The aroma alone can be enough to soothe its die hard fans. It has the power to stop them mid step, turn them around and then nudge turn them gently towards their local coffee shop to exchange pounds for magic beans. Yes we’re talking about the black gold that is coffee.
In the UK coffee is big business. 55 million cups of it are drunk daily and in 2016 the coffee shop market in the UK was worth £3.4 billion. Yet coffee is one of those foodstuffs that has many of us stumped. Is it good for us, or is it a ticking time bomb for our health? A look at online articles offers up a variety of conflicting viewpoints. So what’s the truth? Is coffee a keeper or is it time to kiss it goodbye?
Coffee has been dubbed a superfood, as it contains a host of beneficial nutrients which include riboflavin, pantothenic acid, manganese, potassium, magnesium and niacin. In it’s unprocessed state, coffee beans contain over a thousand health-giving antioxidants and when roasted they surprisingly unleash more. These antioxidants are instrumental in helping to prevent cell damage.
As a result, many experts wax lyrical about this mighty bean; it’s even been linked to a reduced risk for death from various causes including heart disease. Joe DeRupo, a spokesman for the National Coffee Association says, “It’s these (antioxidant) compounds that science links with positive effects in reducing the risk of several diseases.” Professor Peter Hayes, of the University of Edinburgh, states that, “In moderation, coffee can be a wonderful natural medicine.” Scientific studies do indeed confirm that coffee is associated with a lower risk of several diseases.
One of the first of these is cancer. Coffee drinkers have been found to have a lower risk for some cancers. This includes a 20% reduced risk of developing a form of liver cancer known as hepatocellular cancer (HCC). This reduction has been attributed to the fat soluble compounds cafestol and kahweol found in coffee which increase activity of the liver enzymes that are believed to improve the metabolism and excretion of carcinogens. It is also thought that caffeine may play a role in helping to minimise HCC cell multiplication and polyphenols which have anti carcinogenic properties that may help to improve oxidative DNA damage.
Coffee also appears to have a positive effect on colorectal, endometrial, prostate, skin and womb cancers. According to a 2013 study, women who drink a daily cup of coffee, have a reduced risk of the womb cancer. Whilst this is positive news for coffee drinkers, not everyone is a believer of the miraculous properties of the coffee bean.
In late 2013, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration released a consumer warning on acrylamide, a carcinogen found in coffee, cigarette smoke and some fried foods which causes tumours and a high incidence of cancer in animals. According to the joint Food and Agriculture Organisation/World Health Organisation expert committee on food additives it ‘may be a human health concern’. Acrylamide is a natural byproduct of the coffee roasting process and it develops when foods with the amino acid asparagine and sugar are cooked at temperatures of over 248 degrees Fahrenheit (120 degrees Celsius).
The American non profit organisation, The Council for Education and Research on Toxics (CERT), feel so strongly about the potential dangers of acrylamide that they initiated a lawsuit in 2010 in the hope of making coffee retailers in California follow a state law - Proposition 65 - by adding a warning label to their coffees for the presence of hazardous chemicals.
The coffee industry responded by refuting the dangers of acrylamide in coffee. They have claimed that the carcinogen in coffee is present ‘at harmless levels and is outweighed by benefits from drinking coffee.’ They also point out that levels of acrylamide are dramatically reduced after ground coffee is brewed.
Coffee has shown some positive signs in the fight against diabetes. A 2009 study of 40,000 participants showed that drinking three cups of tea or coffee a day could lead to a 40% lower risk for developing type 2 diabetes.
An earlier study from Finland, which has one of the highest rate of coffee consumption globally, followed 14,000 people over a twelve year period. This study discovered that men who drank ten or more cups of coffee a day, had a 55% lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes than men who drank two or less cups of coffee. Women who drank ten or more cups per day experienced a 79% lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes than women who drank two or less cups daily.
It’s thought that it is the antioxidant polyphenols and their anti-inflammatory properties alongside the magnesium, which has been linked to lower rates of type 2 diabetes, that help to reduce a person’s likelihood to succumb to the disease.
In a study appearing in ACS's Journal of Natural Products researchers delved further into the anti diabetic properties of coffee. They discovered that daily consumption of cafestol not only delayed the onset of Type 2 diabetes in laboratory mice, it also didn't cause hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, which is a possible side effect of some antidiabetic medications. They concluded that cafestol was a good candidate for drug development to treat or prevent diabetes in humans.
It’s important to note however, that drinking coffee may not be so good for people who actually live with diabetes. According to a study from Duke university, caffeine can, in the short term increase both glucose and insulin levels in type 2 diabetics.
Dementia and Alzheimer’s
In the Cardiovascular Risk Factors, Ageing and Dementia study (which exists to investigate the lifestyle, and cardiovascular risk factors for Alzheimer’s, dementia, and structural changes in the brain), middle-aged people who drank three to five cups of coffee a day, had a 65% reduced risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in later life. The caffeine in coffee is though to prevent beta-amyloid plaque build-up that can contribute to the beginning and the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
There is hope that discoveries such as this may lead to future breakthroughs that may prevent or delay the onset of Alzheimer’s and dementia.
The National Health Service however, have voiced their concerns at the possible inaccuracies of these findings saying that the results for the studies looking into the effects of coffee on brain disease are likely to have been influenced by chance and that more research is needed.
A Better Cup of Coffee
Coffee isn’t recommended for everyone. There are special risk groups, which include pregnant women and men and women trying for a baby. A 2016 study conducted by National Institute of Health researchers found a link between caffeine, miscarriage and low birth weight.
It’s also recommended for women aged 65+ to reduce their intake of coffee as research found that drinking four or more cups of coffee daily made them more likely to have almost three times as many hip fractures over the next six years compared to women who abstained. Older adults may also need to be wary of the blood pressure raising effects of caffeine and the risk of caffeine and drug interactions.
Outside of this, the benefits of coffee do seem to outweigh any negatives and people who drink three to four coffees daily are more likely to see health advantages than problems compared to non coffee drinkers. However, not all coffees are equal. If you want to ensure that you’re reaping the full benefits of this superfood and drinking the best coffee of your life here are some preparation tips.
Select coffee from Kenya, Ethiopia, Brazil and Colombia. These countries are close to the equator so they tend to have warmer temperatures all year coupled with nutrient rich, volcanic soil. This climate and terrain results in a lighter coffee bean with higher levels of anti inflammatory and antioxidant rich polyphenols.
Choose lighter roasts. They’re not only higher in polyphenols, they’re also more flavourful.
Buy fresh, ripe beans and store them whole. Instead of refrigerating them, keep them fresh by storing them whole in an opaque, airtight glass or ceramic container in a cool dark place.
Alternatively, ask for your coffee to be packed in a nitrogen-flushed bag which will prevent oxidation and help to preserve the taste of your beans for a few months until you're ready to roast them. Once roasted, your coffee will be at it’s best for two days to two weeks.
Pay attention to how your grind your beans. If they’re ground coarsely, your coffee will taste weak and will become loose polyphenols. If however, they’re ground too fine, your coffee can taste bitter. A medium-level coarseness is best.
Grind only what you need at any one time to achieve the flavour of freshly ground beans.
Use filtered water so that you can avoid contaminants and 99% of chlorine whilst retaining key minerals.
Brew your coffee at the right temperature for the perfect cup. The ideal temperatures for brewing are between 91°C (196°F) and 96°C (205°F). Water cooler than 91°C (196°F) will under extract, resulting in tasteless and weak coffee. An easy way to judge the correct water temperature is to remove your kettle from heat for about thirty to sixty seconds after boiling. This will lower the temperature to close to the recommended range.
Avoid cream, milk and sugar in your coffee. Cream and milk can lower the amount of polyphenols in your coffee and sweetener takes away the benefits of diabetes prevention.
If you’d rather avoid caffeine, you can still drink decaffeinated coffee which has high levels of polyphenols.
Rinsing coffee machines and makers with vinegar and hot water, will make your next cup of coffee more robust and flavourful.
Written by Susie Vandi.