Coffee has a love-hate history in the scientific community.
For years, it has remained a guilty pleasure because surely anything enjoyed by so many could not be healthy. Caffeine was a necessary evil each morning. The short list of warnings included increased blood pressure, gout, heart disease, depression, miscarriage, indigestion, impaired glucose metabolism, heart attacks, infertility, incontinence and insomnia. (Let’s concede the insomnia part and anyone taking in large amounts of any fluid is likely to experience some bladder urgency.)
In 1991, the World Health Organization actually classified coffee as possibly carcinogenic to humans. My father never let us children drink coffee because he said it would stunt our brains. A friend’s grandmother used to warn that coffee made you ugly. The message: Don’t drink coffee. Coffee is bad.
Perhaps it was just as well that many coffee drinkers blissfully were unaware of the potential perils in that first cup of the morning because subsequent studies revealed drinking coffee actually could be beneficial. Coffee was redeemed as more than a simple caffeine fix.
Chemists learned that each little bean is a complex of more than a thousand different compounds including amino acids, fiber, minerals, carbohydrates, pectin and antioxidants. It was discovered to improve cognitive functions and decrease the risk of depression. More significantly, it helped protect against liver disease, cancer, Parkinson’s disease and type 2 diabetes. The message: Drink coffee; be happy.
The Mayo Clinic rained on all this coffee happiness with a startling front-page worthy study in 2013 that people younger than 55 who drank more than 28 cups per week were more likely to experience early death from all causes compared to those who drank fewer.
There was no escape, even for decaffeinated brews. Despite eliminating the usual confounding factor of cigarette smoking (apparently heavy coffee drinkers are also more likely to smoke cigarettes), women were twice as likely to die from any cause and men were 56% more likely. With the World Health Organization warnings still lurking out there, the message: Coffee might kill you.
This was one set of results with a correlation rather than a defined cause and effect. A bewildering result was the death factor only related to people younger than the age of 55.
Studies to this day, including the Mayo Clinic’s, find no relationship between coffee drinking and heart disease or cancer. This points to other risk factors or disease states that may be age related.
It also was just a single measurement in time rather than ongoing over the course of years. And as most studies conclude, more studies are needed. Cue the grant application forms for if there is money to be had, somebody will study it.
In 2016, the World Health Organization convened a working group of 23 scientists to study the carcinogenicity of drinking coffee, maté and very hot beverages.
After reviewing more than 1,000 studies, the working group found inadequate evidence for the carcinogenicity of coffee drinking overall, particularly for cancers of the pancreas, female breast and prostate. Evidence was inconclusive for 20 other cancers. In light of these results, coffee was removed from the possible carcinogen list.
What the group did find though is the temperature of the beverage was significant and so drinking very hot beverages was classified as probably carcinogenic to humans. Meanwhile, the Mayo Clinic researchers continued to be busy running more studies which ameliorated their previous alarm and also affirmed that on a second look, coffee actually did have some health benefits.
The New England Journal of Medicine entered the coffee conundrum in 2017 with a meta-analysis of research into coffee consumption.
Meta-analysis is a statistical process for combining data from a large number of studies, especially when there are conflicting outcomes, with the goal of identifying the reason for the variations.
This newest study says to hold the cream and sugar, but consumption of coffee — caffeinated or decaffeinated — is associated with a 17% lower risk of all-cause mortality (regardless of age) relative to no consumption and appears to lower risk for type 2 diabetes. Three to five cups per day of caffeinated coffee were linked to lower risks for cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease and stroke.
Caffeinated coffee also was associated with lower risks for cancer and liver conditions. The only caveats related high consumption risks for women during pregnancy or women susceptible to bone fractures. No caveats for men. And of course, more studies will follow.
The lesson gleaned in a library cubicle long ago: Everything in moderation.
When confronted with reams of conflicting data: Don’t panic, exercise common sense and keep it simple.
Overall wellness — mind, body and soul — is a balance between indulgence and restraint. Tip the scales too much in one direction in any area and life becomes more stressful and complicated. Control what you can, let go of what you cannot and don’t sweat the small stuff.
So, enjoy your balanced day, perhaps with a cup of coffee. Go ahead, add cream and a spoonfull of sugar. Just make sure it is not too hot. ◆
Hardy has enjoyed careers as a published microbiologist, an award-winning science teacher and currently is a business owner and formulator for Abbey St. Clare skin, hair and wellness products. She and her husband raised three sons in Danville and her idea of heaven is an unlimited herb garden in the midst of a library of endless books. Visit her website at www.abbeystclare.com.