Coffee’s bad rap

The Providence Journal Sunday, August 27, 2006

People attempting to kick the coffee habit may now wonder why they should bother. A spate of new studies seems to find nothing but virtue in the popular drink; in some respects, coffee apparently even leaves fruits and vegetables in the dust.

One of the big surprises is that coffee is loaded with antioxidants. These substances help control cell damage and hold promise for fighting cancer and other diseases. Study results from the University of Scranton, in Pennsylvania, released this month, found that the average adult gets 1,299 milligrams of antioxidants from coffee each day. The nearest food source, bananas, did not even come close: It contributed only 76 milligrams of antioxydants to the typical American diet.

A review of studies published in last year’s Journal of the American Medical Association found a consistent association between coffee drinking and a lower risk of Type 2 diabetes, the most common form. In fact, the more coffee people drank, the lower the risk. Four to six cups spelled a 28-percent lower risk; more than six cups brought a 35-percent lower risk (and probably a serious case of the jitters).

Nor is that all. Research for the Iowa Women’s Health Study recently turned up a lower risk of cardiovascular disease among women who had one to three cups of coffee each day. Japanese researchers found that, compared with coffee avoiders, coffee drinkers had half the risk of developing liver cancer.

Nutritionists say none of this is enough reason to start bypassing fruits and vegetables, which Americans still consume too little of. Moreover, the caffeine in coffee can produce ill effects in some people — for instance, hampering blood flow to the heart, or increasing blood pressure.

Still, coffee is looking less like a vice than it once did, and more like a health food. For those trying to kick the habit anyway, the good news is that coffee’s apparent benefits flow as much from the decaffeinated as from the full-octane variety. So, until you next hear from us, enjoy a cup.