What’s the Difference between Instant Coffee and Regular Coffee?

Instant coffee has gotten a bad rap over the years. Most of us had that grandparent with the giant tin of instant coffee on their counter. But these days, there are a lot more coffee snobs than in decades past who wouldn’t even consider instant coffee. But what’s the difference between instant coffee and regular coffee?

Here’s what I discovered in looking into it:

The main difference between instant coffee & regular coffee is that instant coffee has been brewed into a concentrate and dried. The drying process is either freeze-dried or hot air-dried. However, many instant coffees also use the inferior robusta coffee bean compared to the arabica bean used in higher-end brands.

Many people believe that instant coffee is inferior to standard ground and brewed coffee. I would definitely be among them.

It may not have quite the same depth of flavor or require the same craftsmanship as a cup of brewed coffee. But modern brands of instant coffee can still find their place in most homes around the world.

Maybe not for daily drinking. And certainly not for the hardened coffee lover reaching for their manual grinder, French press, and locally roasted bag of beans.

But instant coffee can still make a decent cup of coffee if you are in a hurry. And it works great for camping or road trips where a nearby Starbucks may not be available.

But let’s get more into the details of the differences. We’ll explore why those giant tins at grandmas house taste so bad, and which modern brands can actually cut it when it comes to flavor.

Let’s take a sip!

Is instant coffee as good as regular coffee?

Believe it or not, instant coffee is very popular in various areas around the world. In fact, almost half of the world’s population claims they prefer instant coffee over the traditional brews!

Most of Asia, Australia, and New Zealand (as well as Mexico, the UK, and a few countries in South America and Africa) make up for the majority of those who prefer instant coffee. Actually, you can say that the majority of countries who prefer a cup of tea as their hot drink of choice also prefer instant coffee.

Overall, it is cheaper, faster, and easier to make, which are all important factors when you are trying to run out the door for work or even make yourself that mid-afternoon cup at your desk.

However, despite its popularity in the east, much of the western world still prefer the fresh stuff, especially those who have refined palates for coffee. In fact, according to an article in The Washington Post, the U.S. is the only real exception to the instant coffee craze.

When it comes to health benefits, there are some areas in which instant coffee may be stronger.

Some types may contain higher amounts of antioxidants due to its concentrated form. It may also be lower in caffeine, which may not be what you want when you need a pick me up. But it could be a positive aspect for those who are looking to lower their caffeine intake.

When it comes to flavor, those with refined coffee palates will be able to detect the difference between regular and instant coffee almost instantly. This is mainly because fresh coffee maintains all its essential oils and chemical components, giving it a fuller flavor.

This, combined with the larger variety in flavor with fresh coffee, gives it a more subtle flavor than most instant variations.

Can I use ground coffee as instant coffee?

Upon first glance, some instant coffee blends can look just like regular coffee grounds. However, they are not the same thing. You can’t substitute ground coffee for instant and vice versa.

You can’t expect to pour hot water over coffee grounds and have them dissolve in the same way instant coffee will. If you have the right tools, you can still make a decent cup of coffee.

But without some sort of filter, you will have some gritty coffee.

Instant coffee is desired for its convenience. You can make your morning cup of coffee within minutes without needing to wait for a whole pot to brew. What you may not realize is that you can still get a really great cup of coffee within minutes even if you only have coffee grounds.

All you need is a French press.

Now, of course, a Keurig coffee maker can also make a cup of coffee in just a few minutes; it is actually quicker than a French press. However, if you are looking for smooth and pure coffee flavor, a French press is the way to go.

You can read more about French press coffee in a recent article. In this article, I go over the pros and cons of having a French press as well as how to make the best French pressed coffee.

Just click that link to read it on my site.

What is considered instant coffee?

Instant coffee is made from dried coffee extract.

Now, you may be asking yourself what dried coffee extract is, especially since we’ve already established that ground coffee is different from instant coffee.

To make instant coffee, the process starts by brewing coffee in pretty much the same way you would brew regular coffee, only in a much more concentrated “dose.”

After the coffee is brewed, the water is then removed to create dry fragments or powder that will dissolve when water is added.

Water is removed from the extract and turned into instant coffee in one of two ways:

  • Spray-drying: concentrated coffee extract is sprayed into hot air to dry the droplets quickly and turn them into a powder or small granules.
  • Freeze-drying: coffee extract is frozen and cut into small pieces to then be dried at a low temperature in some sort of vacuum controlled container.

Both of these methods help to preserve the quality, aroma, and flavor of the original coffee so you still get a good cup of coffee simply by adding hot water.

Why is instant coffee so bad?

Besides aversion to the flavor itself, some avoid instant coffee because of the chemicals that may be found in it.

Acrylamide is a chemical that is used in many industrial processes.

This includes the production of paper, dyes, and plastics. It can also be produced when coffee is brewed and possibly even found in other foods like potatoes (fries, chips, etc.), canned black olives & prune juice.

Though more research needs to be conducted, it is believed that excessive intake of this chemical can increase your risk for certain cancers as well as cause damage to your nervous system. (source)

While drinking coffee has not been proven to increase your risk of developing cancer, you do want to be careful of overexposure to this chemical if you drink quite a bit in a day or if you primarily drink instant coffee.

It is believed that due to its high concentration, instant coffee may contain up to twice as much acrylamide as regular coffee. Again, nothing to be overly concerned with, but something to be aware of.

Of course, even though regular coffee has its health benefits, it still has its downsides. Because it is a crop, non-organically grown coffee beans will have been exposed to pesticides and herbicides.

If you are concerned about toxic chemicals in your coffee, organic coffee may be a better way to go, as explained in a recent article. I get into all the downsides of non-organic coffee. But I also bust one of the biggest myths out there in terms of pesticides and coffee beans.

Just click that link to read it on my site.

Is instant coffee made from arabica or robusta coffee beans?

But aside from acrylamide, another big reason a lot of instant coffee tastes bad is the inferior bean they often use to make it with. Coffee is either made from arabica beans or robusta beans.

Arabica beans are vastly superior. So in this section, let’s explore that further.

Generally speaking, most inexpensive coffee, especially instant coffee, is made from robusta beans. Robusta is an inferior bean to the higher-priced arabica bean. So the brands that do use arabica proudly state that on the front of their labels.

The arabica shortage of 2011 also caused many companies to switch to robusta beans. So while instant coffee sales in the US are pretty flat, overall robusta sales increased 7% following the shortage. (source)

So what’s the difference between robusta beans and arabica beans?

Aspect Arabica Beans Robusta Beans
Flavor Profile Sweeter with balanced acidity. Similar overtones to a nice glass of wine A harsher flavor that can be described as bitter with peanut overtones
Caffeine Levels Twice as much as arabica beans Half as much as robusta beans
Price Generally, much less expensive due to how much easier they are to grow and how much faster these trees bear fruit. Under $4.00 for 12 oz of ground coffee from Folgers Usually a lot more expensive. 12 oz. from Starbucks would be about $6.00, so roughly 66% more expensive
Areas Grown Almost exclusively grown in Africa and Asia Primarily grown in South America, but some in Africa too

What is the best instant coffee to buy?

If you like the convenience of having instant coffee around, or if you want to get in on the internet craze of whipped coffee, you may be looking for a decent instant coffee to buy.

To start with, for better flavor, look for ones labeled 100% arabica coffee.

Arabica beans don’t necessarily denote drastically better flavor though. There are some brands using arabica beans that don’t taste very good. There are also a few robusta producers that can make a surprisingly good cup of coffee.

After all, freshness and roasting methods are just as important, if not more important.

Here are a few brands and blend recommendations for those who may be looking for a new instant coffee to try.

These are not your grandmother’s coffees!

Click any of these links to check them out on Amazon, read reviews, and see the current price.

  • Waka Coffee – An Amazon’s Choice product with great reviews. Decaf or regular, medium or light roast
  • Starbucks Via (hot and iced variations) – Starbucks practically invented the gourmet instant coffee trend with these long slender individual packets. These are my go-to when camping
  • Mount Hagen Organic Fairtrade Coffee – Amazon’s Choice product with hundreds of great reviews. You’ve probably seen this on the shelves at Whole Foods.
  • Nescafe – Yes, they no doubt make some terrible ones too. But this Nescafe is 100% arabica and an Amazon’s Choice product with great reviews.
  • Medaglia D’Oro Instant Espresso   – Great reviews and another Amazon’s Choice product. Most of their products are indeed 100% arabica, but this one doesn’t actually say it on the label, so I’m not certain
  • Café Altura Fair Trade Organic Coffee – Another one like Mount Hagen that combines 100% arabica beans, fair trade, and organically grown into an instant coffee that can’t be beaten! Also an Amazon’s Choice product with great reviews.

Click any of those links to check them out on Amazon, read reviews, and see the current price.

All of these are 100% arabica coffee beans. They also are all products where the reviews are good. I never recommend something that I haven’t tried myself or have terrible reviews.

Did I cover all you wanted to know about the difference between instant and regular coffee?

I hope this answers all of your questions about the difference between instant and regular coffee.

For those who want a quick cup of coffee in the morning or midday, there is nothing wrong with instant coffee. You can save money by avoiding the trip to Starbucks and make it just about anywhere with just hot water.

However, if you are looking for depth and variety in flavor, fresh coffee is the way to go.

Jeff Campbell

Jeff was a leader for Whole Foods Market for over 2 decades and is now a recovering foodie. When he's not spending time in the kitchen, he can usually be found with his wife & 3 daughters, he can usually be found practicing martial arts, making music, or blogging on his other sites. Click to learn more about me

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