Things you may not know about coffee
Coffee, according to a Turkish idiom, should be as black as hell, as strong as death, and as sweet as love – which hardly sounds like a recipe for perfect health.
Many nutritional therapists see coffee as an addictive, dehydrating, poisonous, nutrient-free, sleep-interrupting, moodaltering, headache-triggering virtual poison that we’d be better off rejecting in favour of filtered water from the Himalayas and organic herbal teas. But how valid is this perception? Is it based on reputable research or is the anti-coffee brigade guilty of ignoring evidence that suggests a different story?
Reappraisal of coffee’s perceived role in our diets may be necessary
A few studies, including a relatively new one from the United States, suggest that a reappraisal of coffee’s perceived role in our diets may be necessary. Researchers from the University of Scranton, Pennsylvania, have found that coffee provides more antioxidants in the average American diet than any other food or drink – four times as many as the second-placed provider, tea.
In other studies, the beverage appears to demonstrate an antioxidant activity comparable to that of tea, red wine and certain fruits, which is news to most. “According to a survey, 86% of people aren’t aware of coffee’s high antioxidant content,” says Zoe Wheeldon of the Coffee Science Information Centre. “In fact, ordinary coffee and decaffeinated coffee are both rich in antioxidants, and this characteristic isn’t affected by adding milk or sugar, or by the roasting methods used on the beans themselves.”
Help with the absorption of certain micro nutrients
Some studies on coffee’s effect on health have revealed that it can help with the absorption of certain micro nutrients, such as magnesium, manganese, chromium and the B vitamin niacin. Japanese researchers at the National Cancer Centre in Tokyo reported in 2004 that those who enjoy a daily coffee had considerably lower risk of liver cancer, while other published evidence suggests coffee has a preventative role against type 2 diabetes and, according to Dr Joe Vinson, who headed up the Scranton research, against colon cancer, too.
Then why does coffee continue to be demonised? “It’s been a widely held view for many years that coffee is bad,” says Wheeldon. “But when advocates of detoxifying make negative remarks about coffee, they are usually referring to caffeine.” Wheeldon points out that tea and pure, high-cocoa chocolate, which are also noted for their antioxidant and caffeine content, don’t suffer the same level of condemnation.
Cancer prevention and heart health
Neither do cola drinks, which are sweetened and made up of non-nutrient chemicals. Wheeldon continues: “Many diet gurus advise cutting out coffee because of the theory that it gives you a boost of energy, followed quickly by an energy crash, but there’s no evidence to support this. There’s also no evidence to suggest that a high doses of coffee ‘poison’ you. When consumed in moderation, coffee is perfectly safe and offers health benefits.”
It’s tempting to conclude that coffee’s antioxidant richness is responsible for health benefits like cancer prevention and heart health. But nutritionist Claire Williamson sounds a note of caution.
“We know that coffee contains bioactive compounds and antioxidant capacity also found in fruit, vegetables and tea. But the problem is that a lot of the studies on coffee have been laboratory-based, which doesn’t necessarily translate to humans in practice. There’s little or no evidence to suggest that coffee’s antioxidants are absorbed and utilised by the body, or to suggest that coffee drinking can help reduce the risk of diseases [such as breast cancer, prostate cancer, coronary heart disease or colon cancer]. More research is necessary.” So should coffee drinkers be alarmed?
No, according to nutritionist Carrie Ruxton, who also believes the case against coffee has been overstated. “Whether health professionals like it or not, the fact is that a lot of people don’t exercise, and drink alcohol and coffee and eat biscuits. Telling coffee drinkers to avoid it doesn’t leave them with much option or alternative. It presents to them an ideal diet they can’t live up to, and they end up just turning the page. Instead, we should be giving more manageable, realistic and moderate advice.”
So, the consensus seems to be that coffee is good for you – in moderation. But Williamson warns against any urge to rely on it to supply a large proportion of your antioxidant intake, as appears to be happening in the US. The active compounds found in coffee form only a narrow band in the broad spectrum of antioxidant chemicals available from other sources, each of which may provide the body with unique benefits. “It’s better to consume a variety of different types of foods, especially fruit and vegetables, as these provide us with substantial amounts of antioxidant compounds,” she says. “Continue to enjoy your coffee, by all means, but ensure you still enjoy at least five portions of fruit and vegetables daily, too.”