A Change of Perspective | Coffee, Friend or Foe?
Debunking some common coffee myths
By Sofie Wicklund | 2018
Coffee constitutes an integral part of daily life for most people. Americans drink an average of 3.1 cups of coffee per day, according to a Harvard study. That’s no small amount. However, the banter around coffee’s health benefits has been long and drawn-out. Like nearly all food and beverage products (fat, sugar and gluten, to name a few), there came a time when some studies claimed that drinking coffee was detrimental to one’s health. Now, though, recent studies are nearly all aligned in determining that coffee’s health benefits outweigh any harmful effects with significance. The reason for this turnaround in coffee health results can be attributed to a couple of factors. First, coffee simply fell under the umbrella of public health scrutiny just as so many other food products have in an American food culture that is, to put it bluntly, lacking tradition, and thus incredibly susceptible to trends and fads that sometimes even contradict one another. Second, as Donald Hensrud, M.D. of the Mayo Clinic summarizes, the apparent reversal in thinking about coffee has come about because scientists realized that earlier studies on coffee’s health impacts didn’t always take into account that known high-risk behaviors like smoking and physical inactivity tended to be more common among heavy coffee drinkers, in turn skewing the results away from the impact of coffee alone. Now that scientists have realized this earlier flaw and can single out coffee alone, as well as the fact that high-risk behaviors are no longer so strongly correlated to drinking coffee, the results have become more clear.
So, what are some of the determined health benefits of regularly consuming coffee? The answers actually include a wide swath of positive aspects, from protecting against Parkinson’s disease, type 2 diabetes and liver disease to improving cognitive function and reducing the risk of depression, according to Hensrud. An umbrella meta-analysis carried out by Newsweek, entitled “Health Benefits of Coffee: Three or Four Cups Per Day Does Far More Good Than Bad”, yielded that drinking coffee each day lowered a person’s risk of getting heart disease, and pointed out lower risk of liver disease and even liver cancer as being especially significant effect of coffee consumption. This meta-analysis also showed that for some conditions, the largest benefit was associated with drinking three to four cups of coffee every day. Beyond three or four cups, the benefits were less pronounced but still were not associated with harmful effects.
In March of 2018, coffee came under fire when a California judge ruled that all coffee companies in the state of California would have to post warnings on their products saying that it may contain an ingredient linked to cancer. This caused an uproar among coffee drinkers, coffee companies and scientists alike. On June 15, however, this court ruling was discarded after a review of more than 1,000 scientific studies was published by the World Health Organization that found inadequate evidence that coffee causes or is linked to cancer. The ingredient responsible for the initial ruling is acrylamide, an ingredient that is found in all coffee. However, it is found at very low levels in coffee and is vastly outweighed by beneficial antioxidants that actually reduce cancer risks.
It seems safe to say that drinking coffee is significantly more beneficial than harmful for us. One important variable to keep in mind, however, is sugar. A sugary, high-calorie coffee drink is not going to have the same health benefits that a cup of black coffee will. Researchers from the aforementioned Newsweek meta-analysis were careful to stress that their research was about solely coffee, not sugar, syrups, biscuits, cakes and pastries, and that standard health messages still apply to all of those food products. Also, we should still use the rule of moderation. Too much of anything is not healthy for our bodies, and a varied, moderated diet is generally the way to go. The researchers’ main point concluded that people who already enjoy moderate amounts of coffee as part of their diet are most likely getting health benefits from it, rather than harm. In other words, keep drinking coffee, even three to four cups per day, but remember to keep that coffee as fresh and additive-free as possible.
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