I’ve always been passionate about the alchemy of beverages – from chocolate milkshakes to frozen daiquiris and the revolution of smoothies. I believe if you put five things in a blender and emerge with a sixth that tastes good and ‘works’, it is a form of magic. It is an example of the ‘whole’ being greater than the sum of its parts. I could spend an afternoon brewing the right cup of chai. My smoothies are often green and need to be chewed. But until recently, coffee was not a substance that entered the holy realm of blend-ology and it was certainly not on the list of foods I considered healthy.
Growing up in the foothills of Colorado, my main association with coffee was its use as fuel for my Dad to stay awake while driving us to the ski slopes and back each weekend. Bitter, black, and scalding hot. The earlier the morning, the bigger the thermos.
For me, coffee was never a beverage to drink for pleasure, or to concoct with other elements. It was a pure utility to help get from point A to point B. To stretch from 1am to 6am, while finishing a creative project.
In recent years, initially due to some clever marketing by the Bulletproof Coffee company, coffee has entered the realm of our household beverage alchemy, leaving our taste buds curious, our bodies interestingly impacted, and our Vita-Mix stained with the strange after-aroma of coffee beans, butter, and coconut oil.
What exactly is Bulletproof Coffee? Is it actually good for us? Who should be drinking it and why? These are a few of the questions I recently asked Integrative Doctor, Oscar Serrallach, to which his initial response was:
“Is meat good or bad for you? Is dairy good or bad for you? There’s so much binary thinking in the wellbeing world but in this work, almost nothing is binary. It’s not a simple yes or no. Like many things in life – it’s individual. Is Bulletproof Coffee good or not? It’s really just an invitation to have a bigger conversation.”
So he ground up some coffee beans, reached for the butter, and we began that conversation.
A Brief History of Butter in Hot Beverages
The Bulletproof Coffee brand has popularized – and aimed to legitimize – the blending of butter and MCT oil with coffee as an energy-boosting morning meal replacement. However, the concept of adding fat to a morning beverage to help fuel our day is not a new concept.
Yak butter tea has long been a source of daily fuel for people living in the mountain villages of the Himalayas, where stable food sources have not always been readily available. As Dr. Oscar explains:
“Fat consumed at a high altitude helps the body utilize oxygen more efficiently. During hunting excursions and long days of building or foot travel, yak butter tea has traditionally been a fuel in the form of fat that you could carry with you and have access to, regardless of the season or whether you could find other food.”
A Brief History of Coffee
While tea has been revered and woven into our cultures and rituals for thousands of years, coffee has come into the herbology world relatively late. Emerging from North Africa in the 1400s, coffee has had a checkered history, being demonized by the church and entangled in political movements, before being pandemically consumed in the western world.
While certain teas, such as green tea, are known to be healthy, longevity boosting beverages – having a cumulatively positive effect on our bodies and our genes – coffee isn’t known to have this same effect. It does, however, have redeeming qualities.
As Dr. Oscar explains, coffee is very high in polyphenols (antioxidants that protect the plant from adverse effects in the environment). “In the right doses, cafeic acid is a great antioxidant, which also assists in thermogenesis – getting our motor running. One of the main reasons it’s become so addictive is because in the western world, our motors aren’t running so well. People take coffee for its caffeine, but its base function is that it gets the metabolism going.”
What Happens When You Put Coffee and Fat Together?
What’s become known as Bulletproof Coffee is essentially a hot, black coffee, with 1-2 tablespoons of butter and a tablespoon of MCT or coconut oil, blended until emulsified, then drunk as a morning beverage.
Most of the fats in the foods we eat are primarily composed of long chain triglycerides (LCT), but a few foods, such as coconut and palm oils contain higher amounts of medium chain triglycerides (MCTs). These represent more rapidly accessible energy, and as Dr. Oscar explains, the interesting thing about these fats is that our body can’t turn them into body fat – it only uses them as fuel.
Modern nutrition strategies, such as the Ketogenic diet, point to a time in the history of our evolution as a species, prior to the mass proliferation of grains and sugar, where the primary state of our body was to be in ketosis – burning fat for fuel. When we sleep at night, our body enters an ‘intermittent fast’, putting the body into this state. When we wake, if instead of eating a big, high-carb breakfast, we have Bulletproof Coffee, or a similar beverage with high quality fats. This encourages the body to stay in ketosis, until we decide to eat.
As Dr. Oscar explains: “The idea is to change your hormones to burn fat for fuel, instead of storing it. Eat fat to get thin.” This daily process of intermittent fasting won’t put the body into heavy ketosis, but it does give the body the benefits of fasting and, theoretically, we start moving toward our ideal weight.
“From an evolutionary state we should be in ketosis, burning fat, as our background state. We were only ever burning sugar when our energy was in high demands (chasing something or being chased, etc.). Burning sugar is like burning aviation fuel. It was potent, but as soon as that burst of energy was spent, we would go back into ketosis.
In the western world today, we are overeaters as a society. Most of us don’t need three meals a day. And a lot of our food is very nutrient poor, and takes a lot of energy to digest anyway. To have a nice clean fuel (such as tea or coffee with high quality fat) we have the potential to give ourselves energy in the morning without giving our body the burdensome task of digesting.”
Does it Work?
Ketosis and triglycerides aside, according to Dr. Oscar, whether coffee, high potency fats, or the two of them together, are good or not, is an individual question that may require exploration. The following are a few things to consider.
How Do You Process Fat?
I’ve never been a big coffee drinker because I’ve found it often feels a bit harsh on my stomach and my energy tends to spike up, and then down, when I drink it. When I first learned about Bulletproof Coffee, I didn’t know about the whole ketosis / ideal weight factor (even though that’s the main marketing focus, somehow I missed that part). Instead, the two proposed benefits that were most interesting to me were: firstly, the idea that the fat in the coffee would make it less astringent and more soothing on the gut. Secondly, when blended together, the mix of coffee and fats would create a lipid ‘carrier’ for the caffeine, giving it a sort of slow-release effect into the system – stretching out the caffeine over a longer period without a big crash.
These two points were the main thrust of my personal butter/oil/coffee exploration, and I must say, I’ve experienced positive impact in both areas. Others, such as Dr. Oscar, may have some initial challenges with the fat intake.
“If you have a hard time digesting fat, you won’t find Bulletproof Coffee easy to drink. It took me about three months, varying my dosage and supplementing with enzymes, to be able to effectively ingest coffee in this way. If you experience nausea or bloating, fat adaptation may be the problem.”
Owls and Fowls – Is Coffee Right For Your Body?
The bigger question for some (which may not always give the answer you want) is whether coffee itself ‘works’ well in your body. According to Dr. Oscar, some metabolic subtypes do really well with coffee, and some don’t. In a very basic sense, he divides people into two camps – the owls and the fowls.
“If you think better at night and move slower in the morning, you’re an owl. Most owls tend to start the day more alkaline and get more acidic as the day goes on. Owls tend to do better with coffee, and the coffee (in right doses) can help that alkaline – acid dynamic – work better. Fowls on the other hand, are early risers. They tend not to do as well with coffee simply because their body doesn’t need the engine boost. Fowls may find they do better with something milder like a green tea.”
While some naturopaths contend that coffee is an “anti-adrenal”, Dr. Oscar doesn’t see coffee as a major drain on our adrenals, but rather that our craving for coffee may be a symptom, revealing to us that our energy stores or adrenals are in fact exhausted.
“People say having twenty cups of coffee a day is bad for you. What’s a more interesting question is, what’s going on in your life to have you need 20 cups of coffee? If you get a headache coming off coffee for a few days you have to ask yourself, why is that?”
The Quality Factor – Coffee as a Spectrum Food
While many people say the reason they don’t drink coffee is that it makes them jittery, causes strong spikes in energy, or rapid trips to the toilet, Dr. Oscar contends that in most cases this not an aversion to coffee itself, but to the poor quality coffee that many of us are drinking.
“Much like chocolate, coffee is a spectrum food. With chocolate, we have a full range, from highly processed, full-of-crap candy bars with zero health benefits, all the way up to raw, organic cacao – a sacred herb and incredible superfood. Coffee is the same. We have absolute rubbish, and we have amazing, high quality, ethically produced coffee. Most of the time when people get jittery or feel extreme effects from coffee, it isn’t the coffee… it’s the quality of the coffee.”
One of the claims to fame of the Bulletproof brand is a secret, proprietary process that is said to eliminate many of the mycotoxins (toxic molds) that may be found in other coffees. While the research on this aspect is still emerging, Dr. Oscar’s bottom line recommendation is to start with the highest quality coffee you can, and if you find yourself experiencing adverse effects, try shifting brands.
The Future Alchemy of Morning Beverages
As the high-quality, fat-coated, slow-release caffeine of Dr. Oscar’s coffee entered our systems and brought our conversation to a peak, he got excited about the bigger field of possibility that the Bulletproof trend points to. Over time as people learn more about their metabolic subtypes, and as we take time to really tune into how our bodies respond to different food and liquid inputs, we will find there are many things we can add to our coffee, tea or other morning beverage to have it be truly ‘fit-for-purpose’ and work for specifically for our energy needs.
Imagine a morning beverage bar with a full range of teas, mattes, coffees, and other adrenal tonics, with medicinal mushrooms, cultural spices, quality fats, and energizing superfoods to add.
“We shouldn’t be calling it coffee and we should be calling it bulletproof.”
It should be whatever really works for you, and your body type, as a slow-release fuel to set you up for the day. This is an invitation to have a conversation about, ‘How do I start my day?’
Liberated by Dr. Oscar’s closing remarks, the chocolate milkshake alchemist in me has been pushing into new territory over the past month with some exciting results. I’ve realized I’m more ‘fowl’ than ‘owl’, I’ve been diving into different teas (instead of coffee) and exploring some of the other possible tonics and superfoods to help light my daily torch.
My most recent concoction is a yerbe matte and cacao combo, with a dose of macca and guarana, blended with coconut oil. Wow! Super interesting, earthy taste, goes in easy, and I don’t think I’ve even had to blink for the last 48 hours.
So what is your ultimate, fit-for-purpose, match-your-body and your life, start-of-the-day beverage? Maybe it’s time to discover it anew.