The Facts: Coffee, Caffeine, Nutrition and Health

Even before its introduction to the West (and its subsequent baptism by then-pontiff Pope Clement VIII) coffee has been the subject of every kind of vitriol and indignity on grounds religious, social, political and medical. It’s unfair, really… but to be expected; coffee has proved time and again to be an effective, if unlikely and altogether unwitting agent of change.

Still today there remain those with an axe to grind with coffee — more frequently with its chief agent provocateur, caffeine — and who take no small delight in sewing seeds of fear, uncertainty and doubt where the health aspects of coffee are concerned. These reports typically offer no sources at all, or perhaps small-scale studies that have been dated for 40 years.

Let’s see if we can’t shed some light on the subject… using multiple, credible and authoritative sources, and send coffee’s naysayers scuttling back under their rocks.

Coffee and Health

Like so many of the beverages we enjoy today, coffee was once prescribed as a tonic for what ails you… and provided that what ails you is a lack of alertness or a sour mood, it’s good on its promise. Let’s leave patent medicines and snake-oil salesmen aside for the moment, though, and ask: is coffee good for you?

The answer is yes!

Coffee has been a frequent subject of scrutiny by the medical community… perhaps because it’s so widely consumed, yet offers no apparent nutritive value. Or, maybe doctors are just looking for a really good cup of coffee.

Despite some 40-50 years of study, the medical field has yet to draw a direct correlation between moderate consumption of coffee and any medical disease or chronic health condition. Studies that have suggested worrisome links between coffee consumption and reproductive health, for example, have been put to rest by subsequent studies — larger, and more thorough — that have exonerated our favorite beverage.

More recent studies by the medical science community are now finding numerous positive benefits of moderate coffee consumption. These studies suggest that drinking coffee may reduce risks of colon cancer and liver cancer; cirrhosis of the liver; may reduce the risk of Parkinson’s Disease and the onset of diabetes. More, brewed coffee has been found to have 3 to 4 times the amount of cancer-fighting anti-oxidants as green tea. Further, coffee can prevent or reduce the likelihood of developing gallstones, even prevent cavities.

Coffee and Caffeine

Coffee contains caffeine, a mild stimulant to the central nervous system. The caffeine in coffee occurs naturally; it’s not added (it is, however, added to many soft drinks.) Coffee — with its stimulating constituent, caffeine — is the worlds most popular mood-altering substance on the planet, and has been for more than 300 years.

Caffeine promotes wakefulness by interfering with adenosine, a chemical in the body that acts as something of an natural sleep-promoting drug. In addition to its wakeful properties, caffeine — in moderate amounts — has been shown to enhance mood and increase alertness.

Caffeine has been shown to decrease muscle pain and augment the pain-relieving capability of other drugs, alleviate asthma symptoms and boost athletic endurance and performance as well as heightening alertness and lifting mood. Heck, it even helps combat jetlag! The key, of course, is the phrase we seem to hear a lot… moderation.

What’s moderate? Most doctors will agree that 3 to 4 cups of coffee a day can be considered moderate consumption. What’s moderate for you, however, is largely a matter of how you respond to caffeine. If you have questions or concerns about your own consumption of caffeine, talk to your doctor.

Coffee and Nutrition

Nutritionally speaking, brewed coffee is pretty much inert. It has virtually no calories or fats, no carbohydrates, no sodium, no cholesterol… if it were required to carry a nutritional product label, that label would consist mostly of a lot of zeros. (In fact, coffee is exempt from federal food label programs precisely because it has zero nutritive value.)

That said, coffee does offer a number of trace minerals (Thiamin, Niacin, Folate, Phosphorus, Magnesium, Manganese) and is a good source of Potassium, Pantothenic Acid and Riboflavin. A 6-ounce cup of brewed coffee may contain 2 to 4 mg of Sodium… mostly from the water used to brew the coffee and not the coffee, itself.

What about the stuff we add to coffee?

While coffee itself has virtually no nutritional impact, the things we add to our coffee will, in turn, dial up those numbers. And, if what we’re really doing is adding a little bit of coffee to a large cup of steamed milk (with a few tablespoons of flavored syrups on top!) the results can be pretty dramatic. Dieters beware the trendy cup!

So is coffee the new health food? Perhaps. What’s increasingly clear, as we continue to learn about coffee and its complex constituent components and compounds, we find far more benefits than risks. For most people — in moderation — coffee is good for you. Abundantly so.