As much as we enjoy a cup of the black stuff (myself included), it’s deemed one of life’s guilty pleasures, stemming from the perception that caffeine is ‘bad for us’, so ipso facto, coffee is too.
Yet, in reality, the tainted reputation of coffee couldn’t be more ill-conceived, with the scientific research into the effects of coffee on our health painting a very different picture. And should we really be that surprised that coffee could possess health benefits? One thing worth reminding ourselves of is that coffee is a bean, and thus a plant food, and like many plant foods, packed full of complex and intriguing bio-active compounds. In the case of coffee, it’s rammed full of polyphenols (most notably Chlorogenic acid), natural plant compounds that are now being intensively studied for their health benefits. To simply reduce a complex food such as coffee just to its caffeine content, is way too reductionist, and really misses the point.
So, what does the research tell us about coffee drinkers?
First up, one of the biggest health concerns of our modern era: type 2 diabetes. Regular coffee drinking is associated with a striking protective effect against diabetes risk, as much as 60% in some studies. Coffee lovers can take heart from the fact that the effect appears to be dose-dependent too, with a meta-analysis of 18 studies, incorporating almost half a million subjects, finding that every additional cup of coffee per day was associated with a 7% reduction in risk of diabetes.
There is also growing evidence that coffee drinking proffers protection against neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Indeed, rather than being bad for us, caffeine has numerous positive effects on the brain, increasing alertness, concentration, whilst improving mood and limiting depression.
Then, there’s liver health. Anyone who has entertained the weird and wonderful world of ‘detoxing’ will know that it decrees abstinence from coffee as mandatory if you are serious about ridding your body of toxins. How ironic then to discover that phytonutrient-rich coffee, rather than being a noxious nasty, is in fact likely to protect the liver, our organ of detoxification, from diseases such as cirrhosis and even liver cancer.
But before we get too carried away about the health benefits of coffee, it’s worth pointing out that coffee isn’t for everyone. Examples include pregnant and breastfeeding women (where caffeine intake should be limited), those especially sensitive to the effects of caffeine (which can lead to anxiety or insomnia), and possibly those with certain medical conditions such as osteoporosis. But whilst a minority of people may need to limit coffee or avoid it altogether, for the majority of folk, the bulk of research shows that coffee consumption is synonymous with health not harm.
There’s also the classic criticism targeted at caffeinated drinks that they dehydrate the body. But, that’s a fallacy too. In people who consume them regularly, caffeinated drinks such as coffee, hydrate the body and count perfectly well toward our daily fluid intake. It’s only when we’re not used to drinking them regularly that they can have a transient diuretic effect on the body.
The bottom line is that coffee is a veritable treasure chest of naturally occurring antioxidants and beneficial phytonutrients. That means it’s time to free coffee from its tainted image, and finally give it its rightful place alongside other health-giving indulgent and cherished favourites like dark chocolate, tea and red wine.