Coffee’s health benefits are just another marketing tool

  • A 2019 study showed 98% of 131 hot flavoured drinks from coffee chains exceeded 3 times the daily recommended sugar intake for adults
  • Coffee’s health benefits are used to reach a younger audience more concerned with health and wellness than ever before
  • Numerous RTD coffee products contain artificial additives

OVER THE last decade, there has been an enormous amount of research into coffee’s health benefits. Moderate coffee consumption has been linked to reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, certain cancers, and cognitive diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Most recently, one cup of coffee every six hours has been said to reduce the risk of contracting coronavirus.

More broadly, it contains hundreds of bioactive compounds, antioxidants and polyphenols known to strengthen and protect the body. Cold brew is now widely recognised as a pre-workout drink, and black coffee in general has been adopted by the fitness community. 

However, all these health benefits are associated with the coffee itself – not necessarily what people add to it. As more and more people begin perceiving coffee as something of a superfood, it’s important to litigate how and when this applies.

Sugar sells

Fundamentally, it’s worth outlining that studies on coffee’s health benefits are often tested with participants drinking black coffee with no sugar. While many people do drink black coffee day to day, an increasing number of products containing additives are being launched week after week. Irrespective of their contents, these products also benefit from coffee’s growing reputation as a superfood.

For example, ready-to-drink (RTD) coffees often contain a range of additives: Artificial sweeteners like sucralose and saccharin enhance sweetness without adding calories; chemical additives mimic natural flavours but lack genuine nutritional value; preservatives extend shelf life; emulsifiers, stabilisers and gums are added to maintain texture and consistency; and some products add artificial colouring.

Beyond this, many of the drinks served at popular coffee chains mirror this approach. Indeed, 98% of 131 hot flavoured drinks available at major high street coffee shop chains would receive a “red” warning for excessive sugar content if such labelling were legally mandated.

“Rather than promoting health, frequent consumption of these drinks over the long term can increase the risk of obesity, type II diabetes and associated health issues,” says Alice Benskin Rnutr, senior nutritionist at Nutritank.

It’s also worth noting that these are among the fastest-growing segments in the coffee industry. The global market value of RTD coffee is projected to be worth over $42 billion by 2027, and customisable drinks continue to grow in popularity among consumers. Starbucks CFO Rachel Ruggeri reported 8% sales growth at the end of the previous quarter, driven by higher consumer spending on premium flavoured drinks.

As such, while coffee’s reputation as a superfood is growing, it’s clear that the most popular segments within the industry are a far cry from that indeed.

Ultra-processed foods

This ties into an ongoing conversation in 2023 about ultra-processed foods (UPFs), which are rapidly becoming more prevalent in our diets.

“UPFs are foods with ingredients industrially added to make a product cheaper to make, increase shelf life or transportability, stabilise a product, and enhance flavours or colours,” says Murray Dare, founder of Reduce my UPF. “There are about 1,000 man-made chemicals that can be added to foods in the UK, and more in the US; these include fat, starches, added sugars, sweeteners, flavours and stabilisers.”

“UPFs are linked to obesity, cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease and several other health-related diseases. Some 65% of the average UK diet is made up of ultra-processed foods.”

And while there’s a raft of evidence about coffee’s health benefits that shows it has copious potential as a “pure” food without additives, the increasing popularity of flavoured drinks is eroding that potential.

The addition of syrups to customisable beverages and various artificial additives in some RTD coffee products highlights just how much UPFs are infiltrating every part of the food and beverage sector – including coffee.

coffee's health benefits might not translate in customisable drinks

Coffee’s healthy reputation

Nevertheless, it has become evident that promoting coffee’s health benefits is an effective way of marketing a new product. In general, there is a greater focus on health and wellness than ever before – particularly among Gen Z and young millennials – and certain coffee brands are trying to leverage that fact.

And whether it’s intentional or not, some of these new products are piggybacking off of and benefiting from coffee’s established healthy reputation. This, in turn, has the potential to tarnish coffee’s image – especially as these products are emerging as the new face of the industry.

This is especially the case because health and wellness claims in the coffee sector are totally unregulated. It gives brands plenty of leeway to make unverified statements about the various benefits of their products – without the need to back them up with research or studies.

At the same time, it’s worth recognising that high-level research requires funding, and it makes sense that corporations standing to gain from promoting coffee’s health benefits may be at the source of it. For some, it can be an unsettling thought when you consider the level of influence this can have over consumers’ dietary choices.

This makes it all the more important to exercise a high level of scrutiny when faced with the health and wellness claims of new coffee products, especially until these claims are better regulated. After all, it’s coffee’s reputation that’s at stake.

Coffee Intelligence

Want to read more articles like this? Sign up for our newsletter here.