The case for coffee consumption

[podcast][/podcast]I first wrote about coffee in a science column back in the dawn of time, so long ago that it began, “Let’s get one thing straight.  I don’t drink coffee…”

Since as I type this I am on my second…or maybe third… good-sized cup (oh, all right, mug) of the stuff, something has clearly changed in the intervening years.

And guess what? Apparently that’s all to the good of my health.

Oh, I know, anyone of adult years remembers news stories about coffee drinking being bad for you, but as more research is done, quite the contrary has emerged as the scientific consensus: drinking coffee is good for you. To the extent that The Atlantic recently ran an article by Lindsay Abrams headlined, “The Case for Drinking as Much Coffee as You Like.”

(It’s an article packed with links to the original material, which I’ve tried to include in the summary below, as well, so you don’t have to take Abrams’s—or my—word for it.)

The benefits, Abrams says, extend “from preventing Alzheimer’s disease to protecting the liver“ and research findings, taken together, “suggest we should embrace coffee for reasons beyond the benefits of caffeine, and that we might go so far as to consider it a nutrient.”

First, a few basics, drawn from my own earlier column, about this amazing substance I am currently guzzling.

The coffee plant is an evergreen shrub with waxy leaves that produces small red “cherries,” each containing two coffee “beans.”  A tree only produces two kilograms of fruit a year, which in turn yields less than half a kilogram of coffee.

Although there are many varieties of coffee plant, two species, arabica and robusta, account for 99 percent of the world’s output.  The robusta plant is hardier, but its beans have a harsher taste, so arabica beans are used for premium coffees.

Coffee cherries are only picked when fully ripe, which means they must be picked by hand.  Robusta cherries remain on the tree after they ripen, but arabica cherries will fall to the ground and spoil, which means they must be very carefully watched and frequently picked over–one reason arabica coffee is more expensive.

The pulp is removed from the beans either by drying the cherries or by washing and mashing them up.  The two methods produce distinctive flavors.

Once dried, the gray-green beans are sorted, bagged, graded and shipped to processors for either continuous roasting, in which hot air at between 200 and 260 degrees Celsius is forced through a small quantity of beans for about five minutes, or batch roasting, in which much larger quantities are roasted for a longer time.  Beans roasted for a long time are stronger and mellower.

After which, of course, the beans are ground, producing a powder that is a complex mixture of more than 100 different proteins, starches, oils and aromatic and bitter chemicals, and steeped in hot water to make the delicious beverage so many of us enjoy.

And the health benefits?

The most recent findings, as Abrams notes in her Atlantic article, will appear in the December issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Conducted over 20 years, this study found that coffee consumption—regardless of caffeine content—was associated with an eight percent decrease in the risk of Type 2 diabetes in women. In men, the reduction was four percent for regular coffee and seven percent for decaf. (A word of warning: if you add a lot of cream and sugar to your coffee, you’re probably negating whatever anti-diabetes effect the coffee itself might be having.)

There’s more: a meta-analysis found an inverse association between habitual, moderate consumption of coffee and the risk of heart failure, peaking at about four cups a day. There’s a study that indicates caffeine might function as a pain reliever, another that finds it helps reduce the rate of depression in women, another that links coffee consumption to a reduced risk of metabolic syndrome.

There’s research showing that coffee consumption can provide some protection against various types of cancer and fatty liver disease. Drinking coffee during your road trip breaks can make you a safer driver. It can make your workout more effective. Although coffee does nothing to make a drunk person sober (all you end up with is a wide-awake drunk), upping coffee intake seems to help people enrolled in Alcoholics Anonymous stay sober.

Of course there may still be some negative effects to drinking coffee—nothing, as Abrams says, can be all good—but “the evidence remains overwhelmingly in coffee’s favor.”

A study published in May in the New England Journal of Medicine, she concludes, “looked at hundreds of thousands of men and women and found this bottom-line result: people who drank coffee lived longer than those who didn’t. And the more they drank, the longer they lived.”

My mug is empty. Clearly, it’s time to refill it.

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