June 16, 2017
The percentage of Americans drinking coffee on a daily basis increased to 62% this year, up from 57% in 2016. While there are slightly differing statistics out there, the average daily intake consistently ranges from 2-3 cups per day, edging closer to 3 in most surveys. Yet from a health standpoint, coffee gets a lot of mixed reviews. Many detox health plans list caffeine as a ‘no-no’ along with sugar and alcohol yet you will also find coffee and tea on lists of high antioxidant foods. Personally, as a coffee aficionada (ok, some may say addict), I wanted to dig into this a little deeper and understand if my love of coffee is a virtue or a vice.
What is coffee?
In the commercial industry there are two types of coffee species: Arabica and Robusta.
- Coffee Arabica descends from the original plant when coffee was first discovered and accounts for approximately 70% of the world’s coffee varieties. It can be found in the following varieties: Bourbon, Typica, Caturra, Mundo Novo, Tico, San Ramon, Jamaican Blue Mountain. Arabica trees are more difficult to cultivate and thus more costly than Robusta. Arabica also contains less caffeine than Robusta.
- Coffee Robusta accounts for the remaining 30% of the world’s production and is typically used in coffee blends and instant coffee. It is easier to cultivate and less expensive than Arabica and contains 50-60% more caffeine.
The beans used to brew coffee are actually the processed and roasted seeds from a fruit, which is called a coffee cherry. Click here to learn more about all of the steps involved in making coffee (that could be a blog in itself!)
Is coffee healthy?
Based on the significant body of scientific evidence surrounding coffee and caffeine intake, the 2015 US Dietary Guidelines includes a recommendation on coffee consumption, stating that up to five 8-oz cups/day or the equivalent of 400mg/day of caffeine can be incorporated as part of a healthy lifestyle. This recommendation is for current coffee drinkers and does not suggest that non-coffee drinkers should start incorporating caffeinated beverages into their diet.
According to Dr. Eric Rimm, Associate Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, moderate coffee consumption (1 to 5 cups per day), whether it has caffeine or not, has been associated with positive health outcomes particularly related to diabetes and obesity. Coffee has a naturally complex botanical profile, with at least 1,000 natural compounds in the bean and another 300 created in the roasting process. Some of these compounds include magnesium, potassium, and niacin along with phytochemicals that act as antioxidants which may help regulate blood sugar, increase metabolic rate and help blood vessels contract and relax. As a result, coffee intake is associated with lower blood pressure (it can also raise blood pressure, but more on that later), a slower rate of weight gain with age and reduced risks of developing type 2 diabetes or dying from cardiovascular disease or neurological diseases.
Conversely, coffee intake can have some negative health outcomes related to 1) the way the coffee is brewed, 2) how much is consumed, and 3) excess calories and sugar added to coffee. Traditional American coffee made with an automatic drip machine is brewed by using a filter. Along with keeping grounds out of your cup, this filter also filters out oily substances called diterpenes that may raise bad LDL cholesterol. European style pressed coffee (aka French press) lacks this filter so while this brewing method may be praised for its taste, it could have negative health implications if consumed in large amounts (the rise in LDL cholesterol seems to occur with an intake of 5 to 8 cups per day so if you are a fan of pressed coffee, limit your intake to 4 cups per day or less).
So does this mean filtered coffee comes without risks? While it doesn’t raise LDL, it does still contain caffeine which can have its own set of potential risks when consumed in excess such as insomnia, heart palpitations and a rise in blood pressure, especially in those sensitive to caffeine. For these reasons, the general consensus is to limit intake of caffeinated coffee, even if filtered, to 5 cups per day or less and much lower for those having any signs of caffeine sensitivity such as difficulty sleeping or jitters.
Lastly, unless you drink your coffee black, you may be adding milk, cream, sugar or flavored syrups that are adding extra calories. These additions, depending on quantities, can quickly turn a 10-calorie cup of coffee into a 200-300 calories mini-meal. If this is consumed on a daily basis, that can be a significant source of empty calories potentially leading to weight gain and excess sugar and saturated fat intake.
A word about decaf...
Some individuals who enjoy coffee but are concerned about caffeine intake may opt for decaffeinated versions. There are several ways to decaffeinate coffee which some perceive as healthier than others. (Note: decaf coffee can contain up to 3% caffeine so is not technically 100% caffeine free). There are two main processes to decaffeinate coffee: solvent-based and non-solvent based.
- Solvent based processes are the most commonly used and remove caffeine from the beans with the help of a chemical solvent, such as methylene chloride or ethyl acetate. Are these solvents safe? According to the FDA, methylene chloride does not pose any health risk and is safe in residual amounts up to 10 parts per million. The possible residual amount in decaf coffee is closer to 1 part per million and is unlikely to survive the heat involved during the roasting process. Ethyl acetate is often used in decaffeinated coffees labeled as “natural” because it is found naturally in ripened fruits however the solvent used to decaffeinate coffee is a synthetic version. Nevertheless, it too is likely to be destroyed in high heat during roasting.
- The non-solvent based versions include the Swiss Water process and Carbon Dioxide process. The Swiss Water Method does not rely on any chemicals but entirely on solubility and osmosis. This is the method almost always used for organic decaf coffee and is always labeled “Swiss Water” decaf. This method is considered more environmentally friendly and undergoes audits to maintain compliance to being 99.9% caffeine-free. The down side to this method is that it ends up extracting most of the flavor in the coffee beans. The Carbon Dioxide (CO2) Method is the most recent method developed to decaffeinate. This method uses liquid CO2 in place of chemical solvents but is very costly. This process is primarily used to decaffeinate large quantities of commercial-grade, less-exotic coffee found in grocery stores.
So now back to my original question - is my coffee habit a virtue or a vice? Let’s just say after completing this blog last night I woke up in the morning and was more than happy to pour myself a second cup of fully caffeinated filtered joe, guilt free!
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