Is coffee a health drink?

No. Not yet. But the relentless good news regarding coffee consumption makes not drinking coffee seem like a health risk.

In the past, many of us were persuaded to ween ourselves off coffee, or at least whittle our consumption to the odd shame- and terror-filled brew because to not do so was to invite all manner of horrible health outcomes that coffee was somehow in league with helping to trigger, exacerbate or accelerate: cancers, heart attacks, nervous disorders; you name it. Coffee's gonna get ya.

Now, what seems like all of a sudden, Coffee's New Age of Good Cheer is upon us according to the sheer number of recent studies trumpeting its benefits. Last week alone, the Harvard School of Public Health connected a daily coffee habit (including decaf) to longevity and another, from Australia's Monash University, as a way to spare the liver from alcohol [See: Coffee fixes the damage booze did to your liver, study finds].

In the last few years, coffee has emerged as not so bad after all, to an outright winner teeming with goodness. Among its virtues, it is tentatively touted as a risk reducer for: depression, type 2 diabetes, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's; heart and cardiovascular disease, stroke; liver, colorectal, endometrial and prostate cancer, basal cell carcinoma of the skin, neurological diseases, gout (it’s making a comeback), tooth decay and gallstones. Coffee is also, apparently, the biggest source of antioxidants in a standard Western diet. Its nutritional value breakdown: vitamin B2, B5, manganese and potassium, magnesium and niacin. Can you believe this? Go and pour yourself a cup of joe, right now!

How? How did our favourite guilty pleasure move from villain to ally? And does this mean we can go nuts and caffeinate from dawn to dusk or do we still have to make room for plain water? What's the catch?

Predictably, there is one.

The undiluted benefits apply to coffee taken unsweetened and black. Forget those over-caffeinated, calorific, multi-adjective coffeehouse beasts; we're talking good quality beans and a straight-up joe here. That's right. No sugar, no cream (perhaps a dribble of milk for risk-takers). There aren't any studies for coffee beverages that replace dairy with almond, coconut or soy as yet (therefore, hope remains). Basically, the more you add to your black coffee, the less 'good' it becomes. Does coffee increase cholesterol (still)? Yes. In the short-term, it does. To guard against this effect opt for filters. French press, Scandinavian or cowboy-style boiled coffee does not capture cafestol, the component of coffee independent of caffeine responsible for the elevated levels of cholesterol we associate with our morning fix - but - those increased cholesterol levels aren’t cause for panic if you’re consuming in moderation. Continue to be mindful, however, during pregnancy and if underlying health issues are a concern.

What about ill-effects? And how much is too much?

Despite the fact coffee is a champion of long life, robust brain activity and joie de vivre, it's not for everyone and never has been. If its effect is problematic - tremors, anxiety, nausea and so on - avoid it as you would. Genetically, some of us are predisposed to a sensitivity that makes coffee drinking unwise and unenjoyable; whereas others are genetically predisposed to coffee compatibility. Harvard School of Health research associate, Marilyn Cornelis, speaking to The Atlantic about the conclusions of a 2014 study exploring the link between genetics and coffee consumption, says:

"Our results show that people are naturally consuming the amount of coffee that allows them to maintain their optimal level of caffeine. If we need more we're reaching for it."

That's right, folks; we knew what we were doing all along! So, go ahead, self-regulate and cast off the years of guilt, and DRINK MORE COFFEE! Or the same amount. Less if you're downing 10 daily. It won't kill you unless you were to consume around 70-100 cups all at once. Meanwhile, the current recommended amount of coffee intake is 3-5 (reasonable sized) cups a day. Seems like a lot, doesn’t it? And that's OK. Medical science says so.

And it could also change the message. The flip flop from bad coffee to good coffee over the decades is due to its complexity. The wide array of helpful and harmful compounds in coffee depend on many factors and can lead to diverse health outcomes. Earlier studies tended not to separate the effects of drinking coffee from other considerations, such as smoking, lack of exercise and red meat consumption. As a result, coffee has been maligned for its long-standing association with negative lifestyle factors. Those factors are now controlled for and as more and more long-term studies conclude, the benefits of coffee are finally enjoying their time in the sun. 

Moderation, as ever, is the rule of thumb. We might also want to opt more frequently for filtered coffee, arabica beans and a darker roast. Acrylamide levels in espressos (robusta* espressos in particular) and lighter roasts remain a cause for caution.** Dairy (especially cream) and sugar can change the antioxidant chemistry of coffee and should be, if not excluded, reduced. Lemon water - as opposed to a great big honking mug of jolt - remains the better way to wet your stem first thing of a morning but the good news is: regular coffee consumption for the average person is not going to set back an otherwise healthy lifestyle. Coffee is our friend, not our vice. Seize the bean! Love the bean! As it turns out, it loves us back. (Although it may not love us all, see below).

This just in: 'Coffee is harmless' - scientists disagree: Don't underestimate genetics when it comes to the "Jekyll and Hyde aspect to coffee". Many people have little idea of their coffee genetics - that is, whether they process coffee quickly or slowly. According to Paolo Palatini, a medical professor at the University of Padua, in Italy, who led a 2009 study on coffee and high blood pressure: "The only hint may come from symptoms after drinking coffee. There are people who feel nervous, suffer insomnia and even have tremor after one cup, attesting to a direct effect of caffeine on the brain."




To stay current on the good (and bad) health effects of coffee, visit our Coffee and Health news feed here.

* Instant and cheap (supermarket) ground coffees are often robusta. Robusta also has almost double the amount of caffeine and more antioxidants than arabica coffee.

** "However it should be born in mind that this is not a new risk, acrylamide has been a ‘natural’ part of the human diet for thousands of years ever since foods were first prepared by cooking." [See: Acrylamide in food and drink].




Lisa Peryman
Lisa Peryman


Lisa Peryman has worked with Greenpeace Australia and The Wilderness Society (Australia). She studied journalism in New Zealand and book and magazine publishing in Canada. Her background includes reporting and editing for daily newspapers and trade magazines, as well as creative copywriting for broadcast. Lisa is continuing her studies in Canada and currently works with Probe International as an editor and writer. Earnings from Green Beanery operations support the work of Probe International, a Canadian charity that works with citizens' groups around the world to protect their lands and their livelihoods. Probe International is a Canadian trust.