The Quick or The Dud: Is Instant Coffee Bad for You?

Being the coffee geek that I am, people tend to come to me with their questions. One thing I get asked a lot: is instant coffee bad for you?

Arne looks miserably at a bottle of Nescafé instant coffee.

Being the coffee geek that I am, people tend to come to me with their questions. One thing I get asked a lot: is instant coffee bad for you?

Up until now, answering this question has been a challenge for me … not because I don’t know the answer, but because I have strong feelings about instant coffee. How strong, you ask?

Well, you know how a toddler’s face crumples up before they let out a huge wail?

That’s what happens to me when someone presents me with a cup of instant coffee. Not to mention it takes about all I can manage not to fly off the handle in that situation, too.

My gut aversion aside, instant coffee isn’t unhealthy — unless it’s the health of the planet you’re worried about. But that’s another story, and before we get to it, we need to get on the same page about what instant coffee is.

Instant Gratification or Coffee Abomination? What Is Instant Coffee?

a cup of hot nescafe instant coffee.

Soluble coffee accounts for the lion’s share of the coffee market, valued at $12.1 billion in 2020. In other words, for a lot of people, instant is coffee.

But for anyone who has ever held freshly ground coffee in the palm of one hand and instant granules in the other, there’s clearly a difference.

So what are all those people drinking, and is it coffee?

Here’s the gist of it: to make instant coffee granules, manufacturers start by roasting and grinding coffee beans before brewing a concentrate. Then, all the water is extracted so that just the dry powder remains.

This is achieved in one of two ways:

  • Spray drying involves dispersing the coffee in the form of a fine mist in hot air. Because of the high temperatures, the water evaporates, and you’re left with crystals.
  • Freeze drying is more complex but basically uses cold to achieve the same results. After chilling to about 20 degrees Fahrenheit, the coffee slushie is slowly frozen further into a coffee popsicle that’s crushed into granules. These are fed into a drying vacuum that vaporizes the ice. What’s left is instant coffee.

Freeze drying is the gentler option that better preserves the flavor. Either way, though, when you pour boiling water over instant coffee granules, you reanimate the dead.

And as every zombie movie fan knows, never confuse the undead with the living. The same goes for instant coffee.

All that processing destroys the delicate, volatile aromas that give a fresh brew its vibrant, complex flavor. So while instant coffee won’t eat your brains (I’m pretty sure), it’s a shuffling shadow of its former self.

In fact, manufacturers try to compensate for the lack of aroma by various “cheats” like trapping the scent of fresh coffee under the lid. So the first time you open a new jar, you get a nose full of coffee promise, but that quickly fades, and the granules don’t deliver on it in the cup.

Instant vs Brewed Coffee: What's the Diff Beyond First Sniff?

a jar of Nescafe instant coffee.

If instant is just coffee in another form, then fussy palates (and noses) aside, it’s just as good, right?

Not quite. There are two main differences that you need to know.

Firstly, instant coffee contains less caffeine than brewed coffee. That said, caffeine figures are notoriously difficult to pin down, as you can read in our How Much Caffeine Is in Your Coffee article, where a standard 1-fluid-ounce espresso from a super automatic espresso machine gives you 67 milligrams of caffeine.

In our study, we controlled for beans, roast and batch. Since that’s impossible with instant coffee (but maybe also because I don’t think of the stuff as coffee), we didn’t test it. Caffeine Informer pegs Nescafe at 61 milligrams per 8 fluid ounces.

Bear in mind that 8 ounces of espresso would pack 530 milligrams of a perk. Except, of course, no one drinks that much espresso in one go.

Bottom line: those looking for a bigger jolt are probably better off with a regular coffee.

Chemical Overreaction? What Is Acrylamide and How Bad Is It?

Before we get into the next issue, I need to remind you that as your friendly cyberhood coffee guy, I’m not a medical professional.

Sure, I’ve done my homework and hope to give you some clarity on the issues, but if you need advice on coffee and your health, please consult a doctor.

With a name like acrylamide, it probably wreaks cancer alert.

And yes, when it accumulates in the body, this food contaminant reportedly increases the risk of the dreaded C-word and causes nerve damage. Before we lose our heads, though, let’s look at the science.

Arne holding a glass jar of coffee beans.

As the FDA explains, acrylamide forms in plant-based foods when fried, roasted or baked at high temperatures for longer periods. So we’ve probably been consuming the chemical since humans started cooking.

The highest levels of the contaminant are present in fried potato products and coffee. Research published in a European journal in 2013 found that among the joe options, the biggest concentrations are present in coffee substitutes, followed by instant. Freshly ground coffee beans have the lowest levels — about half what’s in instant.

Again, don’t panic.

While acrylamide is a potentially harmful chemical, research on acrylamide indicates that your intake from food and drink is insufficient to impact your health. That means you’re all clear to go grab a cup of java, even if it’s instant.

Coffee Benefits for Body and Mind: Drink to Your Health

zombies trying to find instant coffee.

Fact: people are creatures of extremes, probably because that makes things black and white. So if we’re not convinced our morning pick-me-up is killing us with every sip, then we’re sure it’ll turn us into underwear models and help us live to a hundred.

The thing is, the reality is inevitably somewhere in the middle and a whole lot more complex.

Personally, I believe coffee is a ritual, meditation and art form. As such, I think obsessing over the health benefits of the bean misses the point. Coffee is not medicine.

What’s more, it’s important to remember that its so-called advantages or disadvantages are merely statistical tendencies that must be weighed up with the rest of your lifestyle. That’s why researchers are careful to use language like “may” and “suggests.”

But for those of you who like your dose of smug in a mug, here’s where coffee — instant or brewed — may score you points.

Good Points

  1. Scavenge free radicals: coffee is a major source of antioxidants. These molecules fight free radicals, which are by-products of natural biological processes but can cause oxidative stress, damaging your cells. By mopping them up, antioxidants are thought to help ward off neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
  2. Spark your brain: in addition to the long-term effects described above, coffee and more specifically caffeine interact with neurotransmitters in the brain in ways that can promote alertness, vigilance, mood, reaction time and learning.
  3. Improve mental health: studies have found that a regular, moderate coffee intake alleviates depression and lowers the risk of suicide.
  4. Reduce the risk of diabetes: there are indications that coffee may offer protection against type 2 diabetes.
  5. Protect the liver: early evidence suggests that drinking coffee has anti-inflammatory or anti-fibrotic properties that reduce the risks of chronic liver disease.
  6. Manage your weight: as a natural stimulant, coffee may boost your metabolism so that you burn calories faster. Some studies indicate it could also suppress hunger hormones, further helping to control your weight.
  7. Extend your life: there are signs that coffee promotes longevity — though this is in no way a promise that you’ll live to 100.
Arne holding a flat white and looking happy.

All that may make coffee sound like some sort of elixir, but pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers need to go easy on the joe.

The American Pregnancy Association recommends limiting caffeine consumption to under 150-300 milligrams per day. That’s because the stimulant can cross the placenta and enter your breast milk. Although more research is necessary to clarify the dangers, why risk it?

If you want to know more, check out my article on coffee and your health.

Ready-to-Drink and 3-in-1 Coffee: Let's Not Sugarcoat It

Before you go patting yourself on the back for drinking brewed or instant coffee, let’s just double-check that’s what you’re drinking.

If you’re reaching for ready-to-drink bottled beverages in liquid form, flavored coffees or 3-in-1 packets, you can forget about all those benefits.

Why is that? Well, you’re not actually drinking coffee. Seriously. There’s less than 10 percent of the stuff in premixes. So forget about it perking you up.

What’s worse is that those drinks inevitably have loads of sugar, fat and chemical additives. Don’t believe me? Here’s the ingredient label for Nescafe’s 3-in-1 packets:

Sugar, glucose syrup, hardened palm oil, instant coffee 7.9 percent, caramelized sugar, stabilizers, milk proteins, salt, maltodextrin, emulsifier and natural and artificial flavoring.

Remember that ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. So for people who drink this concoction, we really need to change the time-honored question to: “How do you like your sugar?”

And the answer is, “With sugar!”

You’ll notice that on top of the first self-explanatory ingredient of glucose syrup, caramelized sugar and maltodextrin are all forms of the sweet stuff.

A teaspoon of sugar hovers over a coffee cup full of sugar.

Together with the milk protein, palm oil creates the drink’s creamy, dairy consistency, and while that’s fine as part of a healthy balanced diet, it can raise LDL (bad) cholesterol levels, and anyone who needs to watch this should avoid it.

The emulsifier and stabilizer keep the fat nicely blended in the water, so it doesn’t separate, while the flavorings are more chemicals that ensure it taste like something other than sugar.

Plus, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that there are about 74 calories in a cup of 3-in-1 versus about 7 calories in a cup of plain, black instant.

So do yourself a favor: if you insist on instant, stick to black with or without a splash of milk.

A Cup in Hand Is Worth Lots of Birds in the Bush — Coffee's Environmental Footprint

A coffee farmer picks ripe cherries on a branch.

At the start of this article, I hinted that instant coffee isn’t the best choice for the planet.

In assessing the environmental footprint produced by various coffee preparation techniques, the Empa research institute in Switzerland came to the conclusion that your choice of coffee beans is the biggest factor in your java habit’s impact on the planet.

The reality is that instant coffee generally consists of cheap, low-quality beans. And while the fair-trade label has raised awareness about the exploitation of farmers, it’s no guarantee of sustainable agricultural practices.

That’s why the environmental gold standard is the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center’s Bird-Friendly certification, which is awarded to shade-grown — usually Arabica — beans. To get to grips with the two main coffee varieties, read my article on Arabica and Robusta beans.

Although sun-grown Robusta coffee delivers higher yields, it means deforestation, combined with extensive use of fertilizers and pesticides.

In contrast, shade-grown coffee is cultivated under a sheltering canopy of various trees. These then provide a home for birds, which do a good job of eating insect pests that attack the coffee cherries.

A bird on a branch in Costa Rica.

Plus, the surrounding vegetation not only prevents erosion but also enriches the earth with fallen leaves. When this plant matter decomposes, it provides nutrients for the coffee bushes and eliminates the need for fertilizers. Basically, you have a happy, biodiverse little ecosystem.

The Good, the Bad and the Distasteful of Instant Coffee

I won’t lie. Even if instant is perfectly healthy, I hope I’ve put you off zombie coffee.

Then again, I’d have to give up my honest blogger’s badge of honor if I didn’t at least acknowledge the advantages of coffee granules.

As you might expect, it’s all about cost and convenience. But cheap coffee beans roasted for shorter periods are only half the price story. Soluble coffee weighs less than whole beans and can withstand harsher conditions. It also has a longer shelf life.

British troops in a trench during World War One.

All these are reasons why instant’s big breakthrough on the market came when the U.S. army included it in the troops’ rations during World War I. And since most of us aren’t sitting in a muddy trench sipping our joe, I think the cons outweigh the pros — even if outnumbered.

Pros:

  • Cheap
  • Quick to prepare
  • Longer shelf life

Cons:

  • Environmentally questionable
  • Less caffeine
  • Inferior flavor and aroma

Verdict: There's Nothing Wrong With It. And Not Much Right With It, Either.

Arne pours a good cup of coffee

As long as you avoid 3-in-1 mixes and ready-to-drink beverages, instant coffee is actually pretty good for your health. Then again, so is water.

So for me, that’s reason enough to expect more from freshly brewed coffee.

Instant Coffee FAQ

No, instant coffee has significantly less caffeine than regular brewed coffee. An 8 oz cup of brewed coffee has approximately 146 mg of caffeine, whereas a cup of instant coffee has approximately 61 mg of caffeine.

Acrylamide comes about through the roasting process of coffee. So, green coffee beans do not have acrylamide, but roasted coffee beans do.

Drinking any coffee on an empty stomach is a bad idea. All coffee contains acid, which some people are sensitive to.

More often than not though, it’s the caffeine in instant or regular coffee that upsets peoples’ stomachs. This is because it promotes digestion, which “gets things moving,” in other words.

Another factor to consider is the milk or dairy additive in your instant coffee. You may be developing an intolerance to lactose as you become older.

Check out Why Does Coffee Upset Your Stomach? for a more in-depth look at the relationship between coffee and upset stomachs.

Like any coffee, instant coffee has caffeine, which constricts the blood vessels in your brain. Many people experience caffeine withdrawal headaches when they stop drinking coffee, including instant coffee. Caffeine can also cause increased anxiety for some individuals.

What’s your take on instant coffee? Love it or hate, let me know in the comments. Thanks for reading!

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