As coffee lovers, most of us take great pride in our coffee. Our kitchen counters display our coffee makers, our pantries are stocked with our favorite single-origin beans, and the satisfaction of brewing the coffee just right? Well, that’s half the joy.
But, let’s be real. At one point or another, we’ve all found ourselves pinched for time, sighing in relief at the promise of a quick, convient cup.
And despite its bad rep, instant coffee is actually the most popular drink in the world. That’s right – more often than not, convenience actually wins over the glorious, freshly brewed coffee we all love so dearly.
But few take the time to understand how instant coffee is made. And how healthy is instant coffee, really? Come to think of it, what is instant coffee, even?
Not to worry. Today, we’re gonna deep dive on how instant coffee is made, how healthy it is, and how it compares to regular coffee. Ready? Let’s get into it.
What Is Instant Coffee?
Let’s start from the top, shall we?
Instant coffee is coffee that's been brewed, boiled (or, evaporated), and then dried at a very high temperature, until all that's left are small, dry crystals of brewed coffee. That’s why all you need to do is add hot liquid back in, and the coffee is good to go.
Instant vs Ground Coffee
This is also why instant coffee and ground coffee are two different things. Ground coffee is what you get when you grind coffee beans – but you still need to brew them. Instant coffee, on the other hand, has already been brewed and dried, so you can just add water for a steaming, finished cup.
It’s no secret that instant coffee is one of the the quickest ways to get your caffeine fix. But regularly brewed coffee comes with other perks – and as coffee lovers, we bet you’re familiar with at least a few of them.
But more on that in a bit – first, aren’t you curious to know how instant coffee is made?
How Instant Coffee Is Made
There are two main ways to make instant coffee, and as you can imagine, they both begin with brewing coffee. Sometimes, the coffee is also concentrated to prep it for the drying process. This is done using either vacuum-evaporation, which allows it to boil at lower temperatures, or freeze-concentration, where water-based ice can be removed without touching the actual coffee.
But after that, the two processes are quite different, and come with pros and cons:
1. Spray-drying Process
The spray-drying process is almost as instant as adding hot water to your cup – it can be as quick as 5-30 seconds.
As the name suggests, the brewed coffee is sprayed into hot air as a fine mist. The air, heated to approximately 480 degrees Fahrenheit, is so hot that by the time the coffee hits the bottom of the chamber again, it has dried into small crystals. And, voila! Instant coffee.
But the dried powder is so fine that many manufacturers add another step at the end, where they use steam to fuse the powder into bigger granules.
This process is both quick and cheap, but the downside is that the extreme heat can affect some of the oils and acids in the coffee – which leads to flavor loss, a very bitter taste, and more acrylamide than in any other form of coffee.
2. Freeze-drying Process
The second process is a bit more complicated, and you may have to pay a little more for these instant coffees. But since it uses low temperatures rather than high ones, it preserves more of the flavors.
First, the coffee's boiled down to an extract and chilled at about 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Using a tray, belt, or a drum (exact methods can differ), this slushy coffee extract is then frozen at -40 degrees Fahrenheit, creating a slab of frozen coffee.
The frozen coffee is then broken into small crystals and placed in a vacuum chamber. When the chamber begins to heat up, the frozen water quickly evaporates, leaving behind only dried granules of instant coffee.
And that’s it – easy peasy and up on the shelves.
Is Instant Coffee Bad for You?
When people talk of instant coffee, the general understanding seems to be that it’s bad for you. But that’s not entirely true. Since it’s made from regular coffee, it actually has most of the health benefits that normal coffee does.
That said, the processing does make instant coffee slightly different from regular coffee, and there are some things worth considering.
So, when comparing instant coffee vs regular coffee – which one comes out on top? Let’s find out.
Drawbacks of Instant Coffee
Let’s get to the heart of it. What are some of the drawbacks and risks of instant coffee?
1. Contains More Acrylamide
Acrylamide is a chemical that forms when preparing certain foods, like potato chips – and coffee. It’s actually when coffee brews that acrylamide makes its appearance, so while it's found in both regular and instant coffee, studies show that the amount can be up to double in instant coffee. Which is bad news for your health.
Although most coffee consumption falls within the ok-zone, too much acrylamide can be a risk to your health. It’s often put forward as the main reason to choose regular coffee over instant. So, if you’re conscious of your health, this is something to keep in mind.
Flavor is the mark of a great, quality coffee, and here, instant coffee often falls short. But why does instant coffee taste bad?
The main culprit is actually the manufacturing process itself – especially the spray-drying method. The extreme temperatures change the acids inside the beans and produce more acrylamide than any other coffee form. This makes most instant coffees taste bitter and sometimes a bit burnt (i.a. the classically bad reputation instant coffee has).
3. Contains Additives
To improve the flavor of instant coffee, many companies add sugars, oils, and other additives to soften the bitterness. Or sometimes, to make various flavored coffees available on the go. If you’re drinking instant coffee regularly, though, this might not be great for your health.
Added sugars in your instant coffees could lead to weight gain, or spikes in blood sugar that result in energy crashes and then cravings. Palm oil, which is another common additive, is a type of saturated fat – which can increase the risk of heart disease, among others. And if you’re drinking instant coffee daily, it quickly adds up.
4. Less Caffeine
Compared to regular coffee, instant coffee contains less caffeine. An average cup usually contains between 60-85 mg of caffeine, compared to the average of 75-125mg á serving that regular coffee boasts.
For those looking to lower their caffeine consumption or those who are sensitive to caffeine, this might be a good thing! But the reality is that most people end up drinking more coffee than they otherwise would, chasing that caffeine kick they usually get. And over the course of a day, it can add up to more than you realize or even more than the daily recommended dose.
Besides, some of the long-term health benefits of coffee are connected to caffeine, such as its potential to lower the risk of Parkinson’s disease and Type II Diabetes. While you still get a good amount of caffeine from instant coffee, it’s something to be aware of if you’re looking to get the maximum benefits out of your morning brew.
Benefits of Instant Coffee
Speaking of… what are the benefits of instant coffee?
Now, there’s the obvious one – convenience. It’s literally the reason anyone reaches for it on the shelf. The fact that instant coffee can produce a steaming cup of java in about 15 seconds is actually pretty impressive, and makes it great in a time crunch.
You also don’t need any kind of coffee maker, or even much knowledge or finesse – it’s pretty hard to fail at pouring water in a cup.
Apart from convenience, it’s worth mentioning that most of the antioxidants you’ll find in regular coffee are also present in instant coffee. Certain antioxidants even get concentrated during the manufacturing process, including both phenols and flavonoids.
This means that you’ll still get many of the long-term health boosts you expect from your regular coffee when drinking instant coffee. As mentioned, it does contain less caffeine that regular coffee, but there is still caffeine in there – so you’re not entirely missing those health benefits by choosing instant, either.
Still – instant coffee has no health benefits that regular coffee doesn't do better. And the added acrylamide could be a health risk long term.
What About Kcups and Nespresso?
Great question – after all, Kcups and Nespresso are also favorites around the world for their convenience. But they share two major drawbacks that are worth considering.
Firstly, they cause microplastics to brew into your coffee. The pods are made from plastic, and tiny particles shed into your cup as they brew. Microplastics are suspected to have a range of negative effects on our health, such as metabolic disturbances, affecting hormone levels, and causing cancer. They also absorb toxins and chemicals that you definitely do not want in your body.
On top of that, both Kcups and Nespresso contribute to plastic pollution, which is a huge (and growing) problem. At a time when we should be changing to more sustainable habits, discarding these used plastic pods daily isn’t the way to go.
Especially since there are other convenient and plastic-free options out there, such as Steeped Coffee – just as quick and easy, but entirely free of microplastics and in a compostable packaging!
Instant Coffee vs Regular Coffee – Which is Better?
So – while instant coffee is convenient and boasts almost all of the health benefits of regular coffee, there are a number of health concerns to take into account. The main one is higher levels of acrylamide. But, more often than not, instant coffee also contains additives, and you’ll most likely have to compromise on taste.
And while the lower caffeine amount in instant coffee can be both a pro or a con depending on the individual, it’s worth noting that many of the health benefits of coffee actually come from the caffeine.
As for Kcups and Nespresso, they come with their own drawbacks – mainly from the microplastics they add to your morning brew, and unnecessary plastic waste.
Does that mean you shouldn’t drink instant coffee? Well, the healthier option is regular coffee, especially if you drink coffee daily. But if you do want to drink instant coffee, some brands are better than others – so it may be worth finding a brand that considers your health in the manufacturing process. Or switching to Steeped Coffee, which is just as quick as instant coffee but much healthier!
How to Find Healthy Instant Coffee
At the end of the day, finding healthy instant coffee is much like finding healthy regular coffee – it begins and ends with quality.
High-quality beans, that are grown in the ideal conditions with care and knowledge, will naturally give a better-tasting coffee than cheap, mass-produced beans. If you want to learn how to spot high-quality beans, check out this post all about shade-grown coffee!
And while you might have to pay a little more for quality instant coffee, the methods used to make them will preserve the integrity of the flavor better. And when the coffee itself tastes better, there’s less, if any, need for additives – and that’s a great place to start your search for a healthy instant coffee.
But if you want to level up even more, consider adaptogenic steeped coffees! Adaptogenic coffees pack even more antioxidants into your favorite brew, and they are a great way to get seriously proactive about your health, without having to change a thing about your routines!
Speaking of – we're about to drop something very exciting here at Peak State, and if you're looking for a healthy, high-quality alternative to instant coffees, well... you'll be excited. Sign up here to be the first to get all the details!
Psst… Want to learn more about mushroom coffee? Check out this post next!