Health News Digest

December 21, 2009

A Look At The Health Effects Of Coffee:  Plenty Of Information To Drink In

Cup of Coffee

By  Michael D. Shaw

Second in consumption only to water itself, coffee is enjoyed by at least one-third of all people on the planet. No doubt, its popularity derives from the stimulating effect of caffeine, which can be present in amounts of up to 2.5 percent in the bean, depending on the particular variety.

Legend has it that the beverage was discovered by an Arabian goatherd named Kaldi in 850 AD, who wondered why his flock was dancing around a certain evergreen bush with red berries in such an animated fashion. Kaldi sampled some of the berries and was perhaps the first human to experience the caffeine buzz.

By the mid to late 17th century, coffeehouses were popular in both Europe and the North American colonies. Improved roasting and packaging methods would follow in the early 20th century.

As to health effects, the first thing most of us—of a certain age—would hear about the beverage is that it would “stunt your growth.” While most kids laughed this off, there was also disturbing talk of it promoting heart disease, cancer, and host of other conditions.

Possibly, the most scary finding emerged in 1981, when a group from the Harvard School of Public Health, led by Dr. Brian MacMahon, linked coffee consumption to an increased risk of getting pancreatic cancer. Specifically, he found that three cups per day increased the risk by a factor of 2.7, and went on to speculate that coffee drinking was the cause of 50% of all pancreatic cancers.

However, a number of researchers tried to duplicate MacMahon’s results, and failed to do so. In fact, MacMahon’s team was unable to replicate the results, and later retracted their findings. It seems that there were problems with the way the control group was established. Indeed, in some quarters, the original 1981 study is used as a textbook example of poor methodology, not to mention over-hyped findings.

So, what DO we know—or think we know—at present, bearing in mind that more than 19,000 studies have been done on coffee’s health effects?

  • Caffeinated coffee does seem to be protective against several forms of cancer.
  • Caffeinated coffee seems to protect men, but not women, against Parkinson’s disease.
  • Heavy coffee (and tea) drinkers might be half as likely to get diabetes as light or non-drinkers, and this is apparently not because of caffeine.
  • Caffeine is associated with enhanced athletic and academic performance, perhaps by keeping participants more wide-awake.
  • The trigonelline (an alkaloid) in coffee can prevent dental cavities.
  • Caffeinated coffee seems to reduce the risk of developing gallstones.

For many people, though, the caffeine puts them on edge, or even keeps them up at night, since caffeine can disrupt sleep cycles, causing less deep sleep. Thus, the popularity of decaffeinated coffee and lately decaffeinated tea.

In addition to caffeine, millions (some studies say one in five coffee drinkers) are affected by coffee’s acidity, which can promote stomach upset and acid reflux. A number of brands have entered this space, including Woodland, CA based Puroast Coffee Inc. Unlike many of its competitors, Puroast’s low-acid claim has been verified in independent tests by Dr. Taka Shibamoto, a food scientist at the University of California, Davis, and is a result of a proprietary process.

Considering that many acid reflux sufferers are no strangers to their local drug store, Puroast’s products are available at many pharmacies, in addition to the normal food outlets. It is noted that many low-acid coffees and coffee substitutes have achieved greater prominence since Postum (dating back to 1895) was taken off the market by Kraft Foods in 2007.

Most authorities agree that coffee is not harmful, and is probably beneficial to a majority of people. Certainly, any individual reactions to caffeine and acid should be taken into account, and alternative products can be considered.

As to the goats, people have had mixed results in attempting to replicate the Kaldi legend. Maybe you know a high school student who could do it as a science fair project.