A recent report published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, and reported by The Daily Mail, has suggested that coffee with milk in it has better health benefits than when its drunk without – a claim which on face value could downplay the many health benefits that have circulated for years around black coffee.

So, what should you believe?

As always, the truth isn’t so clear cut: this isn’t simply a case of white coffee vs black coffee.

How healthy is coffee?

The question of how healthy – or otherwise – coffee is, has been a long-standing debate.  Back in the 1980s you’d have easily believed it was unhealthy.  Period.  Medical opinion concluded that coffee was the cause of heart attacks and abnormal rhythms and that it was linked to cancer.  Thankfully these have since been disproven.

More recently, and in the last five years in particular, evidence has shown that coffee drinkers suffer less heart disease than non-coffee drinkers, and that they experience no greater levels of cancers.  Indeed, long-term studies have shown coffee is not only safe, but can actually provide protection to the heart.  Of course, a serious caveat here is for those who suffer from caffeine sensitivity and thereby risk potentially dangerous increased heart rates.

The benefits of coffee

The good news is, where there was once scarce evidence, often outweighed by wild speculation, now there is a rich source of research around coffee and its benefits.  Indeed, caffeine is a widely studied compound but coffee is about more than simply caffeine and it’s often here where many of the health benefits can be found.

Amongst those benefits are improved microbiome diversity in your gut and the fact that coffee is packed full of fibre – more, in fact, than in your average glass of orange juice!  It’s also believed that coffee could reduce the risk of gallstone diseases.  Then there’s research that suggests coffee can have a positive impact on your cognitive function, improving both memory and function.  The jury’s still out on this but it’s certainly an interesting avenue to research in more detail.  

And in direct contrast to the beliefs of the 1980s, there’s now growing evidence of the positive impact that compounds found in coffee – notably kahweol and cafestol — can have on stopping the growth of prostate and kidney cancer cells.  These results came from a laboratory study, rather than amongst patients, but again it certainly puts the positive attributes of coffee in the spotlight. 

The list of health-related benefits of coffee per se could go on (and we’ll look at these in more detail another time), but for now let’s return to the question of milky coffee vs black coffee….

White coffee vs black coffee – the verdict

Coffee itself is packed full of antioxidants known as polyphenols and these have been shown to reduce inflammation.  When coupled with amino acids (which milk is full of) these inflammation reducing effects are increased further.  The conclusion reached, therefore, is that milky coffee is ‘better for you’ than black coffee – and therein lies the slightly misleading overall message.

When you add milk to coffee, you’re still getting the phenomenal benefits of the coffee itself, just potentially with some added benefits.  It’s worth remembering though that too much dairy can be viewed negatively and for some, lactose intolerance makes the addition of milk to their coffee not an option in any case. Here in the UK, many of the larger coffee chains serve coffee that is quite bitter in taste, so adding milk offsets some of this, making the drink more palatable to the coffee drinking public – whilst, it would appear, making it ‘better’ for us!  This, however, neglects the fact that the better the coffee is in terms of where it’s grown and how it’s roasted, reduces the need for so much milk in the first instance.  

Does this then make better quality coffee ‘less good’ for you?  We’d argue not and would encourage serious coffee drinkers to i) invest in a quality coffee, ii) experiment with less (or no) milk, and iii) call for more research into the possible benefits of adding milk to your daily brew!