origin coffees (my favorite, Ethiopian Ardi, was one!), and unsurprisingly found significant differences in acidity by origin. Ethiopian coffees were marked by high acidity and high antioxidant content, while Brazilian and Myanmar coffees were much lower. They also make this interesting and important caveat about the similar pH levels of hot and cold brew (emphasis mine):
Hot coffee brews were found to have higher titratable acid levels, indicating higher concentrations of acidic compounds than in cold brew extracts, and/or additional acidic compounds not found in cold brew extracts. All cold brew coffee samples analyzed in this study were found to have lower titratable acid levels than their hot brew counterparts. Coffee is composed of dozens of low molecular mass compounds, including numerous carboxylic acids such as citric, malic, quinic, succinic, and gluconic acids40,53. While all of these acids are readily soluble in water, their ability to detach from the coffee matrix and diffuse through the intra- and intergranular pore spaces in room temperature water as is used in cold brew method is poorly understood.
Basically, this all means that origin is a stronger indicator of acid content than brewing method, and it means the writer who came up with the inane headline didn’t actually read the study, or likely did read it but didn’t understand it. Which brings me to my larger point…
DON’T READ ARTICLES ABOUT THE HEALTH BENEFITS OF COFFEE. Just don’t do it. As the world’s most ubiquitous beverage, it’s a highly lucrative topic for writers to touch on, even if they don’t have anything meaningful to say. Such a high number of people drink coffee daily that no matter what you publish, you’re guaranteed to get clicks. But humans have been drinking copious amounts of coffee for hundreds and hundreds of years, which represents a LOT of data — if coffee were significantly detrimental to our health, we would know by now. Even the old tropes about stunting growth and dehydration are largely unproved, and most evidence points to coffee being neuro-protective, antioxidant-rich, and useful for fighting depression, especially for women.
So, what should you read instead to stay informed on coffee? Read the actual studies, learn the science. Read blogs by coffee professionals, people who have skin in the game. Talk to your friends about their experiences. Experiment with drinking different types of coffee.
And if you actually care about coffee that is healthier, expand your definition to include the planet and its people. Buy direct-trade coffee, which supports healthier communities at origin with farmer premiums. Buy bird-friendly coffee, and naturally processed coffee, which impacts the environment less. Buy from shops that pay their baristas a living wage, and drink whatever coffee tastes good and feels good to YOUR body.
Okay. Rant over.