The debate has raged for many years, and it will probably continue for years... is coffee good or bad for your health? While the jury may be out, here are some findings that indicate coffee is not all bad.
Coffee, as we all know, is high in caffeine, and caffeine is suspected of increasing blood pressure and heart rate. The medical fraternity have long suspected that coffee drinking might therefore contribute to higher rates of heart disease. However a recent study by researchers at the Harvard University School of Public Health found no significant increase in the risk of heart disease or stroke among men who drank up to four cups of coffee a day - a finding supported by the Kaiser Permanente health care organization in California.
The same outcome was found in women where data collected from more than 85,000 women over a 10-year period produced no evidence for any positive association between coffee consumption and risk of heart disease for women consuming six or more cups of coffee a day. That's a lot of coffee!
This is not to say that there aren't physical effects to coffee drinking. Caffeine does excite brain cells, and this in turn improves concentration and reaction time and reduces fatigue. In fact, caffeine can increase the speed of rapid information processing by 10%. A study in 1993 clearly demonstrated that caffeinated coffee had a beneficial effect on alertness and improved performance in a variety of tasks. Caffeine also has a beneficial effect on asthma by reducing the severity of attacks. Two studies found that three or more cups of coffee a day reduced the prevalence of asthma and this is further supported by improved ventilatory function in exercise-induced broncho-constriction - although this required over five cups of coffee a day!
Interestingly, it has been found that increased activity, alertness and efficiency are associated with a decline in levels of depression and anxiety. Two independent studies noted a significant inverse association between coffee drinking and the risk of suicide. Further research into the possibility that coffee drinking may decrease depression is certainly needed.
Although, caffeine is often singled out as the chemical in coffee that has the most impact on our health, coffee has a complex chemical composition. One beneficial characteristic of coffee is that it contains compounds with antioxidant properties. Polyphenolic compounds known as flavonoids are common in plants and are known to have disease suppression benefits. What is most interesting is that the roasting process increases antioxidant activity in the beans. Although the beneficial role of food antioxidants is a relatively new research area, this is likely to become more important in years to come.
Yet too much caffeine can lead to irritability and restlessness along with an increase in urination. Talking of this, kidney stones are extremely painful and in a study of some 45,000 men with no history of kidney stones it was found that increased consumption of regular and decaffeinated coffee, tea, beer and wine were linked with a decreased risk of stone formation. The same effect was found in a study involving 81,000 women where caffeinated coffee and wine were found to be significantly more effective than water in helping women avoid kidney stones.
Coffee also has several metabolic effects that could reduce the risk of gallstone formation. According to a study conducted at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), drinking coffee is associated with a 40 percent lower risk of gallstone disease in men. Men who drank four or more cups of regular coffee per day had a 45 percent lower risk profile.
The link between coffee and cancer is probably more weighted in favour of coffee. Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States, with some 131,000 Americans being diagnosed with cancers of the rectum and colon on an annual basis. Now there is some convincing evidence for a protective effect of coffee against the development of colon cancers. A recent review of over 15 studies on coffee consumption and colorectal cancer from 1960 to 1990 found the risk of colorectal cancer to be 24% lower among those who drink four or more cups of coffee per day, than among those who rarely or never drink coffee. Researchers in Sweden also found that "...coffee consumption appears to be protective against colon cancer, and tea against rectal tumors". The most likely explanation for lower risk of colorectal cancer among heavy coffee consumers is the enhanced colonic activity induced by coffee, and the inhibition effect on the cancer-causing effects of various micro-organisms by anti-mutagenic components in coffee and caffeine.
Coffee is also commonly used to "lift" hangovers and to get going "the morning after". However it might be more useful to drink it before having the party...as in the past decade, research in the United States, Japan and Italy has shown that the consumption of coffee has a strong protective effect against cirrhosis of the liver. Drinking 3 to 4 cups of coffee a day was associated with an 80% reduction in risk for cirrhosis of the liver, compared with those who don't drink coffee at all.
On the subject of losing brain cells, Parkinson 's disease, a progressive nervous disease occurring generally after age 50, destroys brain cells that produce dopamine and is characterized by muscular tremor, slowing of movement, weakness and facial paralysis. Research into the relationship between caffeine consumption from a variety of sources and the risk of developing Parkinson's disease, has shown that moderate consumption of caffeine reduces the risk of Parkinson's disease in men and women.
In fact, men who drank four to five cups per day of caffeinated coffee cut the risk of developing Parkinson's disease nearly in half compared to men in the study who consumed little or no caffeine daily. Women who consumed between one and three cups of caffeinated coffee per day also cut their risk nearly in half of developing Parkinson's disease when compared to women who drank less than a cup of coffee per day - but this apparent benefit was lost at higher levels of intake.
Finally, while some people believe that coffee can induce acid reflux, recent research has found that coffee consumption has no effect whatever at inducing heartburn in healthy people. Even for those individuals with gastro-oesophageal reflux disease, coffee consumption was found to have only a minimal effect.
Is coffee all that bad? Probably not...in moderation. Indeed, many studies identifying beneficial effects also noted the loss of these effects at high consumption rates. So, enjoy your three to four cups of coffee a day...on average you'll be just fine!
Steve Giddings is Managing Director of Frontier Beverage Corporation (Pty) Ltd. This article and other coffee related information can be found at http://www.frontiercoffee.co.za