Butter Coffee: Nutritional Panacea Or Just Another Food Science Fad?
Butter coffee is touted as “rocket fuel” that will launch you into your day, but it could just be a hot cup of pure fat
Butter coffee at Santa Monica’s Bulletproof Coffee. Image: Oliver Bateman/Motherboard
If you've spent any time around health nuts or fitness fanatics, there's a chance you've heard about the merits of butter coffee. The drink, made from mixing butter and medium-chain triglyceride (MCT) oil with coffee, is touted by popularizer Dave Asprey as a "biohack" that can give consumers the "clarity and energy to rip it up for hours."
Asprey, a Silicon Valley veteran who aspires to live until he is nearly 200, sells a variety of brain-stimulating products through his Bulletproof Nutrition website and accompanying Bulletproof Coffee store in Santa Monica. He's one of many diet gurus currently promoting a high-fat, low-starch diet, and butter coffee is at the center of his program.
Like other so-called superfoods, butter coffee has inspired a cult of true believers who attribute all kinds of miraculous effects to consumption of the beverage.
"It's rocket fuel," said Jerrod Epps, a CrossFit enthusiast from Maryland. "You are beyond awake when you consume this stuff, you spring awake, and you aren't hungry for hours."
At the urging of Epps and several other acquaintances, I recently visited Asprey's Bulletproof Coffee and ordered a large coffee (made from mold-free grounds) containing grass-fed butter and collagen. A sign inside the store jokingly informed patrons that frequent consumption of the drink can both stimulate neural activity and cause one's pants to fit more snugly.
"It's a cup of coffee mixed with fat," nutritionist Matt Jenkins told Motherboard. "You are drinking a cup full of fat, with all the benefits and drawbacks that go along with that. There's nothing wrong with consuming full fat items, but you can't get much value from that if you're indiscriminately consuming lots of calories. You have to watch your intake of carbs, proteins, and everything else, especially if you're not exercising."
As other coffee shops have sprung up serving the drink, some of the wilder claims made about its virtues have been disputed. Writing for Vox, Julia Belluz described Asprey's high-fat diet (of which butter coffee, particularly hisexpensive branded variant, is a staple) as "everything that's wrong with eating in America," and his belief that he has identified certain supposedly anti-inflammatory foods as "outright misleading at worst."
Nutritionist Jenkins wasn't nearly as critical but did urge caution. "Butterfat is fine if you keep to its suggested serving size. A gram of fat is extremely calorie-rich and can sustain you for a long time, so that part about it keeping you full is accurate. If you're going to eat lots of grams of fat, you will need to reduce consumption of other nutrients."
Personal trainer and mixed martial artist Marc Sestok has been consuming butter coffee since 2011 and has noticed that it helps him wake up much faster. "The main reason why I converted is because of my daily schedule. I train clients starting at 5:30 a.m. nonstop most days until at least noon. The biggest effects I've noticed are a suppression of appetite, mental clarity, and if I use too much in one cup, diarrhea!"
Sestok also noted that adhering to an efficacious high-fat diet requires tremendous focus and discipline. "You've got to get your bloodwork done, because from anecdotal evidence I can say it can screw up some people's lipid profiles. I practice fasting and follow a high fat diet, and I keep my carbohydrate intake very low. It takes a while for your body to adjust to a high-fat diet, but it's kept my energy levels high as I've pursued the world's hardest sport, MMA, aggressively."
When I ordered a version of this drink at Toronto's Extra Butter Coffee, however, the sales pitch was curiously devoid of any discussion of its nutritional properties.
"It tastes really good," explained the barista. "It's like a super heavy cream. You should try it while you're here."