New research that suggests a cup of coffee can extend our lives has had people rushing to their cafetieres and coffee shops. Our nutrition editor looks at the evidence that’s brewing
Through the ages, negative health claims for coffee have been off the dial. They include: going blind (1800s), stunting growth (1916), and adversely affecting your children’s academic grades (1927). Fast forward to the 1970s and a study revealed that drinking five cups or more a day increased your risk of heart disease by a staggering 60%.
In the wake of such historically negative press, it must be a relief to both coffee makers and coffee lovers worldwide that this much-loved beverage has currently taken on the mantel of a lifesaver, rather than general life wrecker.
What the new research reveals
Two studies – one in America, the other in 10 European countries – have found a link between coffee consumption and risk of death, regardless of ethnicity and the way coffee was prepared. The results were published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
The US study looked at the coffee-drinking habits of more than 185,000 people who drank two to four cups a day and found they had an 18% lower risk of death, compared with people who avoided the beverage. The participants included African-Americans, Native Americans, Hawaiians, Japanese-Americans, Latinos and whites.
In Europe a similar trend emerged during the study period, revealing that coffee drinkers had lower levels of inflammation, healthier lipid profiles, better glucose control and lower rates of death than non-coffee drinkers.
The positive effects
Having taken into account other individual risk factors for health problems and death, such as smoking, exercise, diabetes and heart disease, it seems possible that it’s the antioxidants and plant compounds in coffee that may be providing these health-boosting effects.
Marc Gunter, reader in cancer epidemiology and prevention at Imperial College’s School of Public Health, explains: ‘The fact that we saw the same relationships in different countries is kind of the implication that it’s something about coffee, rather than something about the way that coffee is prepared or the way it’s drunk.’
In spite of the hype and excitement surrounding the research, the Annals of Internal Medicine are themselves as a publication keen to point out the limitations of the work. They particularly single out the fact the studies are based on one single report of coffee-drinking behaviour, which may naturally have changed over time, and may not have been accurate in the first place.
The journal concludes that, while coffee cannot be touted as being ‘good’ for your health on the back of this most current research, it does suggest that for many people, no long-term harm will come from enjoying your favourite brand a few times a day.
Just hold off on adding cream, syrups and sugar!