Is coffee a guilty pleasure or an enjoyable addition to a healthy diet?
FORMER United States president Thomas Jefferson may have described coffee as “the favourite drink of the civilised world”, but the drink has since developed a rather bad reputation, despite its wide popularity.
Those who avoid coffee often do it for fear that coffee consumption would lead to addiction, heart disease, and even cancer.
While these claims rarely stop coffee lovers from indulging in their daily doses of caffeine, many still view coffee as a guilty pleasure or necessary evil.
“Coffee has a long history of being blamed for many ills – from stunting your growth to claims that it causes heart disease and cancer. But recent research indicates that coffee may not be so bad after all,” says Dr Donald Hensrud, an associate professor of preventive medicine and nutrition at Mayo Clinic College of Medicine, US.
When asked whether coffee is good or bad, Dr Hensrud says: “The best answer may be that for most people, the health benefits outweigh the risks.”
For dietitian Prof Winnie Chee, the answer lies in the amounts you drink.
“If you drink too many cups of coffee, the amount of caffeine intake may not be good for some – for example, those with heart problems,” she says.
“The general advice is usually not more than two cups a day.”
After years of research, many myths surrounding the negative effects of coffee consumption have been dispelled.
For instance, studies have found little or no connection between moderate coffee consumption (three to five cups a day) and increased risk of cancer or heart disease.
“In fact, most studies find an association between coffee consumption and decreased overall mortality, and possibly cardiovascular mortality, although this may not be true in younger people who drink large amounts of coffee,” says Dr Hensrud.
A recent Harvard School of Public Health study on coffee and health found that drinking up to six cups a day of coffee is not associated with increased risk of death from any cause, or death from cancer or cardiovascular disease.
However, it has to be qualified that for the study – like most studies on coffee – a “cup” of coffee is an 8-ounce (237ml) cup with 100mg of caffeine, and not the 16 ounces you would get in a grande-sized coffee at a popular coffee chain, which has about 330mg of caffeine.
“Also keep in mind that the research is typically based on coffee that’s black or with a little milk or sugar, but not with the kind of high-calorie coffeehouse beverages that have become popular over the past few years,” says Harvard School of Public Health Department of Nutrition assistant professor Dr Rob van Dam.
Dr van Dam, who is one of the researchers in the study, says that research over the past few years suggests that coffee consumption may protect against type 2 diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, liver cancer and liver cirrhosis.
“Our latest study on coffee and mortality found that people who regularly drank coffee actually had a somewhat lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease than those who rarely drank coffee,” he says, adding that the results need to be confirmed in further studies.
According to a 2010 scientific review, caffeine facilitates learning in tasks in which information is presented passively.
In the review, French researcher Dr Astrid Nehlig says that caffeine facilitates performance in tasks involving working memory to a limited extent, but hinders performance in tasks that heavily depend on working memory
Caffeine also appears to improve memory performance under less than optimal alertness levels, Dr Nehlig says.
“Most studies, however, found improvements in reaction time,” she adds.
While some studies have shown that high caffeine intake may marginally increase calcium excretion in women with insufficient calcium intake, professor of human nutrition at Washington State University in Spokane, United States, Linda K. Massey, says limiting caffeine intake to 300mg a day while getting adequate calcium can offset the losses caffeine may cause.
When taken in moderation, coffee actually contains nutrients that could contribute to our daily nutritional needs.
Black coffee, for instance, contains a number of micronutrients including potassium, magnesium and niacin (vitamin B3), says the Europe-based Institute for Scientific information on Coffee (ISIC).
ISIC data shows that for 100ml of medium-strength black coffee, there is 92mg of potassium, 8mg of magnesium and 0.7mg of niacin.
Adults need about 5g of potassium, between 300mg and 420mg of magnesium, and between 14 and 16mg of niacin a day.
Coffee also counts as part of our daily fluid intake.
“There may be a mild short-term diuretic effect from caffeine, but this is not strong enough to outweigh the benefits of fluid intake from coffee consumption,” says ISIC.
As much as coffee lovers like to believe that there should be no limit to how much coffee we can take a day, we should exercise moderation when consuming coffee and pay attention to how our body reacts to the drink.
“If you’re drinking so much coffee that you get tremors, have sleeping problems, or feel stressed and uncomfortable, then obviously you’re drinking too much coffee,” says Dr van Dam.
It is normal for coffee to increase a person’s blood pressure significantly if he or she is not used to taking caffeine, but this increase would soon be less pronounced within a week of consumption.
Last but not least, we should also be careful with the sugar, milk and creamer we put in our coffee, as they may mean extra sugar and calories, which if left unchecked, may lead to weight gain and increased risk of type 2 diabetes.
“Some people put a lot of condensed milk and sugar in their coffee, and these are empty calories, which will add up if we take two to three cups of coffee a day,” says Prof Chee.
This article is courtesy of Nestlé.