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Coffee Causes Cancer (and Other Coffee Myths)

October 3rd, 2008

Coffee really isn't so bad for you after all.

Coffee really isn't so bad for you after all.

It seems like coffee has always had bad rap among the health-conscious.  What have you heard? That it will cause cancer? Cause an ulcer? Raise risk of a heart attack? Actually, none of these are supported by science. Find out why and how coffee can be a beneficial, healthy beverage.

Coffee needs no introduction to anyone living in the Western world. It’s one of the most popular beverages and huge industry unto itself.  The caffeine in coffee powers untold millions to work each morning, helps students study, bus drivers keep their eyes on the road and in countless other ways, keeps the world turning.  As with anything this popular, especially something that can be used to the point of abuse, coffee suffers from its share of controversy, mistaken notions and folk science mythology.

You might be surprised to learn that science has, for the most part, validated moderate consumption of coffee as safe and, actually, beneficial in several ways.

This is not to say that coffee cannot be harmful. Many factors affect the relative safety/benefits/risks of coffee. These factors include how the coffee is prepared, what is added to the coffee, how much is consumed over a given time, and the health circumstances of the coffee drinker.

Coffee preparation precedes the coffee drinking, and the preparation method used affects the chemical composition of coffee in . Coffee contains fat-soluble compounds known as diterpenes.  The coffee diterpenes cafestol and kahweol have been shown to raise total and LDL cholesterol in humans.  But paper coffee filters are able to trap most of the diterpenes so if that’s how your coffee is prepared, this cholesterol-raising effect is a non-issue for you.  Other methods of brewing coffee won’t remove the diterpenes, making paper filtering the best only way to brew coffee from a health standpoint.

Somewhere along the line, coffee acquired a reputation for causing cancer. This may have been in part because many heavy coffee drinkers are also cigarette smokers. But, especially when coffee consumption statistics are adjusted to take smoking into account, the evidence does not support a link between coffee and cancer.

Coffee is dangerous for pregnant or breastfeeding women? Not unless they’re drinking a lot of coffee, over 300 mgs. a day (an average 8 oz  cup contains about 100 mg of caffeine).  No significant risks to mother or baby has been found at levels below that amount. The American Academy of Pediatrics considers caffeine safe  breast-feeding mothers in most cases.

Coffee consumption has even been shown to offer protection against some disease such as Type II diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, and colon cancer.  Studies have also shown lower risk of liver cirrhosis and lower all-cause mortality rates among coffee drinkers.

There are some legitimate concerns and risks associated with coffee, but when these are examined they pertain the factors mentioned above, such as non-filtered coffee’s effects on cholesterol and chronically high consumption of caffeine with respect to blood pressure.

Blood pressure concerns relate to caffeine’s ability to acutely (and temporarily) raise both systolic and diastolic pressure to a variable degree, although tolerance to this effect develops. It’s not clear how much caffeine raises blood pressure by how much in a specific individual, some tests have shown modest increases of 1-2.4 mm/Hg from consumption of 5 cups per day. Neither is it clear how much caffeine a hypertensive or borderline-hypertensive person could safely consume.  For these persons, decaf would be a better choice, but they might be still be able to introduce caffeine to their diet incrementally, whilst monitoring their blood pressure and working with their physician.

Other health risks of coffee are less clear-cut and less broadly applicable. One concerns an association between coffee consumption (4 cups per day) and an increase in homocysteine, a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Another concerns the interaction between coffee and nutrients like iron and calcium.  Coffee can interfere with the absorption of dietary iron from supplements or food. This could actually be a benefit to many men, who can easily consume more dietary iron than their nutritional needs warrant; excess iron itself is a cardiovascular risk factor. The interaction between coffee and calcium results in a small amount of calcium loss, but this only appears to increase risk or occurrence of osteoporosis when very high doses of coffee are consumed.

Some people just don’t react well to coffee regardless of what science tells us about. Adverse reactions include headaches, rapid heartbeat, nausea and excessive perspiration and these are due almost exclusively to caffeine’s effects.

But for most people coffee is a safe, useful and beneficial beverage. After all, coffee is essentially an herbal tea made from, in this case, the roasted beans of the coffee plant in a process not very different from brewing tea.  To get the most out of your coffee with the fewest nutritional or health consequences, follow these simple guidelines:

  • Limit coffee intake to 3 cups per day or less
  • Avoid using sugar to sweeten your coffee (Xylitol or erythritol are both ideal substitutes)
  • Avoid coffee if you are hypertensive or borderline, unless working with your physician.
  • Check with your doctor or pharmacist to make sure coffee doesn’t affect otr interact with any medications you may be using,


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