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Coffee Confidential

Researchers spill the beans

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Coffee Confidential

For now, at least, coffee lovers can sip their favourite beverage with the confidence that they are lavishing their body with health benefits from their cuppa.

Coffee is bad for you!

No, wait. Coffee is good for you!

Better hurry up and enjoy drinking that steamy hot cuppa joe before the experts change their minds–again. For now, at least, coffee lovers can sip their favourite beverage with the confidence that they are not harming their health and might even be doing a good thing.

Beyond Caffeine

For most of us, coffee is our morning perk: a caffeine-infused stimulant that shakes us out of our sleepy time and makes us alert enough to face the day. But caffeine is only a fraction of what coffee is all about.

Although few people reach for their first brew of the day and think, “Aah, my first cup of concentrated antioxidants,” according to the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry (2001) roasted coffee is packed with antioxidants–more than in cocoa, green tea, black tea, or herbal tea.

This large and diverse group of antioxidant-rich phytochemicals includes cinnamic acids, benzoic acids, flavonoids, proanthocyanidins, stilbenes, coumarins, lignans, lignins, and more. While antioxidants are naturally found in green coffee beans, roasting dramatically increases coffee’s total antioxidant activity by creating brown polymer compounds called melanoidins.

Have a Cuppa Cell Protection

Coffee-source antioxidants protect DNA, lipids, and proteins against the cell-damaging effects of free radicals. Since unchecked free radicals are believed to play a critical role in the development of chronic ailments such as cardiovascular disease and cancer, consumption of plant phenols from many sources, including coffee, may protect against these diseases.

Other cell-protective heroes in coffee’s antioxidant family of potent phytochemicals include chlorogenic acid and cinnamate esters. An average cup of coffee contains between 70 and 200 mg chlorogenic acid. Anyone who guiltily calls a cup of coffee “breakfast” may be somewhat relieved to learn that researchers estimate coffee drinkers ingest between 500 to 1,000 mg of antioxidant cinnamates daily. For some habitual coffee drinkers, their daily fix could be providing the primary dietary source of this important group of antioxidants.

Does Java Love Your Liver?

While other, earlier studies pointed to the possibility that caffeinated coffee-drinkers had a higher risk of some kinds of cancer, recent reviews of these data suggest the results may have been confounded by other factors such as smoking. Recently, studies have suggested that coffee drinking may, in fact, be protective against the development of certain cancers.

In 2005 Japanese researchers published the results of their large-scale study in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. Their findings confirmed “statistically significant inverse association between habitual coffee drinking and hepatocellular carcinoma.”

What’s that mean in plain English? It simply means that there was a reduced incidence of liver cancer in regular coffee drinkers than in people who did not drink coffee regularly.

Similar results were found by other researchers including a team from Naples, Italy, where coffee consumption is traditionally high. After conducting a four-year, hospital-based study, the researchers concluded that coffee (not decaffeinated) use is consistently associated with lower serum liver enzyme levels related to a reduction in the risk of liver cancer. These results were published in 2007 in the International Journal of Cancer.

Coffee-Colon Connection

Harvard Medical School researchers, using data from the Nurses’ Health Study and the Health Professionals’ Follow-up Study, assessed the coffee, tea, and total caffeine intake of thousands of subjects over the course of nearly 20 years. The researchers, who published their findings in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute (2005), determined that neither caffeinated coffee nor tea (with caffeine) were associated with colon or rectal cancer in men or women. They also had good news for decaf coffee drinkers. Regular consumption of decaffeinated coffee was linked to a reduction of rectal cancer.

Take Heart and Drink Up

If anybody loves coffee, it’s the Finns. Now they have another reason for it. A study published in 2006 by researchers from the National Public Health Institute in Helsinki, Finland, found that not only do coffee drinkers have a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes but patients with type 2 diabetes who consumed coffee daily were less likely to die from cardiovascular disease (CVD) or coronary heart disease (CHD).

Meanwhile in Norway, medical researchers from the University of Oslo attributed coffee consumption to a reduced risk of death from inflammatory and cardiovascular diseases in postmenopausal women.

Another study conducted at Harvard School of Public Health, published in Diabetes Care (2006) suggests that coffee constituents other than caffeine may affect the development of type 2 diabetes and that moderate consumption of both caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee may lower risk of type 2 diabetes in younger and middle-aged women.

Words of Caution

An article entitled “Coffee and health: a review of recent human research” was published in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition (2006) by the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University. The authors sagely remind us that “coffee is a complex mixture of chemicals,” and that while “coffee consumption may help prevent several chronic diseases, including type 2 diabetes mellitus, Parkinson's disease, and liver disease,” coffee consumption is also associated with increased blood pressure and homocysteine levels in the blood.

They also advise that some groups, including people with hypertension (high blood pressure), children, adolescents, and the elderly, may be more vulnerable to the adverse effects of caffeine.

Most importantly, the article invokes precautionary prudence for pregnant women to limit coffee consumption to a maximum of three cups daily, providing no more than 300 mg of caffeine, in order to “exclude any increased probability of spontaneous abortion or impaired fetal growth.”

To Buzz or Not to Buzz

Despite all the good news about coffee, one fact remains: caffeine is an addictive psychoactive substance. It’s a central nervous system stimulant, and not everyone can tolerate it.

For some people, drinking even small amounts of coffee leads to anxiety, insomnia, irritability, and gastrointestinal distress. For others, a cup of coffee is a welcome and well-tolerated mood elevator, energy lifter, and laxative.

In determining your best relationship with coffee, consider these wise words from the ancient Roman poet and philosopher, Lucretius: “What is food to one man may be fierce poison to others.”

Whatever you decide about coffee, scientists have decided it’s good for us after all. I’ll drink to that.

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