The Different Types of Coffee—From Healthiest to Least Healthy
To find the healthiest type of coffee, consider the coffee beans, preparation techniques, and add-ons (like milk and sugar) in each cup.
The many types of coffee
Despite the variety of supermarket options, one beverage consistently ranks among the most popular: coffee. A 2019 report by market research company Statista indicates that coffee is the third most popular drink in America, topped by only water and soda.
The centuries of international popularity have led to a profusion of coffee options. Take your pick of everything from a frothy caramel frappuccino—more milkshake than cup of Joe—to a steaming mug of jet-black java pressed from locally roasted coffee beans
Unless you drink yours black, you might wonder: Do the health benefits of coffee outweigh the risks of too much cream and sugar? Maybe, according to experts.
Keep in mind that overall, coffee does seem to have health benefits.
Coffee contains antioxidants and is associated with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, gall stones, liver cancer, cirrhosis of the liver, and possibly Alzheimer’s disease. Coffee is also linked to greater longevity.
It’s not always clear if coffee is the real reason for the health benefit or is just associated with other behaviors that affect things like longevity. And it’s not all good news—caffeine can exacerbate anxiety, disrupt sleep, and upset your stomach. That said, there are potential health benefits before we even consider coffee types.
Here’s a closer look at the best and worst coffees for your health, based on brew, roast, filtration, and add-ons.
The healthiest cup of coffee is not the same for everyone
Determining the healthiest cup of coffee for you depends on your health goals. If you’re trying to lose weight, you should opt for low-calorie or calorie-free beverages.
If you’re sensitive to caffeine or have anxiety or a heart condition, you might need to switch to decaf coffee. (Decaf also contains antioxidants and in many studies shows similar health benefits as full-strength coffee.) If you have diabetes, you’ll want to reduce the amount of sugar you add to your brew.
How your body processes caffeine makes a difference in the best coffee for you. “Individuals metabolize caffeine differently,” says Chicago-based registered dietitian Vicki Shanta Rentelny.
The more you know about your body’s needs, the more apt you are to choose the brew that’s best for you.
What makes coffee more or less healthy?
Many factors affect the healthfulness of your coffee. Hélène Bertrand, MD, a physician and scientific researcher based in Vancouver, Canada, names caffeine among coffee’s biggest health concerns.
Other things that play a role in coffee’s health quality include:
- Added sweeteners
- Added milk or cream
- Antioxidant content (coffee’s flavonoids and polyphenols can reduce oxidative stress, which plays a role in disease development)
- Brewing method (such as French press, drip-brewed, and espresso machine)
How healthy a cup of coffee is doesn’t just depend on whether you’re drinking a caramel macchiato versus espresso. “The effects of coffee vary widely based on the type of bean, the brand of coffee, the roast, and the brewing method,” says Shanta Rentelny.
Regardless of how you prefer and prepare your coffee, Shanta Retelny says there’s one key consideration: the amount you consume. “It’s best to be moderate with any coffee beverage,” she says.
Francesco Perre / EyeEm/Getty Images
Black coffee vs. coffee with cream and sugar
“Plain, unadulterated coffee has no calories, but once you start adding sugar, cream, whipped cream, and flavorings, coffee can become a high-calorie, not-so-healthy drink,” says Shanta Retelny.
There are a couple reasons why milk and creamer reduce coffee’s health benefits. For starters, both dairy and plant-based creamers add unnecessary calories.
But there’s another strike against milk: Recent research in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition indicates that milk reduces the amount of polyphenols from coffee that the body takes in. In other words, your creamer might hinder your body’s ability to absorb coffee’s heart-healthy antioxidants.
Overdoing coffee sweeteners can have negative health effects since sugar is notorious for wreaking havoc on the body.
The verdict: Black coffee is healthier than coffee with sugar and creamer.
Hot brew vs. cold brew
Many coffee aficionados claim that boiling coffee destroys delicate flavor notes. That may be true, but a 2020 research review in the journal Molecules found that brewing temperatures don’t make much difference in antioxidant or mineral levels.
While the brewing temperature might not matter, leaving your coffee on the burner too long or overboiling it could produce diminishing returns.
“The key to coffee is ensuring that it is not overheated or left to sit for too long at too high a temperature, as the beneficial components may [break down] when exposed to high temperatures for a long period of time,” says California-based osteopathic doctor Ryan Greene, DO, who specializes in human performance and nutrition.
The verdict: Both cold-brewed and hot-brewed coffee can be healthy, but avoid “overcooking” your coffee.
Robusta vs. Arabica coffee
Some types of coffee beans are healthier than others. One research review in the journal Antioxidants reported that unroasted Robusta beans contain nearly double the antioxidants as unroasted Arabica beans.
However, the difference diminished dramatically with light roasting. Though light-roasted Robusta beans had more antioxidants than lightly roasted Arabica beans, in medium- and dark-roasted form, Arabica coffee had more antioxidants than Robusta.
The verdict: Your preference for light or dark roasts will determine which bean is healthier for you. Like light, or blonde, roasts? Go with Robusta beans, which have more antioxidants with light roasting. Prefer medium or dark roasts? Drink coffee from Arabica beans, which beat medium- and dark-roasted Robusta for antioxidant content.
Blonde vs. medium and dark roasts
For a given coffee bean, how long it’s been roasted makes a difference to its antioxidant content. Light roasts—also called blonde roasts—have been roasted for a short amount of time, whereas dark-roasted beans have been roasted the longest.
Research published in the Polish journal Roczniki Państwowego Zakładu Higieny (Annals of the National Institute of Hygiene) confirmed that light- and medium-roast Arabica beans have more nutritional value than dark-roasted Arabica beans because they retain more heart-healthy antioxidants.
The verdict: In terms of antioxidant content, blonde roasts are healthiest. Blonde Robusta coffee has the most antioxidants, followed closely by blonde and then medium-roast Arabica coffee.
Dark-roast Arabica vs. blonde Robusta for caffeine content
Dr. Bertrand says too much caffeine can lead to seizures, restlessness, and more.
“Caffeine stimulates your stress response, so if you suffer from anxiety or insomnia, caffeine-containing drinks will make you worse,” she says. (Here are the hidden sources of caffeine you should avoid.)
Choose your coffee beans and roast wisely to control caffeine consumption. Shanta Retelny says blonde roasts contain more caffeine than dark roasts. And, in general, Robusta beans offer more caffeine per bean than Arabica.
The verdict: Arabica dark roast is the healthiest coffee for people who want to limit caffeine without drinking decaf. Blonde Robusta, on the other hand, will give you the biggest buzz.
Filtered coffee in an Aeropress vs. unfiltered coffee in a French press
A 2020 study published in the journal Foods reported that the brewing method influences coffee’s antioxidant activity and mineral content.
Researchers tested five brewing techniques: Aeropress (a type of manual coffee maker), drip, espresso machine, French press, and simple infusion. They found the highest levels of antioxidants in coffee brewed via Aeropress, with the lowest level found in a French press.
Not only that, but the Aeropress also retained the most essential nutrients, such as magnesium, manganese, chromium, cobalt, and potassium. (Here’s why French press coffee is bad for you.)
The Aeropress’ filter is another important aspect of the brewing method. As with drip coffee, the filter protects the brewed coffee from substances that may harm your health.
“Using filtered coffee can decrease the number of oily substances, or diterpenes, in the coffee, which is a good thing, as overconsuming diterpenes has been found to potentially elevate ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol in heavy coffee drinkers,” Shanta Retelny says.
The verdict: Filtered coffee prepared in an Aeropress is much healthier than unfiltered coffee from a French press. Drip coffee, which is also filtered, likely lands somewhere in the middle.
The healthiest cup of coffee
“To get the biggest nutritional bang for your coffee buck, I recommend keeping coffee simple by adding less to your brew,” says Shanta Retelny. She also says it’s best to rotate your coffee beans so that you drink a variety of roasts.
There is no research-backed conclusion as to which kind of coffee is the healthiest. However, it’s possible to narrow down your options by eliminating sweetened lattes, very dark roasts (because of the low antioxidant content), very light roasts (because of the high caffeine content), and unfiltered coffee.
In the end, an unsweetened cup of medium-roast black coffee is probably the best.
The worst coffee for your health
Our health experts agree that adding loads of sweeteners to your coffee or overindulging in caffeinated beverages is bad for your health.
Still, there is no single java that is objectively the worst for your health. Benefits and risks depend on moderation.
A Starbucks grande (medium) white chocolate mocha clocks in at 430 calories, 16 grams of fat, and 54 grams of carbohydrates. The amount of sugar and fat is concerning.
On the other end of the spectrum, drinking a full carafe of blonde roast coffee brewed in a French press will give you more caffeine and diterpenes than you really need, downsides even if you don’t add cream or sugar.
Still, enjoying your cup of coffee—whether it’s sweetened, dark roast, or any type that gives you pleasure—is important too.
“It’s the total diet that counts,” says Shanta Retelny, “not one food or beverage.”
Tips to make your coffee habit healthier
If you love waking up to a whole-milk mocha latte, that’s fine—any food or beverage is OK in moderation. If you want, you can consider switching to skim milk, drinking black coffee on weekdays, cutting back on caffeine, or switching between blonde and dark roast.
Here are some other ways to make your coffee habit healthier:
- Limit your intake. Dr. Greene suggests aiming for no more than 50 to 100 mg of caffeine (two or three cups of coffee) per day. Shanta Retelny suggests no more than four or five cups, as per the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Dr. Bertrand says to decrease your consumption slowly to avoid morning headaches.
- Avoid sweeteners. Shanta Retelny cautions that both sugar and artificial sweeteners can detract from coffee’s health benefits.
- Drink water, too. Coffee contains a lot of water, so it can be hydrating, says Shanta Retelny. But she adds that it’s best to balance your water intake with coffee to get the most hydrating benefits throughout your day. Consider drinking a glass of water between mugs of your morning Joe.
- Use spices for flavor. Swap caramel syrup for a dash of cinnamon instead. “Spicing up your coffee with turmeric, cinnamon, nutmeg, or unsweetened cocoa powder can add antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits,” says Shanta Retelny. Plus, they can help you wean off the sugar.
Next, discover the health benefits of turmeric coffee.
- Vicki Shanta Retelny, RDN, LDN, dietitian and host the "Nourishing Notes" podcast
- Hélène Bertrand, MD, CM, Vancouver-based physician and scientific researcher
- Ryan Greene, DO, MS, an osteopathic doctor specializing in human performance, sports medicine, and nutrition, and medical director of Monarch Athletic Club in Santa Monica, California
- Statista: "Consumption Share of Beverages in the United States in 2018, by Segment"
- Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition: "Addition of milk to coffee beverages; the effect on functional, nutritional, and sensorial properties"
- Indian Heart Journal: "The truth about artificial sweeteners – Are they good for diabetics?"
- Annals of the National Institute of Hygiene (Poland): "Assessing polyphenols content and antioxidant activity in coffee beans according to origin and the degree of roasting"
- Foods: "Mineral Composition and Antioxidant Potential of Coffee Beverages Depending on the Brewing Method"
- Molecules: "Impact of Brewing Methods on Total Phenolic Content (TPC) in Various Types of Coffee"