Buttered coffee: Bulletproof or plain bull?

The last thing anyone would think of putting in their coffee is butter and oil. That seems a little audacious, considering that just adding sugar and creamer to your coffee gets death stares from baristas nowadays.

So who in their right mind would want to add ingredients best used to make cakes or deep-fry chicken to their coffee? Quite a number of folk, apparently.

The mixture is called "bulletproof coffee" - a blend of espresso, grass-fed butter and MCT oil.

The craze started in the United States in late 2013 and finally, it has hit our shores and bulletproof coffee is slowly garnering a fanbase in Malaysia.

Adding butter to beverage is not a new idea. The Tibetans have been doing it for ages. In fact, Dave Asprey, the creator of Bulletproof Coffee company, found the inspiration for his concoction in Tibet.

On his website (www.bulletproofexec.com), Asprey writes that he first learned the power of adding butter to one's poison of choice at 18,000 feet above sea level near Mount Kailash.

"I staggered into a guest house from the -10°C weather and was literally rejuvenated by a creamy cup of yak butter tea. I asked, 'why?' and after a couple years of careful research, that was the genesis of the recipe."

Asprey also claims in various interviews, such as the one with Bloomberg.com in April this year, that the bulletproof coffee turns human bodies into fat-burning machines, promotes healthy weight loss, eliminates hunger pangs and even improves our mental focus and brain power.

He suggests that we should replace our breakfast meals with just a cup of bulletproof coffee, as it will keep us satisfied with level energy for six hours and won't induce caffeine-crashes in the middle of the day.

Those are some very bold claims that Asprey has made with a cup of oily coffee.

Anyway, haven't we always been told that too much fat is bad for health and what in the world is MCT oil? (Grass-fed butter, in case you are wondering, is just butter made from the milk of grass-fed cows, that is to say, cows fed the food they are naturally meant to eat.)

Expert fats researcher Mary Enig explains in her book, Know Your Fats, that MCT stands for medium chain triglycerides and is not an oil found in nature. It is extracted mostly from coconut oil via an industrial process called "fractionation". Another word for triglycerides is fatty acids.

Coconut oil contains four primary medium-chain fatty acids - lauric acid, caprylic acid, capric acid and caproic acid.

Lauric acid is the star component in coconut oil and is prized as a powerful antimicrobial agent, used in both food preservation as well as in drugs and nutraceuticals. However, lauric acid, with all its goodness, is missing in the marketed MCT oil (used in bulletproof coffee).

Asprey believes that MCT oil (without lauric acid) is better than coconut oil while others may question how a product that has the most dominant fatty acid removed from the original product is considered healthier.

That is why some baristas insist on replacing MCT oil with coconut oil when making bulletproof coffee.

Bungkus, at Empire Damansara in Petaling Jaya, is one of the cafes that makes bulletproof coffee with extra virgin coconut oil instead of MCT oil. Firstly, it is because coconut oil is easier and cheaper to obtain here.

Dawn Banaga, barista at Bungkus, first learned of bulletproof coffee from her previous employer who was a health hound and regularly consumed the coffee to aid his weight loss programme.

"My then boss said that it really helped him stay alert and energised the whole day. He took the coffee in the morning, and said that it is advisable only to drink it once a day. He added that some coffee lovers take it when they're working late to keep them awake throughout the night," said Dawn.

The barista makes bulletproof coffee by blending 90ml medium roast espresso, one to two tablespoons of grass-fed butter and 30ml extra virgin coconut oil in a blender for less than a minute. The end product is thick, very creamy and frothy. It is sold at RM14.90 per cup.

The blend of coffee, butter and coconut oil produces a unique aroma (a friend asked if I was drinking curry from a coffee cup!) which may be off-putting for some coffee drinkers.

The taste? Well, if you like your coffee oily and really creamy, then this is the one for you. However, it is best consumed hot because the butter solidifies when the coffee gets cold, and the drink turns ugly.

"Not many people order it for its taste, to be honest. They drink it because of the claim that it gives energy and helps them to lose weight," Dawn said.

As for the effect, well, the coffee did keep me full for a long time but the oiliness of the coffee is something one has to get used to.

I will admit that I was slightly more alert than I would be after a cup of coffee, but to be honest, the bulletproof coffee wasn't my only caffeine fix for that day. I already had a few cups of coffee before drinking it at about 2pm.

While Asprey stands firm on his claims that bulletproof promises health benefits, weight loss and more, the fact is that none of them has any scientific backing. They are all based on his personal experience.

This brings the question whether bulletproof coffee is really safe for daily consumption, because if you follow Asprey's advice, you are effectively replacing one of the three nutritious meals with something that is low in essential nutrients.

A single tablespoon of coconut oil contains about 12 grams of saturated fat, and according to the American Heart Association, if you consume 2,000 calories per day, your saturated fat intake should be no more than 15g.

So just drinking a cup of bulletproof coffee in the morning would bring you very close to your daily recommended limit without even consuming any other sources of saturated fat.

Uncontrolled saturated fat intake is one of the main dietary causes of high cholesterol, high blood pressure and heart disease.

Another disadvantage to coconut oil consumption is its high caloric density: 1g of fat has nine calories while 1g of protein or carbohydrates has four calories. So that means that if you consume coconut oil, you are taking in more than twice the calories you could get from equal amounts of healthy foods such as vegetables, fruits, and lean meats.

However, if you're using MCT oil in your bulletproof coffee, know that a one-tablespoon serving of pure MCT oil contains 100 calories with 14g of fat. It is basically a refined and processed fat with no essential nutrients.

It is not all bad news with coconut and MCT oil.

"Coconut oil which contains MCTs are metabolised differently and have more health benefits. It has been shown to help increase energy expenditure (and metabolise fat), stave off infections, lower risk of heart disease, boost brain function and is great for the skin and hair," said nutritionist and wellness coach Wong Yu Jin.

A study published in the March 2008 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition shows that MCT oil and coconut oil can be incorporated into a weight loss programme without fear of adversely affecting metabolic risk factors such as glucose, insulin, and blood pressure.

The world is torn on whether to paint these oils as good or bad for our health.

Egbert Nah, the head barista at Polpetta cafe in Petaling Jaya decided to forgo coconut oil and MCT oil in his bulletproof coffee.

"I have read so many conflicting stories about the pros and cons of MCT oil and coconut oil on the Internet that I decided to just substitute the oil with steamed milk," said Egbert, who learned about bulletproof coffee from his brother in the US.

Egbert is yet to name his coffee and is sticking to the "original" name for now.

"I do realise that it is inaccurate to sell it as 'bulletproof coffee', but I'm just using that until I find a new name," he said.

Egbert makes his brew by putting 10g to 15g of grass-fed butter in a 180ml cup before extracting a single shot of espresso into the cup. Then he adds 150ml of steamed milk.

"I let the hot espresso and milk completely melt the butter before serving. I do not stir the drink as I believe it would affect the coffee's crema," said Egbert.

The bulletproof coffee served at Polpetta is milky, smooth and doesn't leave an icky aftertaste. It is sold at RM11, and there have been several returning customers who claim that the drink provides a stronger caffeine fix than the regular espresso or latte.

So coffee and butter, with or without MCT oil or coconut oil, still perks up your day, and maybe all this while the hero of this concoction is actually the good ol' grass-fed butter? Or coffee plus an over-active imagination.

Nutritionist Wong cautions: "As with all supplements, coconut oil or MCT oil should not be seen as replacements to a balanced diet. I have seen many people fall victim to the notion that once they take supplements, they do not need to care so much about their daily diet. It's the same with the bulletproof coffee. It probably has beneficial properties but it is a flaw to think that it can replace a healthy, balanced diet."

It is best that you check with a dietician before replacing your regular breakfast with bulletproof coffee. Remember that it doesn't work the same way for everyone, and you're treading on uncharted territory.