Is Coffee Paleo?

is-coffee-paleo-300x200.jpgCoffee beans are actually seeds of the Coffea plant, a tropical evergreen shrub. There are 25 to 100 species of coffee plants however all commercial coffee comes from two species – Arabica and Canephora, more commonly known as Robusta. Aromatic, bitter, stimulating – sometimes overly so, mood enhancing, generally healthy yet addictive; coffee is one person’s wholesome tonic and another’s affliction. Is coffee Paleo?

Nutritional Value of Coffee*

Serving Size: 8 ounces

  • Calories: 2
  • Total Fat: 0
  • Saturated Fat: 0
  • Monounsaturated Fat: 0
  • Polyunsaturated Fat: 0
  • Trans Fat: 0
  • Carbohydrate: 0
  • Protein: 0
  • Fiber: 0
  • Sodium: 5 mg
  • Potassium: 116 mg
  • Riboflavin: .2 mg
  • Pantothenic Acid: .6 mg
  • Magnesium: 7.1 mg
  • Manganese: .1 mg

*Nutritional values are for 8 oz coffee, brewed from grounds, prepared with tap water.

Health Benefits of Coffee

The reported heath effects of coffee are numerous:

  • Better mood, memory, feelings of alertness and reaction time
  • Increased fat burning
  • Improved athletic performance

And a reduction in risk of:

  • Dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s
  • Gallstones
  • Type 2 Diabetes
  • Gout
  • Cirrhosis and liver cancer
  • Prostate, oral/pharyngeal, premenopausal breast and other
  • cancers
  • Suicide
  • Death by all causes including cardiovascular disease

Scientists attribute these benefits to mainly two things – a class of phenolic antioxidants known as chlorogenic acids (CGAs) and good ole’ caffeine. CGAs are the most abundant antioxidants in coffee composing up to 12% of the dry weight of green unroasted coffee beans. Antioxidants prevent oxidative damage to cells that result in aging and disease and although coffee is absorbed in the stomach and the small intestine, some CGA antioxidants make it to the colon where they may act as prebiotics stimulating the growth of healthy bacteria.

When coffee beans are roasted, up to half the CGAs degrade, which creates coffee’s bitter taste and brown color. There are generally four different types of roasts – light, medium, medium-dark and dark with light roasts containing more CGAs than dark roasts. The concentration of CGAs in a cup of coffee varies widely from 20-675mg per cup depending on roasting time and temperature, brewing method and the original content of the beans. Coffee also contains small but appreciable amounts of potassium, magnesium, manganese, pantothenic acid and riboflavin.

Caffeine plays a role in the coffee plant’s system of defense. An alkaloid that acts as a neurotoxin to predatory insects; caffeine paralyzes and kills them. Extremely large does of caffeine can kill humans too but it’s really hard to drink that much (It would take 118 cups of coffee or 175 shots of espresso). Caffeine acts as a stimulant by blocking adenosine, a neurotransmitter that increases feelings of tiredness while increasing the firing of other neurotransmitters including dopamine, which enhances mood and norepinephrine, which boosts alertness. The amount of caffeine in coffee varies greatly. Compare 180mg caffeine in a short 8oz Startbucks to 100mg caffeine per 8oz cup used in most studies.

Although coffee increases blood pressure, blood sugar, and insulin resistance, these effects appear to be temporary and diminish over time with habitual consumption. Coffee’s negative effect on LDL cholesterol (should you Paleo peeps even care about that) is effectively resolved with the use of filters during brewing which removes kahweol and cafestol, the substances responsible for increased LDL. On the other hand, these two substances are known to be anti-inflammatory and anti-carcinogenic so if you want to keep them in your coffee, stick to espresso or use a French press.

In fact, drinking unfiltered coffee may be a very good idea since 4-methlimidazole and the mycotoxins Ochratoxin A and acrylamide are three known carcinogens that make it into your cup of Joe. Fortunately, they don’t seem to pose much of a threat to consumers. 4-methlimidazole forms in the roasting process but is present in very low amounts in all types of coffee. Acrylamide, a mold, is somewhat burned off during roasting and dark roasts from Arabica beans contain the lowest levels. Although Ochratoxin A, a fungus, is found in a large percentage of coffee beans, it is present in amounts well below safety standards.

Pesticide residues are not generally regarded as a problem for coffee products as they are largely burned off during roasting. However organic coffee is safer for farmers and better for the environment.

You may want to limit your intake of coffee, or avoid it altogether if you’re a slow metabolizer, pregnant, have an autoimmune disease, uncontrolled hypertension, Type 2 diabetes or you’re under significant stress and/or experiencing symptoms of adrenal fatigue.

Slow metabolizers will experience coffee’s effects more profoundly than fast metabolizers due to a genetic variant that renders liver enzymes less effective at breaking down caffeine so it can be excreted from the body. Slow metabolizers may only be able to drink one cup a day or less before experiencing caffeine’s undesirable effects which include irritability, jitteriness, restlessness, fast heartbeat, upset stomach, inability to fall asleep or stay asleep and increased blood pressure. In fact, slow metabolizers may not want to drink caffeinated coffee at all as studies have shown that they are more likely than fast metabolizers to experience severe complications of high blood pressure such as non-fatal heart attacks.

Pregnant women who drink coffee are generally advised to drink less than 200mg of caffeine a day to prevent reduced birth weight, miscarriage and stillbirth that are associated with caffeine in doses higher than this. Furthermore, coffee can increase heartburn in pregnant women who are already susceptible to this. Both caffeine and CGAs can cause heartburn in anyone, pregnant or not by stimulating gastric acid secretion. Interestingly, decaffeinated coffee can be just as irritating as regular because decaf retains its CGA content.

Inflammation: Coffee can contribute to systemic inflammation by increasing circulating white blood cells and inflammatory cytokines. Furthermore, coffee is potentially cross-reactive with gluten. It is for these reasons that coffee is one of the excluded foods on the autoimmune protocol (AIP) of the Paleo diet and if you have celiac disease or suspect you are intolerant to gluten or have any other type of autoimmune disease, you may want to remove coffee from your diet for a while to see if your symptoms improve.

Seasonality of Coffee/Where to Buy Coffee

Coffee is a seasonal product but it’s grown all over the world so there’s always fresh coffee to be found commercially. For instance, Coffee is harvested October through March in most Central and South American countries and May through the fall months in most Indonesian counties.

Coffee is picked, dried, and hulled before it’s shipped, roasted and available for sale. The whole process can take up to two months. If you really want to know how old your coffee is, only buy product with a harvest date on the package. Since the taste and aroma of coffee beans start to fade immediately after roasting, it’s best to buy only what you’ll use in one or two weeks. Store coffee in an airtight container in a dark, dry, cool location. You can freeze coffee for up to a month but once removed, do not re-freeze as residual moisture can degrade the beans.

Coffee can be purchased at just about any store that sells food. Specialty coffees can be found on-line.

Should I Drink Coffee? Is Coffee Paleo?

If you’re healthy and able to keep stress at a minimum most of the time, sleeping well, and you’re not using coffee as a crutch for detrimental lifestyle habits, go ahead and indulge. Between 1 and 3 three cups or up to 400mg of caffeine/day is tolerated by most adults but how much you drink is up to you, your genetics, your health status, your goals and your lifestyle.

Buying fair trade coffee supports the ethical treatment of farmers around the world. Purchasing organic brands protects farmers from any harmful effects of pesticide contamination and supports environmentally friendly farming practices.

How to Make Coffee Paleo

Are you struggling with how to enjoy your coffee without adding milk or half- and-half? Try adding coconut milk, almond milk or make your own half-and-half from both. Blending up to a tablespoon of coconut oil in your coffee makes a surprisingly rich, frothy product. Try blending in eggs or egg yolks for protein and micronutrients or grass-fed butter and coconut/MCT oil (Bulletproof coffee). Adding flavors and spices such as vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cacao powder heightens flavor and aroma. Just be creative and have patience with your taste buds as they adjust to new flavors.

Selected Resources

Sally Barden JohnsonSally Barden Johnson

Sally Johnson, RDN, LD is a registered and licensed dietitian and health coach. She is an avid CrossFitter and enjoys working with clients to find the best nutritional solutions within a Paleo/Primal framework to solve their health issues. She also enjoys spending time with her family. She can be found on Instagram at