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Butter Coffee Slips to Health Food Fad Status

Can adding butter and oils to your coffee transform it into a 'super food'? Some say yes, so we discussed the "Bulletproof" fad with writer Brent Rose.

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Mario Tama/Getty Images
Mario Tama/Getty Images

Entrepreneur Dave Asprey was in Tibet when he first tasted the local yak butter tea. He was curious about the concept of mixing butter and oil into the hot drink, and has adapted the concept for the modern, Western audience into something he calls “Bulletproof Coffee.” Butter coffee is starting to take off as a “super food” fad, with a cafe dedicated to the stuff set to open in Santa Monica, CA. Rico ordered a cup from a health food shop and sat down with Brent Rose, who writes about food, tech, and health for Wired, Gizmodo, and other outlets, to talk about the slippery stuff.

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Rico Gagliano: What is the recipe for butter coffee?

Brent Rose: Coffee plus butter.

Rico Gagliano: Go figure.

Brent Rose: Yeah, that’s about it.

Rico Gagliano: But it’s not like you can take a stick of butter and just drop it in your coffee.

Brent Rose: You could do that, but you kind of would end up with this big oil slick on top of your coffee, which may not be the most appealing thing. If you blend it, it helps to emulsify it a little bit more.

Rico Gagliano: It’s not just butter in this coffee we are about to drink, though, right?

Brent Rose: That’s right. So, this is Bulletproof Coffee. It’s this proprietary coffee and then there’s butter and there’s this stuff called MCT oil, and that’s an oil that’s found in coconut oil, palm oil, stuff like that. The Bulletproof company will sell you this stuff called Brain Octane. As far as I understand, it is just MCT oil but four times as expensive as it could be.

Rico Gagliano: Alright, so, first of all, let’s sip some. We have some before us. I’m going to open up the lid. It looks like, I don’t know, like regular coffee with cream in it, but, yeah, in the light, there is a slight slick of oil on top of it. Is this going to be good?

Brent Rose: I actually think it’s pretty tasty.

Rico Gagliano: Alright, bottoms up. It actually tastes kind of what I imagined it would taste like. It tastes like coffee with butter, clarified butter. I have the feeling on my lips like after I’ve had buttered popcorn.

Brent Rose: Yeah, that’s exactly right. On the lips it feels like you just used a lot of lip gloss. There’s a lot of fat in it.

Rico Gagliano: So what is the supposed benefit of drinking this other than its flavor which is, you know, perfectly fine?

Brent Rose: I mean… The claims that these guys are making are it’s a fat-burner, melts off the pounds, essentially. They’re also claiming it’s like a super drink for your brain to help you sustain focus and clarity.

Rico Gagliano: Isn’t that what plain coffee does?

Brent Rose: That’s right. He’s claiming that the coffee plus the oil and the butter, all that stuff is working together in tandem, to give you this sustained mental clarity and laser-like focus.

Rico Gagliano: Basically, you don’t have the coffee crash 20 minutes later or whatever.

Brent Rose: Yeah, but strong. They’re saying they’re stronger. The caffeine will be stronger because of the fat.

Rico Gagliano: My understanding is you’ve put this stuff to the test. Is it true?

Brent Rose: In full disclosure, I didn’t use the special beans. I used just a regular nice cup of coffee from a local cafe, some grass-fed butter, and I got some MCT oil that I just bought from a health-food store as well. What they’re suggesting you do with the Bulletproof diet is you substitute this for your breakfast. You don’t eat any food at breakfast, you just have this super-duper coffee that will sustain you through lunch, you won’t be hungry, you’ll have amazing focus and productivity.

butter coffee blenderRico Gagliano: And did it work?

Brent Rose: I felt very caffeinated, for sure. It maybe did sustain a little bit longer than it might have. And there are some interesting scientific reasons why that could potentially be true.

Rico Gagliano: Which are?

Brent Rose: Well, theoretically, and I’m not even sure this is something they’re claiming, but caffeine is not just water-soluble, but it’s also fat-soluble. So when you’re blending it, it’s possible that some of the caffeine gets pulled into the fat molecules, and, because fat takes a long time to digest, it could sort of act as a time-release in our stomach, sort of giving you a more extended dose throughout the day, rather than all at once. Maybe. But I was hungry, despite, you know, that this is a ton of saturated fat. 140% of your daily saturated fat before you’ve taken a single bite of food, you know. And that, also, is liable to play havoc on your digestive system. It can act as a laxative.

Rico Gagliano: Say no more. Now, let’s go back to the first of these claims which is that it will actually burn fat?

Brent Rose: That’s the claim. And there is evidence to support that coconut oil, which is where you get the main source in nature of MCT oil, does help raise your good cholesterol and lower your bad cholesterol. So there is some of that. There is the possibility that fat in your diet does not necessarily equal fat on your body. But there is also, again, too much of a good thing. Especially all at once. You know, 140% of your daily saturated fat? We may do that anyway through the course of our day, especially here in America. But there’s no indication that doing it all at once, first thing in the morning, is a good thing.

Rico Gagliano: Well, but, on the other hand, I heard that this drink is kind of descended from a drink that they’ve been drinking in Tibet for a very long time.

Brent Rose: Yeah, so, you’re talking about yak butter tea, which has been consumed in Tibet and other parts, Nepal, for, you know, millennia. And that’s where this guy who invented Bulletproof coffee got the idea. He’s just a coffee fiend and so he was, like, “I wonder if I can apply this to coffee?”

Rico Gagliano: If it’s good for Tibet, why might it not be good for us?

Brent Rose: Again, I think we are talking about quantity here. It may be good for them, I don’t know the ratios that they are using. I think they have a lot more vegetables in their diet generally than we do, as well.

Rico Gagliano: The super healthy monks eat a lot of vegetables, but that won’t give you a buzz.

  • Brendan @racingturkeys

    I’m going to blend butter with everything from now on tea coffee Guinness whiskey milk its endless

  • Datong Lese

    I saw Jeff Smith, RIP, of the Frugal Gourmet put fresh whipped butter into espresso over 20 years ago. It sounded good to me, so I gave it a try. I found the slick on top to alter the flavor and mouth feel of the coffee too much. Little did I know that the brain boost was engraving the moment forever into my synapses.

  • http://kieranmaynard.com/ Kieran

    Traditional Tibetan diet actually includes very few vegetables (the ground is too hard for farming in many places) and is based on meat, dairy, and tsampa (roasted barley/wheat flour often mixed with butter tea). The Dalai Lama has said that vegetarianism was impossible even for the nobility in Tibet before 1959. As for whether or not the “monks” are “super healthy”, I wouldn’t make assumptions like that. Heinrich Harrer noted in his book “Seven Years in Tibet” that many Tibetans appeared to him to be undernourished (~1947-1950).