The last 25 years has seen the growth of a cottage industry in the study of the health effects of drinking
coffee. And no wonder - over 400 million cups a day are consumed throughout the world. But for decades
health workers warned that the habit might be unsafe. Recent studies show the opposite is more likely to be
Caffeine, one of the main ingredients in coffee, has long been known to be a mild stimulant. That can raise
blood pressure, increase heart rate and produce the occasional irregular beat. But most researchers now
believe the effect is mild and short-lived.
By contrast, the emerging data about the health benefits of coffee consumption are numerous and diverse.
There's strong evidence that coffee reduces the odds of developing colon cancer, but only at higher levels of
consumption - four cups a day or more. That much intake may well outweigh the benefits.
But other benefits accrue even at moderate levels of coffee drinking.
Coffee, like wine, contains antioxidants that help prevent heart disease and certain cancers by removing
cell-destroying oxygen radicals from the blood. Some studies say the concentration of antioxidants is greater
than that found in cranberries, apples or tomatoes. Scientists, however, point to the many other valuable
vitamins, minerals and fibers in fruits and vegetables.
Apart from the obvious contribution to mental alertness, Chinese studies strongly suggest that coffee can even
help reduce the effects of Parkinson's disease.
American and Scandinavian studies both suggest that decaf and regular coffee help reduce the risk of type-2
diabetes. Good news for the Scandinavians who have the highest per capita consumption in the world.
There's some evidence that coffee may reduce the risk of developing kidney stones and gallstones. Other
digestive system benefits have been seen, as well. Caffeine increases the secretion of stomach acid, which
Caffeine has been shown to reduce constriction of airways in asthma sufferers, with moderate consumption.
In addition to the caffeine, coffee contains theophylline, a bronchodilator which helps the effect.
But those benefits, not surprisingly, come with risks.
Though mammalian sperm swim faster, longer and farther in fluids laced with coffee some studies link heavy
coffee drinking with reduced fertility.
Increased coffee consumption has been associated with higher blood levels of homocysteine, recently shown
to be a risk factor for coronary heart disease. Other studies show an increase in LDL-cholesterol (the
'harmful' kind). To what degree these factors actually contribute to heart attacks is a matter of debate.
Coffee contains cafestol, which is known to raise cholesterol levels, mainly in coffee made by the European
method of boiling ground beans in water. Percolated or filtered coffee, favored by most Americans, however,
removes it. Decaf coffee may be an exception.
Women who drink coffee lose more calcium and tend to have less dense bones than non-caffeine consumers.
Those who drink four or more cups per day also have twice the risk of urinary incontinence.
All in all, though, most agree that the benefits - at least at moderate consumption levels - outweigh the risks.
By the way, for those heavy drinkers looking for a substitute, colas contain one-third the amount of caffeine
per ounce. But somehow drinking a Coke instead of a Latte doesn't seem worth the risk.
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