March 4, 2021

Coffee, health & wellness: Exploring “the original superfood”

From doctors and medical experts to nutritionists and sports coaches, the health benefits of coffee have been well-documented over the years by medical and healthcare professionals.

Over the years, research has highlighted how the high antioxidant content of coffee can improve life expectancy and reduce the risk of certain diseases, including Parkinson’s, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

Today, coffee is an important part of a well-balanced diet for millions of people around the world. Global health and wellness trends fuelled by younger generations have prompted many to embrace coffee as a healthier alternative to sugary soft drinks. 

However, in recent years, there has been a lot of discussion about just how coffee affects human health. To learn more about coffee and its health benefits, I spoke with Bill Murray, the president and CEO of the National Coffee Association (NCA). Read on to find out what he said.

You may also like our article comparing soft drink and coffee consumption.

What are the nutritional benefits of coffee?

Whether you drink it before a workday, after a meal, or as a pre-workout energy boost, coffee has a number of nutritional benefits.

Many of these are linked to coffee’s high levels of antioxidants. Antioxidants are important for health and wellness as they prevent cells from being oxidised by toxins, chemicals, and inflammation. 

The process of cell oxidation leads to the production of “free radicals”, which are unpaired, reactive atoms or molecules. These can build up in cells and cause irreparable damage. However, antioxidants stop cells from being oxidised, reducing the number of free radicals in the human body.

As such, a diet high in antioxidants can reduce the risk of the many diseases associated with free radicals, including arthritis, Alzheimer’s, and heart disease. 

For example, research carried out over a 13-year-period by the Journal of the American Heart Association found that moderate coffee drinkers (those who consumed between two and four cups daily) were 20% less likely to suffer from cardiovascular disease.

As such, in a number of European countries, such as Finland, Norway, Poland, and Spain, coffee is the single largest dietary source of antioxidants. In these countries, it provides more than 60% of the average consumers’ antioxidant intake.

One in particular, chlorogenic acid (an important antioxidant that supports the prevention of heart disease), is found almost exclusively in coffee.

In addition to the specific benefits from the antioxidants in coffee, there is also a growing amount of research suggesting that coffee has an impact on life expectancy. 

A landmark 2012 study by The New England Journal of Medicine found that women who drank four to five cups of coffee per day were at 12% less risk of an early death. For men, this decrease was 16%.

Even low to moderate consumption – as little as one cup of coffee per day – was linked with a 5% to 6% decrease.

Bill Murray has been the president and CEO of the National Coffee Association since 2014. He tells me that through a great number of studies, coffee has been proven time and time again as having a range of health benefits.

“Coffee is the original superfood,” he says. “I think discussions like this on the health benefits of coffee, alongside high levels of research, are what’s really needed to drive the industry.”

Health and wellbeing: Why coffee is becoming a global health trend

Over the last few years, a focus on health and wellbeing has been one of the defining trends among young people.

Consequently, attitudes towards food and beverages have undergone dramatic shifts. Consumers are increasingly swapping convenience and cost for quality and health benefits in the products they eat and drink.

A recent report on eating trends found that those in millennial (aged 25 to 38) and Generation Z (aged 18 to 24) age groups were 29% more likely to try new health food products than any other age group.

These groups are also more likely to spend time researching healthy products online before making a purchasing decision.

For many, coffee plays an important role in a balanced, healthy lifestyle. This has been particularly evident in the rise of cold brew and ready to drink (RTD) coffee beverages, which have been embraced by some as healthier alternatives to energy drinks.

Another advantage of coffee in this regard is that it provides the caffeine boost that energy drinks provide while also offering no sugar content (unless added), more antioxidants, and no artificial sweeteners or flavourings.

And while conversations about the physical and psychological effects of caffeine have been ongoing for some time, it is important to remember that tea, soft drinks, and chocolate all also contain it. It is not solely found in coffee.

In addition, coffee can also have benefits for those looking to cut down their calorie intake. The Harvard School of Public Health states that the average can of sugar-sweetened soda contains 150 calories. In contrast, an equivalent serving of coffee (340g) contains just 4.

Providing no sugar or sweeteners are added, swapping one can of soda for a 340g cup of coffee can save an average of 146 calories, making it a great choice for diet control and weight loss.

Furthermore, coffee contains important nutrients that are linked to improvements in energy and performance, such as magnesium, potassium, and B vitamins.

Studies reveal that higher levels of magnesium can boost athletic performance, while potassium helps maintain muscle mass and lower blood pressure.

However, these health and wellbeing trends are unfortunately not universally discussed or recognised. Bill explains that in particular, the conversation around health and wellbeing in producing countries is often limited.

“In coffee-producing countries where there are these rich coffee cultures, focusing on questions of health will contribute a new dimension to that culture and add huge value to the industry as a whole,” he tells me.

Coffee, cancer & Proposition 65

Despite the sheer volume of research about the health benefits of coffee, there continue to be misconceptions across the industry.

Perhaps one of the most significant cases of misconceptions about coffee is the State of California’s Proposition 65.

Officially known as the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, Proposition 65 was enacted as a ballot initiative in 1986. It requires the State of California to publish (and update) a list of substances that are known to cause cancer, birth defects, or other reproductive harm.

The list currently contains more than 900 different naturally occurring and synthetic substances. 

It also requires businesses in California to then provide warnings on any product containing any of these substances, meaning that they would, in theory, be more difficult to sell.

In 2018, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge declared that coffee roasters and retailers had failed to demonstrate that certain levels of acrylamide – a chemical formed when coffee beans are roasted – did not pose a significant risk of cancer. 

This would mean coffee being listed as a potential carcinogen under Proposition 65, and that all coffee businesses in California would have to advertise it as such.

Bill says: “Proposition 65 was giving people the fear that coffee was somehow associated with cancer, despite all the evidence on the contrary.

“When the State of California puts a label on coffee that associates it with cancer, not only are you sending out a message that’s untrue for coffee drinkers, but you’re also potentially hurting coffee farmers who will experience a drop in demand.”

After a year, in June 2019, a ruling was made that stated that exposure to the chemicals in coffee did not pose a significant risk of cancer. This exempted coffee from a Proposition 65 cancer warning.

The case was also reviewed by the World Health Organisation (WHO), which supported the view that coffee is not carcinogenic and noted that it could even help protect against some types of cancer.

However, in spite of the ruling, some believe the media exposure of the case has already had an impact. If consumers maintain the belief that roasted coffee is a carcinogen, despite research and a legal decision to the contrary, this will cause coffee businesses across the supply chain to suffer. 

Bill concludes by explaining that consumers need to approach the facts themselves.

“When consumers are looking at health information, what they really need to do is cut through all the noise and take advice from the overwhelming body of evidence,” he says.

Over the years, a vast amount of research into the health benefits of coffee has emerged. As such, in recent years, it has come to be promoted as a key component of a healthy, well-balanced diet.

Coffee provides a much-needed caffeine boost for millions of people every single day. Beyond this, it is also a rich source of antioxidants that can lead to lower risk for a number of serious diseases. And while misconceptions do exist, studies and research are broadly in favour of coffee’s nutritional and health benefits.

So next time you’re reaching for an energy drink or reconsidering your calorie intake, consider brewing a cup of quality coffee instead. You may find that you prefer it as a healthy and nutritionally beneficial substitute.

Enjoyed this? Try reading our article on why RTD cold brew is becoming so popular.

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