By Matthew Solan
The way Dave Asprey tells it, the idea for his Bulletproof Coffee came at 18,000 feet on Mount Kailash in Tibet.
Exhausted and sore from a trek through minus-10-degree weather, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur was instantly rejuvenated by a local delicacy of yak butter tea. Intrigued by the unusual combination, he experimented with different flavors until he came up with his own butter-powered beverage, which he dubbed Bulletproof Coffee.
The formula consists of 8 ounces of specially grown organic coffee, a couple tablespoons of medium-chain triglyceride (MCT) oil and a generous helping of grass-fed butter blended into a hot and frothy concoction. Asprey sells all of this in a line of smartly packaged products with price tags to match, but it’s easy to make a homemade version. (See “How to Make Bulletproof Coffee” below.)
Bulletproof Coffee has a latte texture and a taste like hot buttered toast. It can be somewhat oily, too (oil and water, you know), but the taste is not the selling point of this magic elixir. Bulletproof Coffee is promoted as coffee with an extra kick. The jolt of caffeine and specific fats is supposedly the ultimate recipe to boost brain and brawn, fuel workouts and even shrink your waist. It is particularly popular in ancestral-diet circles — followers of the caveman type of eating that advocates mostly animal proteins, fats and vegetables, and those who engage in intermittent fasting. Top performers from the Los Angeles Lakers to MMA fighters to competitive strength athletes swear by it.
Bulletproof Coffee sounds like a powerful new energy drink, but renowned holistic health practitioner Paul Chek has advocated buttered coffee for 10-plus years and has often shared it with his top clients, such as pro surfer Laird Hamilton and motocross racer Jimmy Button.
Chek’s discovery was different than Asprey’s. He was looking for a way to couple nutrition with coffee and reduce the magnitude of blood-sugar swings from caffeinated beverages. An avid espresso drinker, he found the single shots gave him extra energy and mental clarity, but also led to quick adrenal fatigue that wrecked the recovery phase between his workouts. “I began to explore different fat sources as a means to reduce the caffeine hangover effect and found butter worked the best,” he says.
But can this strange brew of coffee and fat do everything its advocates claim? The answer appears to be a solid yes, no and maybe.
Science In A Cup
While there has been no research to date on Bulletproof Coffee’s benefits, science has examined the individual ingredients: coffee, MCT oil and grass-fed butter. Here’s what the evidence says:
The beneficial link between coffee/caffeine and workout performance is well documented. For instance:
• Decreases Muscle Pain. A 2009 study from the University of Illinois examined the influence of caffeine on pain tolerance among 25 college-age men. The men were given a caffeine dose of 5 milligrams per kilogram of bodyweight (two to three 8-ounce cups of coffee) and then cycled for 30 minutes at or near 80 percent VO2 max. Afterward, they reported less quadriceps muscle pain compared to a placebo group. This can translate to longer workout sessions since your pain threshold becomes greater.
• Changes Your Muscles’ DNA. The caffeine in coffee influences your muscles the same way that exercise does, suggests research in Cell Metabolism. The experts found that caffeine changes the DNA of muscles in a way similar to what occurs when muscles contract during a burst of exercise.
• Burns More Calories. A 2011 study in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness looked at caffeine’s effect on excess post-exercise oxygen after intense resistance training. The subjects took 6 milligrams per kilogram of bodyweight of caffeine and then completed four sets at 70 to 80 percent fatigue of their one-rep max of bench press, leg press, lat row and shoulder press. The coffee drinkers burned 15 percent more calories over an 80-minute window than subjects who didn’t drink coffee.
• Promotes Greater Blood Flow. Coffee improve the function of your small blood vessels, according to research presented at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2013. A study of 27 adults showed that drinking a cup of coffee improved blood flow in a finger. The experts explained this reaction is similar to how the inner lining of the smaller blood vessels work. Specifically, subjects increased their blood flow 30 percent over a 75-minute period compared to those who drank decaffeinated coffee. Better blood flow can reduce postworkout inflammation and flush out metabolic waste products such as lactic acid.
Most oils consist entirely of long-chain triglycerides (LCTs), which are more than 12 carbons long. In comparison, MCTs are six to 12 carbons long. Since MCTs are shorter and more water-soluble than other oils, they move straight to the liver where they are metabolized and burned for fuel. Therefore, they have less opportunity to get stored as body fat. In this way, MCT behaves more like a carbohydrate than a fat. And since it’s a quick food source like a carb, MCT oil is ideal for fueling those intense training days. A 2009 study from Japan compared LCTs and MCTs in terms of endurance and found that foods containing MCT extended the duration of high-intensity exercise better than LCTs. No MCT? No problem: You can replace it with coconut oil, which is made up of 40 percent LCTs and 60 percent MCTs. While not as potent as MCT oil, it can still help get the job done, and many people like the extra layer of flavor it adds.
Butter’s main job is to add flavor and reduce bitterness, but the choice of butter can provide more benefits. Butter made from grass-fed cows has higher amounts of the fatty acid CLA compared to grain-fed. CLA appears to enhance the fat-burning effects of exercise and prevents fat storage by increasing resting metabolic rate. University of Wisconsin researchers analyzed 18 CLA studies and concluded that 3.2 grams of CLA daily reduces fat mass by 0.2 pounds per week. It’s tough to get that much CLA from food, so you’ll need to supplement to hit that mark.
Moreover, butter extends coffee’s buzz by buffering the caffeine. As the butter breaks down in the blender, it gets absorbed with the coffee. When you drink it, the beverage acts as a time-release agent where the caffeine is slowly digested instead of going straight into your bloodstream.
“This lowers the sudden ups and down of caffeine, provides nutrition and allows your body to benefit for a longer period of time,” Chek says. “You get short bursts of energy for longer durations, which comes in handy for those extra-long sessions.” This blend also reduces the normal blood-sugar reaction from caffeine and helps block common side effects like the jitters and a racing mind.
But tread lightly with butter. People have been pouring fat (in the form of cream) into their coffee forever, but the difference with Bulletproof Coffee is the amount. The average cup of Bulletproof Coffee has approximately 450 calories and 52 grams of fat, much of it saturated.
“Saturated fat itself is not a bad thing and often gets demonized,” says Brian St. Pierre, MS, RD, CSCS, sports dietitian and nutrition coach at Precision Nutrition. “But between that and the MCT oil, you are adding up to 38 grams of saturated fat in one beverage. Add that on top of your regular diet and that’s probably an excessive amount in one day.”
One cup a day is fine, but too much saturated fat can increase blood lipids and lead to spikes in total cholesterol levels. The long-term effects could be increases in levels of apolipoprotein B (apoB), says Spencer Nadolsky, D.O., director of Examine.com, who specializes in weight loss and cholesterol management. “ApoB-containing lipoproteins are what carry cholesterol in the blood. Increase it and you put yourself at risk for heart disease.” He suggests checking your lipid and apoB levels before trying the coffee and then a few months after to monitor any possible changes.
A Jolt To Your Workout
Bulletproof Coffee is similar to a bell curve. Some people will benefit, while others won’t see a huge difference. Strength coach and former competitive strongman Jay Ashman drank a version of Bulletproof Coffee as part of a diet he followed for 10 months. The diet’s format was to keep carb intake low before a workout, then increase it in meals later in the day.
Ashman drank a cup each morning and during the occasional coffee break. The morning brew was designed to introduce more fat earlier in his workout day. Did he notice any improvement in the weight room? Not really, but he felt it did provide needed energy for early workouts when carb levels were lowest. In this way, Bulletproof Coffee can help supply extra energy when you follow an intermittent fast or restricted diet.
Ashman also feels the coffee can have a role in maintaining minimal levels of fat in your diet, especially if you follow a ketogenic diet plan where carbs max out at 50 grams per day, protein comprises 30 to 40 percent of calories and fat is pumped up to 50 percent. “In general, men tend to fear fat and avoid it as much as possible. But if you dip below 20 percent of your daily calories from fat, you can reduce hormone production, in particular testosterone,” he says.
Bulletproof Coffee appears to fall in the middle between hype and health. Yes, its benefits can help you work harder and longer, and possibly better manage your weight-loss efforts. It appears to have no major side effects, and potential long-term issues can be deflected with a regular cholesterol check. It’s also fine for those who are lactose intolerant, points out Chek, since 1 tablespoon of butter has almost zero lactose. But it’s not a magic elixir that can transform your sessions from poor to powerful. Like any other part of nutrition, it plays a supporting role in a larger production.
Also, don’t underestimate the feel-good aspect of coffee. If you’re a habitual caffeine user, you are more likely to be immune to its stimulatory effects, suggests a 2010 study in Neuropsychopharmacology. But if you get a brain boost from a morning cup, enjoy it, use it to your advantage.
Finally, drink Bulletproof Coffee within an hour of your workout, says Chek. “You will feel the caffeine effects as quickly as you would a normal cup of coffee. Don’t wait around. Drink it and then go kick ass.”
How to Make Bulletproof Coffee
• Brew your coffee as you normally would in terms of boldness, but use only organic coffee, which is free of toxins and pesticides. It’s worth the extra dough. Estimates say conventional coffee farms apply as much as 250 pounds of chemical fertilizers on every acre.
Entrepreneur Dave Asprey, who coined the phrase “Bulletproof Coffee,” sells a brand of beans called Upgraded Coffee, which are free of mycotoxins, types of mold that grow on green coffee beans and allegedly fog up the brain and hamper the immune system. While studies have shown that the presence of mycotoxins in roasted coffee beans is well below the medical community threshold, you can ensure that your coffee has as little mold as possible. 1) Buy beans from a single-origin source (meaning they’re grown in a single farm or region). 2) Choose a bean that’s undergone a wet process. 3) Find beans grown at higher elevations, which tend to have fewer toxins. Also, don’t choose decaffeinated beans, which have much higher rates of contamination. (Besides, a major part of the benefit of this coffee is in the caffeine.) A local coffee roaster should have an organic product that meets all or most of these requirements.
• Pour 1 to 2 cups of coffee (8 to 16 ounces) into a blender. Add 1 tablespoon of MCT oil (or coconut oil) and 1 tablespoon of grass-fed unsalted butter. (You can add up to 2 tablespoons each, but begin with 1 tablespoon until you acquire a taste for it.)
• Mix at high speed for 30 seconds to one minute until texture is frothy, or longer if it appears “lumpy” from the butter.
• If the coffee tastes bitter, sweeten with a teaspoon of cinnamon or vanilla. Splenda and Stevia can be used in a pinch, but don’t rely too much on them. Do not add sugar — the resultant insulin spike will counteract many of the energizing benefits from the butter, coffee and oil.