It may be time to take coffee off the list of life's guilty pleasures. New studies indicate that moderate coffee drinkers can not only enjoy their morning java jolt, but they may also get significant health benefits in the process.
This is good news for the millions of people who cannot seem to get through the day without an infusion of caffeine. Coffee is one of the few drinks that is universal. From cafes in Paris to truck stops in Japan to pubs in New South Wales, whether served as a hot, black shot of espresso, diluted with milk and sugar, or rendered virtually unrecognizable in a Starbucks' Caramel Macchiato, more than $70 billion worth of coffee is sold every year, according to the London-based International Coffee Organization. In the U.S. alone —which is the world's largest coffee consumer — the National Coffee Association of U.S.A. estimates that retail sales alone are $19.2 billion.
Despite earlier beliefs that coffee has negative health effects, it is becoming increasingly clear that the opposite is in fact the case. Coffee consumption is now being linked to the lowered occurrence of cases of certain cancers and chronic diseases. One study, conducted by the Harvard University School of Public Health, shows that the risk for developing Type II diabetes is lower among regular coffee drinkers. There are even studies that link coffee to added endurance during physical workouts.
High in antioxidants
"The problem is that there is a preconceived notion that coffee is bad. It arrived relatively early when the studies weren't at the level of current studies," says Peter R. Martin, a professor of psychiatry and pharmacology at Vanderbilt University. "There's no compelling evidence that shows it's harmful, and everyday there's more evidence that shows coffee is beneficial."
But that isn't an excuse for a person to increase their coffee intake. It means that a moderate daily dose could very well be justified, as long as one keeps in mind that too much coffee can make a person jittery and uncomfortable.
According to the NCA, 80 percent of Americans drink coffee, and more than half of the population drinks it every day. It's the popularity of coffee that makes it the main source of antioxidants for Americans.
"Plants produce a lot of antioxidants. These compounds prevent the sun from causing free-radical damage to the plants," says Professor Joe Vinson of the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania. "That's why they may be good for the human body. I think antioxidants are the actual major causes of decreases in diseases. We consume fats and sugars that produce free radicals, and vitamins can't fight them alone. They need antioxidants."
Vinson and his team studied the content of antioxidants in various foods, like vegetables, fruits, tea and cocoa. They eventually decided to look at coffee as well. When they did, they found that both regular and decaffeinated coffee contain significant amounts of antioxidants, though Vinson does note that fruits and vegetables are more nutritious sources.
Lowered risk of certain diseases
What kind of health benefits can people expect to receive from drinking coffee? According to Martin, "Predominantly in epidemiologic studies, there have been associations between coffee consumption and lowered rates of certain illnesses, like suicide, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's, Type II diabetes, colon cancer and heart disease." (Epidemiologic studies are often historical trials that are not considered definitive by clinicians.)
While it doesn't matter what type of roast a person drinks — the benefits come from both Arabica or Robusta beans — Dr. Ernesto Illy, honorary chairman of espresso giant illycaffe S.p.A, whose coffee is sold in over 80 countries, says quality is what makes drinking coffee so pleasurable.
Dr. Illy has been drinking coffee all of his life and, at the age of 80, he's healthy and drinks four cups per day. His family-owned, Trieste-based company uses only the more expensive Arabica bean, combining quality and science to create what he calls a perfect cup of coffee. To him, aroma and taste are the key to enjoyment.
While more studies are being conducted to further explore coffee's effects, plenty of benefits are already known. Now if only the same could be said of martinis ...