Can Drinking Better Coffee Cure Your Coffee Breath?

Weak, black and unsweetened. I know that's not what you want to hear, but one of the best ways to prevent bad coffee breath might just be to make it totally unappealing. It's time to consider trading in your Starbucks affinity card and those snazzy Stumptown suspenders. Let me explain.

My friend Kristen recently asked what sounded like a silly question but turns out to be quite astute: "Does better quality coffee cause better quality coffee breath?" I laughed. And then I thought, "Huh? That's a good question."

I went to the source for all information on the matter, Dr. Harold Katz, a Los Angeles dentist who wrote the book on bad breath (literally; it's called The Bad Breath Bible), who has appeared on TV as an expert, and who's been working on the problem since 1993, when his daughter went through an awkward teenage bad breath phase.

"Human beings are walking chemistry labs and anything you stick in your mouth will cause a reaction," Katz says. "Each food has its own chemistry. Onions and garlic have especially volatile sulfur compounds that produce bacteria in the mouth. So does coffee."

So, that's part 1: Coffee has sulfur compounds that create a bad smell when combined with the chemistry of our mouths.

Healthy people naturally wash away those odors with saliva, which contains oxygen, which is the enemy of bacteria. That's partly why baby breath is so pleasant; because, with all that drooling, bacteria is being cleaned from the mouth. And it's why older people, who produce less saliva (in addition to other factors like tooth decay, etc.), tend to have that old person breath. Out of respect for my elders, I'll refrain from embellishments here.

And that's part 2: Coffee, which is a diuretic, makes the mouth dryer, decreasing the soap-and-suds cleansing of your saliva.

And if you add milk, a protein-rich, bacteria-laden drink, and sugar, which is like "fuel for bacteria," says Katz; then you're just compounding the nastiness that's going on in your mouth. So, that's part 3.

Other than going cold turkey, what's the best way to avoid bad coffee breath? I suggest drinking water with a cup of Joe, but Katz counters that while that might help, "it will not be enough to neutralize the coffee, which really sticks in there." (It should be noted that Katz sells a line of bad-breath-busting products, Therabreath.)

He concedes that weaker coffee might reduce the odor. Or, he suggests, you could switch to tea, which doesn't cause the same bad odor because the acidic levels in tea are much lower than that of coffee.

The answer, then, to Kristen's question is, no, better quality coffee does not lead to better coffee breath. In fact, it's more likely to have the opposite effect.

It doesn't seem fair that the guy who buys the $1 cup of dreck at the corner bodega or convenience mart should have better breath than you, the enlightened coffee drinker, but there it is.

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