Studies have identified a risk of coffee raising a person’s serum cholesterol levels, although it may depend on the brewing method. Unfiltered coffee and French press coffee may raise cholesterol levels, while instant coffee and filter coffee are less likely to affect them.

The risk of heightened serum cholesterol levels also depends on how much coffee a person drinks and how sensitive they are to caffeine.

This article discusses how certain oils in coffee can affect serum (blood) cholesterol levels, the risks and benefits associated with drinking coffee, and tips on managing cholesterol levels.

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Study results on the association between coffee drinking and higher levels of serum cholesterol are mixed, according to a 2001 research review.

A more recent 2016 study suggests that coffee consumption is linked to higher cholesterol levels, although the effects vary depending on the type of coffee and the sex of the individual.

However, according to older research from 1997, it is not the amount of caffeine in coffee that may affect cholesterol levels but rather the oils that naturally occur in the coffee bean. These natural oils, also known as diterpenes, are cafestol and kahweol.

The Institute for Scientific Information on Coffee (ISIC) agrees that both oils can raise total and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels, although the amount of diterpenes in coffee varies with the brewing method.

For example, if a person makes coffee using paper filters, most of the diterpenes remain in the filter. However, in unfiltered coffee, more of the diterpenes pass through into the coffee.

Also, Scandinavian boiled coffee, Turkish coffee, and French press coffee can increase cholesterol, according to a 2011 study. Scandinavian and Turkish coffee are unfiltered, while coffee made with a French press passes through a metal filter that allows more of the diterpenes to pass into the brew than paper filters.

According to the ISIC, other types of brewed coffee contain varying levels of diterpenes and therefore have various effects on cholesterol levels:

  • Espresso: This type of coffee has about half the amount of diterpenes found in unfiltered coffee. Because people generally drink small servings of espresso, it will likely have little effect on cholesterol.
  • Filtered coffee: It likely has little effect on cholesterol. However, research on this type of coffee is not consistent.
  • Instant coffee: This coffee type contains very few diterpenes, so it should not raise cholesterol.

In addition to potentially raising a person’s cholesterol levels, coffee may carry some other health risks. Caffeine — a psychoactive substance naturally occurring in coffee — may interact with a person’s medications.

While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reports that 400 milligrams of caffeine per day is typically safe for health, caffeine may have various clinically significant interactions with many drugs.

Some other beverages, such as energy drinks, also have high levels of caffeine.

Risks from drug interactions

A 2020 review found that coffee can interact with many drugs because of its caffeine content. A person may wish to consult their doctor to see whether any of their medications are in that category.

In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warn against mixing a caffeinated beverage, such as coffee, with alcohol. The combination may result in a person drinking more alcohol than they realize and thus experiencing more of its harmful effects.

Risks from caffeine

The amount of caffeine that the FDA considers safe is equivalent to four or five cups of coffee. However, some individuals are more sensitive to the effect of caffeine and may experience some of the following:

Other sources of caffeine

Other beverages containing caffeine include tea, sodas, and energy drinks. Tea and sodas generally have less caffeine than coffee, while some energy drinks may have two to three times as much caffeine as a coffee drink, according to the FDA.

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), coffee has several possible benefits, including:

In addition, the AHA notes that caffeine may:

  • increase energy
  • help with weight loss
  • improve mental focus
  • elevate mood
  • improve exercise performance

Although cafestol and kahweol can have a negative effect on cholesterol, they may provide some health benefits. Research suggests they may have anti-inflammatory and anticancer properties.

Cholesterol is a fat-like substance that plays many essential roles in the body at healthy levels. When LDL cholesterol levels are too high, plaque builds up in the arteries. If the plaque accumulates enough to obstruct blood flow, it becomes dangerous, as it can increase the risk of a heart attack or stroke.

Cholesterol travels through the bloodstream as part of molecules called lipoproteins. There are two main types of lipoproteins in the blood:

  • LDL: Some people call this “bad” cholesterol. It plays a key role in plaque buildup in the arteries.
  • High-density lipoprotein (HDL): Some people call this “good” cholesterol. It helps remove cholesterol from the body.

While coffee does not contain cholesterol, it can affect cholesterol levels. The diterpenes in coffee suppress the body’s production of substances involved in cholesterol breakdown, causing cholesterol to increase. Specifically, coffee diterpenes may cause an increase in total cholesterol and LDL levels.

It is important to note that dietary cholesterol is not strongly linked to LDL levels. Instead, diets high in saturated and trans fats can increase cholesterol in the blood. However, research into dietary cholesterol is ongoing.

Heart-healthy lifestyle changes may help manage cholesterol levels. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) advises the following:

  • Eat a heart-healthy diet: This diet includes fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, along with nuts, olive oil, and fish containing omega-3 fatty acids. It also involves limiting one’s intake of foods high in saturated and trans fat, such as fatty cuts of meat and packaged snacks.
  • Get regular exercise: Studies show regular exercise raises HDL and lowers LDL.
  • Try to quit smoking, if applicable: This habit is a major risk factor for heart disease.
  • Try to maintain a moderate weight: If a person has a high body weight or obesity, then losing 3–5% of their overall weight can increase their HDL and lower their LDL.
  • Try to manage stress: Research suggests stress has a harmful effect on cholesterol.

People with high cholesterol should consult their doctor to find out whether they need medication, as various drugs can lower cholesterol levels.

However, some people may take a medication or have a health condition that is contributing to high cholesterol levels. In those cases, a person’s doctor may change the prescription drug or suggest a different treatment.

The relationship between coffee and cholesterol may depend on how a person brews the beverage. Some research also indicates that coffee may affect a person’s cholesterol differently depending on their sex. Paper filters may help minimize the amount of natural oils in coffee and result in a coffee drink with a lesser effect on cholesterol.

People who have high cholesterol may wish to choose filtered coffee more often than unfiltered coffee. When the brewing method does not involve a paper filter, more of the cholesterol-raising oils end up in the coffee.

A person should speak with a healthcare professional if they are concerned about their cholesterol levels.