Butter coffee, the latest trend in caffeinated drinks, is as simple to make as it sounds. The recipe, give or take a teaspoon, is straightforward: hot water, espresso, coconut oil and grass-fed butter. Drop it all in a blender, and out comes a frothy, rich drink to start the morning.
Why people are drinking butter coffee – and why a growing number of shops are serving it – is more complex.
For instance, can butter coffee really promote weight loss without exercise, heighten alertness and satisfy appetite well until lunch hour (the supposed benefits that Tibetan monks have been sipping on for centuries and one savvy businessman has packaged as "Bulletproof" coffee for Western consumption)? Or is butter coffee a fad, or just another entry in the category of extreme eating, which was how it appeared at this year's Canadian National Exhibition, served alongside cocoa-infused fried chicken and Thanksgiving waffles?
Lets start with the individual ingredients: Grass-fed butter contains more healthy omega-3 fats than traditional butter. More astute drinkers will also use MCT oil, which stands for medium-chain triglycerides and is a combination of coconut and palm kernel oil. It's said to be absorbed by the body more quickly, leading to increased calorie burning.
The fat content of both ingredients could account for feelings of fullness, since they take longer to digest. As for claims about increased alertness, there isn't any conclusive evidence to prove the common belief that taking your coffee with fats helps slow caffeine absorption.
Still, the drink is slowly becoming a staple in some wellness-oriented coffee shops.
Fuel+, located in Toronto's Village, has seen it become a popular menu item since its introduction this summer. Priced at $4.20, its version includes only one tablespoon each of butter and MCT oil, a half-sized offering that co-owner Chester Wong says is very deliberate.
If his baristas served two tablespoons of each ingredient, "that is almost 400 calories," he says, eschewing butter coffee's appetite-suppressing qualities. "I don't know about you, but I still need to eat."
Wong sees nothing wrong with having it every morning, especially given his shop's clientele, who skew toward being very active and mindful of their overall diet. "But if you drink butter coffee every day and you don't move, absolutely, there is still calories in and calories out."
Still, applying simple math to butter coffee's nutritional content doesn't seem to add up when compared with what we know about healthy eating.
"Like most diet trends, this one overpromises and underdelivers," says Kara Vogt, a dietitian and instructor at the University of British Columbia's Faculty of Land and Food Systems.
"The challenge with these types of food fads is that it promises us, as a society, that there are specific foods that we can 'load up' on to protect our health," she says. "We haven't found convincing evidence that any single food can significantly impact health status in the long term, and we still have a lot to learn about how the nutrients we consume from different foods may work together in our bodies once absorbed."
Leslie Beck, a dietitian and Globe and Mail contributor, is also skeptical of the health benefits. She says the most tangible effect of butter coffee is its seeming ability to keep you full, "but so can a breakfast of low glycemic steel-cut oats, topped with a tablespoon of almond butter, a tablespoon of ground flax and a handful of blueberries," she says. "You won't find fibre, whole grains, monounsaturated fat and berry antioxidants in a cup of buttery coffee."
Whatever nutrition butter coffee may lack won't be missed by those who simply love the decadent taste. Jimmy's Coffee in Toronto recently ran a promotion that included two drinks more worthy of a dessert menu: buttered popcorn and buttered chocolate Americanos ($3.50 for two shots of espresso, two small balls of butter, no MCT oil).
"Too much butter is almost undrinkable," says general manager Elinor Barker about not going a full two tablespoons. "It was all about the taste profile for us."
Guillermo Osterio, 29, a graphic designer in Oakville, Ont., has been making butter coffee at home every day for six months. (2 tbsp butter, 2 tbsp MCT oil or plain old coconut oil "if I'm in a bind"). Although he is an avid exerciser who practices a high-fat ketogenic diet, Osterio credits the drink for his current health gains: increased energy in the mornings, no hunger pangs until past noon – which helps cut down on snacking at his desk-based job – and a 10-pound weight loss (but no greater alertness, in his experience). Osorio does, though, "try to keep updated and reading new research out there, on both sides of the coin"
When I tried a buttered chocolate Americano, I first noticed how much richer it was than a milky latte, then felt the sensation of my eyes widening in alertness (in retrospect, that may have been from sugars in the chocolate). With the extra shot of energy, I found the wherewithal to hit the gym, where my workout breezed by effortlessly.
At lunch, I found myself hungering for my favourite neighbourhood shawarma plate. But I couldn't bring myself to indulge, not with Beck's advice in the back of my head: "If you like the taste, great. … Just be sure to compensate for the extra calories elsewhere in your diet."