“About 10 years ago, I went to Nepal and Tibet and spent some time at very high altitudes,” says then-Silicon Valley exec and longtime biohacker Dave Asprey, who is now the CEO of Bulletproof Exec. “I was run down, tired and sick, but I drank this yak butter tea, and I felt amazing.”
He went home and recreated the tea using blended tea bags and regular butter, “and it was the most god-awful thing I’ve ever tasted,” he says. He decided to test the beverage using coffee instead, though he’d given up the stuff because of the crash and crankiness that came after the initial caffeine boost.
After years of tinkering with different types of butter and coffee beans, he settled on a formula blending "low-toxin" coffee (the beans are processed and roasted to be free of mycotoxins, damaging compounds from mold found on green coffee beans that Asprey claims can negatively impact human performance and health), a couple tablespoons of unsalted grassfed butter and one to two tablespoons of medium-chain triglyceride (MCT) oil from coconut extract that’s frothed in a blender till foamy.
“It’s about using the right ingredients and treating them properly at each step for an ultra-clean end result,” Asprey says. “The difference was enormous. My mind was clearer. I didn’t crash; there was no jitteriness. All the problems I had from drinking coffee went away.”
So had 100 pounds of body weight, Asprey adds, claiming that his IQ also went up 20 points from replacing his daily breakfast with the 460-calorie, “brain-boosting” beverage (although some observers unsurprisingly question this bold claim). Asprey posted the recipe for Bulletproof Coffee on his blog in 2009, and the recipe quickly piled up 10,000 Facebook “likes”, as celebrities, Silicon Valley execs and athletes alike took to social media and talk shows to praise its effects on their energy levels and well-being.
What's so good about coffee and fat?
While some observers have taken issue with the idea of replacing a nutritious breakfast with essentially coffee and fat, Asprey insists that coffee is the number-one source of antioxidants in the American diet, making it "hard to argue that it’s devoid of nutrients,” he says.
He adds that the grassfed butter portion of Bulletproof has all the benefits of healthy milk fat (it's high in linoleic acid, vitamins E, A and D, and butyric acid) with none of the damaging denatured casein proteins found in cream. Moreover, MCT oil (which can also be found in almonds, seaweed and salmon) has purported energy-enhancing and mild fat-burning properties.
Plus, by drinking it in the morning before consuming any protein or carbs, the insulin-dependent digestion mechanisms don’t go into effect so much, essentially kicking the body into ketogenic (fat-burning) mode.
As for the mental clarity claims, Bulletproof Exec recently conducted a trial involving 54 participants drinking low-toxin Bulletproof coffee and standard arabica bean Bulletproof coffee twice a day before performing seven cognitive tests. Asprey claims the former performed "statistically better", and will publish the results later this year on the company website.
Building the Bulletproof empire
Building on the beverage’s early success, Asprey has spent the past five years building a veritable Bulletproof empire, anchored by Bulletproof Exec, a lifestyle website offering products and multimedia content on nutrition and anti-aging (Asprey is also president of the Silicon Valley Health Institute).
The site’s online store sells branded Upgraded Coffee and High Octane MCT Oil, and recently added collagen whey protein, cocoa butter, chocolate and anti-aging supplements. The site also contains a roadmap to the Bulletproof diet, which is akin to the Paleo diet, though more focused on healthy fat—it targets half of calories from healthy fats, 20% from protein and the rest from vegetables.
Bulletproof Exec now counts 96,000 Facebook likes and 1 to 2 million monthly website visitors. More than 7.5 million people have downloaded the Bulletproof Radio podcast, making it the number-one health and fitness podcast on iTunes. Although overall traffic skews male (60% vs. 40% women), the over-40 set tips more toward women, which Asprey attributes to his work on anti-aging.
Asprey wouldn’t disclose sales figures for the brand, but its products are now sold in 56 brick-and-mortar locations nationwide, ranging from yoga studios and anti-aging clinics to crossfit gyms. The company, which has expanded to 20 employees, is also planning to open a standalone Bulletproof coffee shop in Los Angeles in Q1 2015.
He’s also working on a documentary on the effects of coffee mycotoxins on human health and the environment.
Scaling up such a high-quality product is costly
And yet he maintains that he doesn’t like the “empire” descriptor for his fast-growing brand. “What we’re doing makes people feel better, look better and live longer. Knowledge, technology or coffee are all fair game in this goal,” he says. “I’m interested in helping a lot of people. That does mean scaling the company, but empire building is less interesting.”
One of the challenges of scaling up a high-quality product is getting it on the shelf without losing too much money, when everyone from the broker to the distributor to the retailer takes a piece along the way, he says.
“I’d love to be in a Kroger, because the difference when coffee is done right in how people think, behave and feel is important,” he says. “But it’s a big leap from where we are now because we’re still a small, scrappy company. I don’t know how I would not lose money going into a large grocer right now. If there is a way, I would commit to doing it.”
For now, Asprey is happy to play a part in a movement toward better health, noting that he thinks Bulletproof coffee “deserves some of the blame” for the two grassfed butter shortages that occurred in 2013. “Butter consumption is at its highest in 44 years, and I think that’s a healthy transformative effect. I’m pleased to play a role in that.”
Moreover, small lifestyle changes that consumers make—be they trading up to a better coffee or switching to healthier fats—can make a difference, he says.
“People in this country are tired of being tired, of dragging themselves around to all the things they want to do,” he says. “They’re tired of being sick, carrying around that extra 30 or 40 pounds. Small tweaks make a big difference that people can feel. Maybe they add a little grassfed butter to their coffee and get some benefits. Or maybe they’re encouraged to move to slightly better coffee. Coffee is a gateway drug to taking care of yourself.”
So what's the RD's take on Bulletproof coffee?
For starters, Andy Bellatti, MS, RD, questions the mold toxin claims, saying that most commercial coffees contain undetectable levels of mycotoxins. “You’d have to drink about 40 cups a day to put yourself at risk,” he says, adding that the mycotoxin ochratoxin A is all but removed during the wet processing stage.
As for the mind and body benefits of drinking Bulletproof, Bellatti says they could certainly be palpable for a consumer replacing, say, a sugary cereal and sugary latte with Bulletproof coffee. But he questions the hype surrounding a beverage that’s been “part of Asian cultures for centuries”.
And while he says drinking it likely doesn’t pose any dangers, he questions the assertions surrounding ketosis. "To reach ketosis, you need to be on a VERY low-carb diet for some time," he says. "One meal does not get you into ketosis."
He also wonders whether it makes sense to replace a nutritious breakfast with a 460-calorie beverage that’s devoid of many essential nutrients Americans are lacking.
“The Bulletproof thing really plays into this concept of a magic elixir,” he says. “It’s not that simple. If you want to add healthy fat to breakfast, add avocado, nuts or seeds—which offer minerals and phytonutrients. The average American isn’t eating enough fiber, potassium or magnesium. I’d prefer to see them eating real food. But it just goes to show you the power of marketing. Drinking coffee and tea with butter has been around for centuries; it took a smart marketer to turn it into a sensation.”
But Asprey maintains that he didn’t do any internet marketing of the product. “As old-fashioned as it sounds, the number-one reason Bulletproof coffee took off is because people felt different on the first day.”