Coffee: Is It Healthier Than You Think?
The general consensus used to be that tea was the better bet in terms of health benefits. But recent research suggests that despite the downsides of coffee, the “devil’s brew” does have an upside: Coffee drinkers may be at lower risk of liver and colon cancer, type 2 diabetes, and Parkinson’s disease.
Coffee contains antioxidants
While coffee drinkers may have other lifestyle habits that could explain the potential health benefits, researchers are also looking for compounds in coffee that explain the results.
One possibility? Antioxidants, those healthy compounds most often associated with fruits and vegetables. While the amount of antioxidants per serving is indeed much higher in things like berries, beans, and pecans, these foods are consumed less frequently than coffee.
In fact, a 2005 study found that Americans get more antioxidants from coffee than anywhere else. More than half of adults drink coffee daily, and the average coffee drinker downs about three cups each day.
“Most people drink it for the caffeine,” says Joe A. Vinson, PhD, a professor of chemistry at the University of Scranton who led the 2005 study and has studied coffee extensively. “[But] its the number-one source of antioxidants in the U.S. diet.”
Polyphenols or flavonoids, the type of antioxidants found in coffee, are also found in other foods and drinks, like tea, red wine, and chocolate. All three have been proven to moderately help brain function, a benefit that cant be chalked up to caffeine, says Vinson, who has received speaking fees from the National Coffee Association. Caffeine, the most commonly used drug in the U.S., says Vinson, does affect alertness, but hasnt been found to offer much in the way of health benefits.
Polyphenols are the “the good guys in coffee,” says Vinson. “If youre not interested in keeping alert, then it seems decaf coffee would be your best bet.”
Researchers have investigated other compounds in coffee, such as chlorogenic acid, which also gives eggplant its bitter flavor. In fact, there are potentially hundreds of biologically active compounds in coffee. “One of the detriments of working with foods and beverages is theyre mixtures,” says Vinson. “Theres no magic bullet compound; its the mix.”
The beneficial effects could be due to natural agents that discourage the growth of harmful bacteria, or those that encourage the growth of helpful bacteria, called probiotics. Coffee may also alter levels of gut peptides, the hormones naturally released to control things like hunger or fullness.
Coffee may even have a hormone-like effect in the body, says Clinton Allred, PhD, an assistant professor in the department of nutrition and food science at Texas A&M. A compound known as trigonelline “can act like estrogen,” he says. “People didnt know coffee would carry such activity.”
Because it acts as a hormone, trigonelline may be dangerous in women who have breast cancer, but it may also protect against colon cancer. “Estrogen is preventative of tumor formation for colon cancer, we believe,” says Allred. “But its just way too early for us to know [all] this particular compound could do.”
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