When the barista hands you that cup of coffee, you’re buying more than that liquid caffeine. You’re buying into a social status, an experience and a phenomenon that has swept the cultural hemisphere for quite some time now. Java has become ubiquitous with established coffee bars and shops everywhere. One cannot walk a city block without seeing a consumer with their handsome coffee cup. There are over 55,000 coffee/snack shops in the U.S., with coffee leaders we all know and love such as Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts as well as lesser-known shops brandishing the city maps. Coffee has become the cool kid on the block, notching up popularity points and furiously rising to star status in the commodity population.
That coffee, however, has a story behind it and a home from which it came and grew up in. All coffee is grown in a region known as the “Bean Belt,” which encompasses all the area between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. The Bean Belt’s tropical climate is ideal for growing coffee beans, as it contains both wet and dry seasons. These areas include countries such as Brazil, Vietnam and Columbia. Coffee is the world’s second-most valuable commodity (second only to crude oil), with its industry worth over $100 billion. The U.S. imports the most amount of coffee in the world, importing about $6 billion worth and trying to keep up with its ever- increasing demand.
As a dietitian who enjoys her daily cup of joe, I have a slightly biased opinion on why coffee has notched up points in the popularity department. Research has been burgeoning on its potential health benefits, concomitantly spurring more research and consumption. The areas of research run the gamut, from type 2 diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, liver disease, Alzheimer’s disease, to cardiovascular disease (CVD), just to name a few. All of these morbidities are so pertinent and prevalent in today’s medical forecast and it’s refreshing to find other substances beside the medicine bottle that may help prevent and treat them.
A study done by Ding et al. (2014) discovered an inverse association (but not causation) between coffee consumption and (CVD) risk, with the lowest risk correlated to three to five cups per day. Another CVD-related study was done by Miranda et al. (2017), which evaluated the association between coffee consumption, its polyphenols (which are chemicals found in food that help prevent free-radical damage to the body) and CVD risk factors, such as high blood pressure (BP), total cholesterol, low-density cholesterol (LDL), high-density cholesterol (HDL), triglycerides (TG), fasting glucose and homocysteine. Homocysteine is an amino acid in the blood; high levels of it are associated with heart disease. The study found an association between coffee intake of one to three cups and lower odds for high BP and high homocysteine levels.
A meta-analysis (which is a review of a number of research articles) done by Zhao et al. (2015) consisting of 17 studies, 1,054,571 participants and 131,212 death events found an overall association between light to moderate coffee intake and a reduced mortality rate from all causes, particularly in women. Another meta-analysis was done by Je and Giovannucci (2014), which reviewed 20 studies of coffee consumption and total mortality. An inverse association was found with moderate coffee consumption (one to two cups/day) and mortality rate.
Coffee consumption is also associated with improvement in liver enzymes, especially in those at risk for liver disease. Coffee intake of two or more cups per day in people with preexisting liver disease has been shown to be associated with lower incidence of cirrhosis, lower liver cancer rates as well as decreased mortality (Wadhawan & Anand, 2016). A study was done by Hodges et al. (2017) on patients with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, hepatitis C and hepatitis B to determine the effect of coffee intake on the biomarker for liver fibrosis: liver stiffness. They found that those who drank two or more cups of coffee per day had less liver stiffness. They also found that tea consumption had no effect on liver stiffness.
I can go on and on about the ever-increasing amount of research being published on the potential health benefits of coffee consumption. However, before jumping on the coffee bandwagon, it’s important to remember that coffee has caffeine, a natural stimulant that does have side effects if consumed without caution. Too much caffeine can cause high blood pressure, increased anxiety, GI discomfort and increased heart rate. According to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, three to five (8 ounce) cups of coffee or up to 400 milligrams (mg) of caffeine per day is considered safe for the average healthy adult. If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics advises to consume only up to 200-300 mg per day (or two to three [8 ounce cups] of coffee). Coffee has a lot to offer to the common consumer and there is still a wealth of knowledge to be learned about it! It’s just important to consume it in moderation, as too much of anything, even a “good” thing, can be potentially harmful.
By Melissa Papir, MS, RD