Healthy and energizing or harmful and addictive – you’ll hear it both ways when it comes to examining the long-term effects of coffee and antioxidants.
Quick Scientific Summary
Here is what independent peer-reviewed studies show about regular coffee drinkers:
While you may have heard a variety of myths about both the benefits and drawbacks of drinking coffee, you should only trust authoritative, scientific sources when it comes to delineating coffee’s extended health effects. Science has a story to tell about coffee and its antioxidant content, so we should listen in carefully – even if it means going against our preconceived notions.
In so many words, coffee is neither “good” or “bad” for your health in straight forward terms. Instead, there are both benefits and drawbacks to enjoying this cornerstone beverage that are more likely to scale with increased levels of consumption.
Take some time to review our evidence for both perspectives and use what you’ve learned to modify your current coffee drinking habits appropriately. No matter what course of action you take, remember that no single food or drink – not even coffee – can magically enhance your health on its own.
What are Antioxidants?
Antioxidants are not a particular nutritional compound of their own, first and foremost. Rather, antioxidant is used to describe how some nutrients act in intercepting free radical particles released during food absorption.
Antioxidants have been puffed up in the media recently as a viable solution to preventing the so-called cell aging process. There’s some truth in this view, as both natural and man-made antioxidants hold the ability to prevent deteriorating cell damage, according to Medline Plus from the US National Library of Medicine. Most noteworthy antioxidants include beta-carotene, lutein, lycopene, selenium, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E.
On their own, antioxidants from nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables have been found to decrease the risk of some diseases. Vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene have been linked to decreasing age-related macular degeneration, for example, according to the Harvard School of Health.
However, results in many other studies were broadly inconclusive, indicating a negotiable or zero net benefits from intaking extra antioxidants. Vitamin E and other antioxidant supplements have been found on multiple occasions to provide minimal to no added protection against heart disease and cancer.
So, antioxidant properties can be described as bodily beneficial in some limited terms. However, when it comes to major ailments, antioxidant properties simply have not been clearly correlated with improved health outcomes.
In many cases, individuals are better off eating a diet rich in the fruits and vegetables that provide antioxidants in order to reach the vitamin-rich benefits of those foods.
Antioxidants in Coffee – What Does Science Say?
In blanket terms, coffee does contain antioxidants by virtue of its natural origins in coffee beans. While the precise antioxidant content can vary from one bean type to another, folks looking for an extra antioxidant boost can certainly find it in coffee.
In fact, one study published in the Journal of Medicine in 2004 pointed to an interesting conclusion – that coffee contained more extra antioxidants than several popular fruits and vegetables. Moreover, this study found that coffee outranked both tea and wine in terms of providing antioxidants to test subjects.
This leads to the broad conclusion that folks in search of antioxidants should be drinking a few cups of coffee per day. However, this same study tempers its results by indicating that this heightened antioxidant concentration in its test subjects was due to the fact nearly 64% of their daily antioxidant intake was coming from coffee alone.
So, to this end, coffee can be described as providing a firm concentration of antioxidants, especially for many average, working-class individuals. In at least one study, coffee’s antioxidant levels have been shown to outstrip other popular beverages and health foods.
That being said, scientific evidence on this front is a mixed bag that shouldn’t be presented without the full burden of evidence. Case and point, a study published in 2013 by the Molecular Diversity Preservation Institute that found coffee’s antioxidant levels to be comparable, if not less than, common consumer drinks like red wine, cocoa, and tea.
Moreover, this same study found that green, unprocessed coffee beans actually contained a heightened level of antioxidants that some consumers may find desirable. However, some of those naturally formed antioxidants were found to dissolve during the coffee production process, namely the heating that denatured those antioxidizing molecules.
While some polymeric antioxidants such as melanoidin were found to arise during the coffee production process, this study concludes that coffee’s ability to pass along antioxidants is a net neutral affair that should not receive specialized attention from the health and nutrition community.
Coffee – Good or Bad for Your Health?
To put matters briefly, to describe coffee as good or bad for one’s health in wrought terms is a firm oversimplification that neither accounts for the full body of evidence nor individual health histories. As noted above, evidence exists supporting the belief that antioxidants – including those found in coffee – improve some health outcomes. Evidence also supports the belief that these health benefits are isolated, especially as it derives from coffee.
As such, you should take some extra time to consider both the potential health benefits and the potential health drawbacks that may derive from your existing coffee drinking habits. While no one activity, such as coffee drinking, will make or break your health record, you should be mindful of how much and how often you enjoy the drink in order to balance both positive and negative outcomes.
A Case for Positive Health Benefits
Thousands of studies on coffee consumption have been performed over the last several decades and many point to promising conclusions regarding the drink’s potent health benefits. As noted by the Harvard Medical School, coffee studies have drawn interesting connections consumption and decreased rates of depression in women as well as lower rates of lethal prostate cancer among men.
Harvard Medical School also points to other potential health benefits deriving from coffee’s many microscopic properties. One noteworthy finding shows a connection between coffee consumption and a 25% decrease in risk of late-life Parkinson’s disease. While the exact source of this benefit was not identified, evidence points to the increased brain activity associated with coffee consumption rather than a particular nutrient source.
Regarding its antioxidant properties, coffee may provide other narrow health benefits worth consideration. For example, while “cancer” risk has not broadly been shown to decrease with coffee consumption, some studies detailed by the Harvard Medical School indicate a decreased risk of endometrial, aggressive prostate, and estrogen-negative breast cancers among coffee drinkers.
So, in a broad sense, coffee can be described as being “good” for one’s health in so far as it has been linked to several macroscopic health benefits. While antioxidants play a role in these health benefits, other positive qualities may be attributed to brain activity associated with caffeine consumption.
A Case for Negative Health Drawbacks
While coffee’s health benefits have been more widely covered in the media, coffee’s potentially harmful side effects have taken a back seat. While coffee is not going to act as a direct detriment to one’s health as smoking or excessive alcohol consumption may, it can lead to some noteworthy drawback that routine coffee drinkers should seriously consider.
Most notably, coffee’s caffeine content can lead to the largest health drawbacks for average consumers. As noted by AARP, caffeine dependency and addiction are as detrimental as other forms of dependence and addiction, leading to increased intake over time that surfaces further health drawbacks. Coffee’s caffeine content can also lead to sleep cycle interruptions, such as insomnia.
Linda Massey, emeritus professor of nutrition at Washington State University, also notes that coffee’s caffeine content can lead to some types of bone loss in older women (who often already live with deficient calcium levels). As such, coffee’s acute health effects are more likely to increase with age.
Finally, as AARP notes, coffee tends to increase blood sugar levels, making it harder for folks with type 2 diabetes to manage their insulin. This is to say little of its deteriorating effects of teeth.
The Bottom Line
In the end, coffee can neither be called a health drink nor a health detriment. Coffee carries some noteworthy health benefits related to disease prevention that warrant further study, especially those relating to its antioxidant content. On the other hand, coffee carries some health drawbacks that are liable to increase with age and volume consumption.
If you have questions about how your coffee habit could affect your health, speak with your general practitioner and ask how your personal health history may be affected by coffee’s mixed track record. For many, a healthy balance can be struck that optimizes the positive health benefits against the negative drawbacks through moderate consumption.
Anthony is a professional barista in the city of Chicago. He has written for many online publications on various topics related to coffee.