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Drink to Your Health
Coffee as Health Food?

Report Supplied by the National Coffee Association of the USA

When does a menu item become a health food? While there’s no simple answer, 19,000 primarily positive scientific studies surely meet even the toughest criteria. Coffee has been through the scientific ringer, you might say, and almost invariably has come out with flying colors. Over the past few decades, not only have old myths about coffee gone the way of the Edsel, but significant positive health benefits have been uncovered through intense and exacting scientific inquiry. Existing evidence suggests that coffee may simply need to update its image to match the facts.

Antioxidant Powerhouse
Probably the best kept secret about coffee is that it delivers more antioxidants than even the latest antioxidant bellwether, green tea. Green coffee beans contain about 1,000 antioxidants, and the brewing process adds 300 more. The roasting process, by the way, creates its own set of healthful compounds which, like some antioxidants, are unique to coffee alone.

Coffee, in fact, has four times the antioxidant content of green tea, according to a study conducted in Switzerland by the Nestle Research Center and recently published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. The study found that coffee also outruns cocoa, herbal teas and red wine. Of course, precise antioxidant content varies from cup to cup, depending on the type of bean (Robustas have twice the antioxidants of Arabicas, although the difference is reduced in the roasting process) and the level of “solubles” in the cup, determined by the brewing method, time and amount of coffee used.

The health benefits of antioxidants are broad, since the compounds neutralize errant molecules known as “free radicals.” These electrically unbalanced cells kill healthy cells as they try to stabilize themselves by robbing sub-atomic particles. This process has been implicated in premature aging, cardiovascular disease, degenerative brain disorders, cancer, cataracts, the decline of the immune and nervous system, and other health problems.

Type II Diabetes
Just a few weeks ago, there was significant media attention surrounding a Harvard School of Public Health study that established a firm link between coffee and the prevention of Type II, or “adult-onset,” diabetes. The largest study of its kind ever conducted, it tracked 125,000 people over a period of 12 to 18 years, and found that the risk of developing diabetes could be cut in half in men and reduced by 30% in women.

Results also suggested that unique coffee compounds contribute to the beneficial effect. Other caffeinated beverages did not offer the same level of protection, and decaffeinated coffee provided lesser protection, while decaffeinated tea offered none.

The research also showed that the more coffee one drinks, the greater the protection. Men who drank six or more cups a day reduced their diabetes risk by 54%, four to five cups by 29% and one to three by 7%. In women, the figures were, respectively, 29%, 30% and 1%. Results were adjusted to offset other risk factors such as age, weight and exercise, and so coffee drinking was isolated as the cause of the benefit.

Colon Cancer
Another coffee compound has been shown to reduce the risk of colon cancer. While scientists had long suspected a connection between coffee and cancer protection, last fall German researchers identified the link. A powerful antioxidant found almost exclusively in coffee, methylpyridinium, boosts blood enzymes widely believed to protect against colon cancer. Methylpyridinium is formed in the roasting process from a chemical found naturally in coffee beans. The stronger the coffee, the study also found, the higher the level of the compound, with darker roasts containing two to three times more than medium roasts.

Parkinson’s Disease
At least six independent studies have confirmed a link between coffee drinking and the prevention of Parkinson’s Disease. The research shows that people who drink coffee on a regular basis are 60 to 80% less likely to develop Parkinson’s. Three of the studies also show that the more they drink, the lower the risk.

Performance Booster
Research has also proved that, in addition to protecting against disease, coffee has a positive functional impact on an array of human activities. A study published in Current Sports Medicine Reports found that the caffeine in coffee improves performance and endurance during prolonged, exhaustive exercise. To a lesser extent, it also boosts short-term, high-intensity athletic performance, as well as enhances concentration, reduces fatigue and heightens alertness. The reason lies in caffeine’s effect on brain receptors, enabling better energy uptake.

A Brazilian study has determined that drinking a few cups of coffee a day will also increase male fertility. According to scientists at the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, the caffeine in coffee appears to increase sperm “motility,” that is, the speed at which they move. Since sperm “hyperactivity” is critical to fertilization, heightened motility increases the odds of pregnancy.

Other studies have shown that coffee and caffeine also have a positive influence on mental function. Coffee increases alertness and improves performance on tests of mental function.

Other Benefits
Research continues every day on coffee, caffeine and health. Hundreds of new studies are published every month by scientists and research institutes around the world. In fact, the NCA’s Scientific Advisory Group (SAG), a committee of scientists, doctors and serious students of health issues, monitors and analyzes the scientific literature on a regular basis. SAG also selectively funds promising research proposals for completion.

The literature reveals many other benefits of coffee drinking as well. Coffee consumption has been proven to cut the risk of liver cirrhosis by 80%, to help manage asthma and even control attacks when medication is unavailable, and in moderation to decrease the risk of developing acute coronary disease. It’s also shown that coffee can stop a headache, boost mood, prevent cavities, and even offset damage of smoking and heavy alcohol intake.

“Overall, the research shows that coffee is far more healthful than it is harmful,” says Tom DePaulis, PhD, research scientist at Vanderbilt University’s Institute for Coffee Studies. “For most people, very little bad comes from drinking it, but a lot of good.”


Tea & Coffee - June/July, 2004
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