The barista is busy behind the counter, brewing a big pot of fresh coffee, the roasty smell filling in the air. He pours the rich liquid into a tall mug, then reaches behind him into the refrigerator and grabs a stick of butter, cuts off a few tablespoons and drops it into the drink.
Welcome to Bulletproof Coffee, where your morning cup is more than just a caffeine kick. It’s a way of life based on better living through chemistry.
For the past few years, biohackers have been concocting this same recipe in their kitchens, under the watchful advice of Bulletproof’s founder Dave Asprey, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and poor man’s Tim Ferriss. Asprey claims this potent brew gives you energy, helps you lose weight and improves your health in countless ways. He says it raised his IQ by more than 20 points and lowered his biological age. And, yes, he lost a crazy amount of weight.
Asprey is clearly onto something. His company has grown more than 700 percent since 2009; he claims 10.5 million downloads of his podcast in 2014 and more than 100,000 copies of his book, The Bulletproof Diet, sold. Jimmy Fallon mentioned it on late-night TV, and countless celebrities and Silicon Valley hotshots swear by the stuff.
In July of this year, Asprey raised $9 million from Trinity Ventures to open a small chain of coffee shops to serve the buttery beverage, other Bulletproof-approved foods and supplements. Several of Starbucks’ original founders are on the Trinity team, and their funds have invested in giant chains like Starbucks, P.F. Chang’s and Jamba Juice.
The first Bulletproof Coffee shop opened in Santa Monica, CA in August, 2015. Asprey has plans to open more soon. “Give me time and you’ll see one in each major city,” he told Van Winkle’s.
But what exactly is he selling? And is there merit behind the madness?
“In theory it’s not that different from a latte,” coffee expert and award-winning barista Lorenzo Perkins told me recently, “but it’s very different in regard to taste. As a coffee connoisseur,” he continued, “I think it makes really good coffee taste bad. Fat like butter inhibits your ability to perceive the flavors of coffee, because of the way the fat coats the tongue. It mutes any bitterness, but it also mutes the coffee’s sweetness. The only thing that comes through is the coffee’s acidity.”
Perkins said he’d rather eat a couple of pats of butter, take a shot of generic MCT oil and then drink a good cup of espresso.
Asprey sells his own special coffee brand, of course, but Perkins doesn’t recommend it. He hasn’t seen any evidence that the coffee itself is high-quality — what folks in the industry call “specialty coffee,” focusing on single origins and flavor profiles. Asprey, in classic Silicon Valley fashion, turned this bug into a feature. “I care about the person coming in even more,” he told Inc., “not the estate or where the beans are grown.”
Beyond the supposed health benefits, Asprey has yet another pitch to compel you to make the switch: mold. In coffee. That’s poisoning you. With every cup.
Writing on his blog, Asprey claims, “Swirling within that complex mix of chemicals, even in highest quality, most aromatic, and most flavorful brews can lurk the most carcinogenic natural compounds known to man.”
He’s talking about mycotoxins, a type of mold sometimes found in food — and especially Ochratoxin A. Ingested daily, Asprey says, it can make you jittery, cranky and foggy; in the long-term, it can lead to cancer and brain damage. The U.S. doesn’t test for mycotoxins because, historically, they haven’t been a problem in this country.
Asprey has developed a method of processing coffee that eliminates any chance of these molds surviving. To do so, he enlisted the help of Mark Inman, a former director of the Specialty Coffee Association of America who now serves as an advisor to Bulletproof. But Inman had something different to say when I talked with him.
“I don’t know of anybody ever dying from Ochratoxin A outside of the Shakespearian era,” he said. “I just don’t see the mold thing as a real problem. Dave got fixated on this Ochratoxin piece, though.”
Equally dubious are the health claims Asprey makes about his Bulletproof Diet, which is essentially an offshoot of Paleo by way of Silicon Valley. While no one is arguing that eliminating junk food, reducing one’s sugar intake and cooking at home are nutritionally smart, Asprey relies on studies that are clearly bunk. For example, one is a 1976 research project with a focus group of just two people; another is 30-years-old and included just 13 subjects.
“Very few of the references are of current research, and most is picking out studies that are of low or very low quality, none of which is put into the context of other research or systematic reviews,” professor Paul Garner, the director of the Effective Health Care Research Consortium at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, told the Telegraph. “It’s just not credible to build this kind of commercial fiction on this.”
Meanwhile, doctors worry that the Bulletproof Diet focuses too much on individual nutrients rather than the whole picture.
“We should be looking at whole foods instead of specific saturated fats,” said Dr. Karl Nadolsky, an endocrinologist and specialist in obesity medicine at the Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington. After noticing that patients’ lipid levels went through the roof when they started drinking Bulletproof Coffee, he’s conducting a formal study to get to the bottom of the health issues.
“People are drinking this because, recently, there has been a lot of evidence that saturated fat is not as bad as we used to think,” he explained. “But being overwhelmed with excessive empty calorie carbs and fats over the years leads to fat deposition, which causes all the problems we don’t want. The fat gets in our abdomen and liver and muscle cells, which leads to metabolic syndrome, bad lipids, heart disease, diabetes.”
Nadolsky expects that, even if people lose weight on the diet, their lipid levels will rise substantially and they will start to suffer from other health problems.
So why exactly does Bulletproof Coffee have so many fans?
“As a businessperson, Dave is incredibly sharp, and he’s on to something,” Inman explained. Indeed, Asprey taps into the very American idea of finding a shortcut to success. Food writer Michael Pollan argues that we’ve fallen victim to the age of nutritionism, that food can be parceled into microscopic nutrients, that we need scientists and professionals to help us figure out what to eat instead of relying on tradition, common sense or even appetite.
That’s where biohackers come into the picture. But smack-dab in the middle of that word is another one: hack. An untalented professional, an amateur, even a fraud. And that’s why, in Asprey’s new cafe in Santa Monica, you can get more than a drink and something to eat. They also serve up a healthy serving of utter bullshit.
“The furniture is electrically grounded,” Asprey told me, “so you can discharge the static buildup happening and get some of the same effects as what happens when you walk on the beach with your shoes off… We’ve built an environment to make people stronger, because that’s what your food and your coffee are supposed to do.”