Coffee lovers rejoice! New research says the benefits far outweigh the risks

by Nicky Pellegrino / 04 July, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - Coffee benefits risks research

Coffee lover rejoice. Photo/Getty Images

Savour your morning cup of coffee – new research from the UK's National Cancer Institute says even the heaviest coffee drinkers are likely to live longer than those who don’t drink it at all.

For many of us, a day hasn’t properly started until we’ve had our first cup of coffee. However, many think of caffeine as an addictive substance. Many integrative health practitioners view it as a toxin that ought to be eliminated from diets. They argue that it is nutrient-depleting, promotes inflammation and contributes to everything from mood disorders to poor digestive health.

In April, pregnant women were warned off coffee altogether by Norwegian researchers who linked consumption of medium to high levels of caffeine during pregnancy with infant weight gain. This led to numerous clickbait newspaper headlines, but it hasn’t resulted in changes to existing guidelines.

Why? A major limitation of the study is that it failed to adjust for bottle-feeding or breastfeeding, which can affect growth rates, says Tom Sanders, professor of nutrition and dietetics at King’s College London. “Also, the women with the highest caffeine intakes were older, more likely to be poorly educated or obese prior to pregnancy, and to smoke during pregnancy.”

Pregnant women are still advised to limit their caffeine intake to two small cups a day, but for healthy, non-pregnant adults, drinking moderate amounts of coffee can be good.

Coffee beans are rich in polyphenols; they contain higher concentrations of these antioxidants than blackberries or kale. Unfortunately, polyphenols are heat-sensitive and roasting destroys a lot of them, so lighter roasts are a better option than nutty, smoky dark ones.

Tom Sanders.

The type of bean can make a difference, too, as the cheaper robusta bean is higher in beneficial compounds, called chlorogenic acids, than the prized arabica bean. Drinking filter coffee instead of espresso increases polyphenols and removes substances that contribute to “bad” low-density lipoprotein cholesterol.

So, how much coffee is safe? A study at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health found no increased risk of death from any cause, including cancer or cardiovascular disease, for people drinking up to six cups a day – although we’re talking about a small cup containing 100mg of caffeine and not a triple shot latte. However more recently researchers at the UK’s National Cancer Institute concluded that even the heaviest coffee drinkers are likely to live longer than those who don’t drink it at all and that includes those whose preferred cup is decaf or instant.

A coffee bean contains hundreds of different compounds, and recent science shows various benefits. For instance, a 2015 review of 12 studies showed coffee had a protective effect against depression – more than most teas. That is possibly because several of the natural acids in coffee reduce inflammation in the brain.

Other studies have found coffee drinkers have a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, several cancers, including colorectal, breast, uterine and liver, and Parkinson’s disease.

Your cognitive health will also get a boost from coffee: studies link drinking 3-4 cups a day in midlife with a significant reduction in the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, again most likely because it is blocking inflammation in the brain that can spark a decline.

Even if you already have mild memory impairment, moderate coffee consumption can slow its progress.

There has been some concern about a chemical called acrylamide, which is produced when the beans are roasted. It has been identified as a probable cause of cancer – which is another reason to opt for a lighter roast. However, new research by the World Health Organisation, evaluating 1000 studies, found that there is inadequate evidence that coffee is carcinogenic.

Fears that coffee adversely affects gut health also appear to be unfounded. In fact, the opposite may be true, as studies have shown consumption can increase numbers of beneficial bacteria and improve microbial diversity.

Some people have a gene that metabolises caffeine particularly fast – about four times faster than those with the slow variant of the gene. Slow metabolisers may experience adverse effects, such as high blood pressure and wakefulness if they drink coffee at night.

New Zealanders sip their way through 3.7kg of coffee a person each year, so it pays to remember that caffeine is a stimulant and drinking too much can result in anxiety, headaches, high blood pressure and palpitations. And don’t forget that energy drinks, chocolate and tea are all sources of caffeine, too.

This is an updated version of an article first published in the July 7, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela on the tragedy of post-apartheid South Africa
108416 2019-07-17 00:00:00Z Profiles

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela on the tragedy of post-apa…

by Clare de Lore

Scathing critic of South African Government corruption Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, here to give a public lecture, has insights about forgiveness after...

Read more
Writer Robert Macfarlane finds deeps truths in Underland
108287 2019-07-17 00:00:00Z Books

Writer Robert Macfarlane finds deeps truths in Und…

by Tony Murrow

In a new book, Robert Macfarlane heads underground to ponder mankind’s effect on the planet.

Read more
Why extra virgin olive oil is back on the menu for frying
108203 2019-07-17 00:00:00Z Nutrition

Why extra virgin olive oil is back on the menu for…

by Jennifer Bowden

For decades, the word in the kitchen has been that olive oil shouldn’t be used for frying, but new research could change that.

Read more
Abstract artist Gretchen Albrecht's true colours
108108 2019-07-16 00:00:00Z Profiles

Abstract artist Gretchen Albrecht's true colours

by Linda Herrick

Gretchen Albrecht paintings may be intangible, but they are triggered by real-life experience, she tells Linda Herrick.

Read more
That's a Bit Racist is playful, but it packs a punch
108435 2019-07-16 00:00:00Z Television

That's a Bit Racist is playful, but it packs a pun…

by Diana Wichtel

The taboo-busting doco is trying to change our default settings on race, but some people aren't stoked.

Read more
Are there too many tourists in NZ?
108444 2019-07-16 00:00:00Z Life in NZ

Are there too many tourists in NZ?

by North & South

Here's what's inside North and South's August 2019 issue.

Read more
Huawei's dogged determination: Can it make a breakthrough in New Zealand?
108428 2019-07-16 00:00:00Z Tech

Huawei's dogged determination: Can it make a break…

by Peter Griffin

The tech company at the centre of a trade war between the US and China is willing to go to extraordinary lengths to prove it can be trusted.

Read more
The many miracles of Aretha Franklin movie Amazing Grace
108368 2019-07-15 00:00:00Z Movies

The many miracles of Aretha Franklin movie Amazing…

by Russell Baillie

A long-lost concert movie capturing Lady Soul in her prime is heading to the New Zealand International Film Festival.

Read more