Coffee: Friend or Foe?


Many of us look forward to our morning cup of coffee, the latte that gets us through the midday slump, or that shot of espresso to get ready for the evening workout.  I’ve noticed a lot of conflicting information recently about the health benefits and risks of drinking coffee.  So, what are the health benefits?  California coffee shops may soon be forced to warn customers about a possible cancer risk linked to their consumption of coffee.  What does this mean?  Do the health benefits of drinking coffee outweigh the potential health risks?  Does the caffeine in coffee improve our athletic performance?  Here’s my breakdown.

Coffee is one of the five highest foods in antioxidants.  Scientists have identified approximately 1,000 antioxidants in unprocessed coffee beans.  Many people don’t realize that coffee contains even higher levels of antioxidants than both green and black tea.  For the many people who follow a standard “Western” diet coffee may be their largest source of antioxidants!  These powerful antioxidants gives coffee it’s anti-aging benefits. Coffee has been shown to increase blood flow to the brain, supporting cognitive function.  Caffeine and coffee can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s, even in seniors who already have some form of mild dementia.  Recent studies have also shown that drinking coffee may reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes and reduce the risk of liver disease by up to 70%. 

If coffee has all of these health benefits how is it possible that the state of California is deliberating whether to list coffee as a carcinogen under its Prop 65 statute?  A lawsuit first filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court in 2010 by the nonprofit Council for Education and Research on Toxics targets several companies that make or sell coffee.  The suit alleges that the defendants "failed to provide clear and reasonable warning" that drinking coffee could expose people to acrylamide.  Acrylamide is a chemical that is created when coffee beans are roasted.  The US government currently does not classify acrylamide as a carcinogen when it’s in food. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) label it as being Group 2B, which means that it’s “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”  There have been studies done on mice and rats that indicate that acrylamide may increase cancer risk, but they were done using doses 1,000 to 100,000 times higher than the usual amounts that humans take in from dietary sources.  Studies done on humans have found "no statistically significant association between dietary acrylamide intake and various cancers," according to a 2014 research review.  What I find most interesting is the documented amounts in coffee compared to some other foods.  For example, a serving of Starbucks Columbia coffee (dry powder before brewing) tested at 163 ppb of acrylamide.  After brewing this amount dropped to 7 ppb.  In contrast a serving of Kettle Chips (lightly salted) contains 1,265 ppb, and a serving of Health Valley oat bran graham crackers contains 1,540 ppb.  So, even if down the road acrylamide is linked to an increase risk in cancer in humans coffee may not be the biggest culprit in terms of food sources.  It is also worth noting that dark roasts tend to have lower levels than light roasts, and arabica beans have lower levels than robusta beans.

In terms of athletic performance, does coffee really give us an extra boost?  We have our pre race coffee or shot of espresso to get amped up on race day.  Studies have shown that coffee increases alertness and improves mental and physical performance. Caffeine stimulates the brain and can improve psychomotor performance and increase our sensations of well-being and energy.  This gives us that focused, dialed in feeling that we crave before a hard workout or competition.  Multiple studies have also shown that caffeine can improve exercise performance by an average of 12%.  Taking a moderately high dose of caffeine before exercise can also increase the “afterburn effect,”  meaning that your metabolism stays elevated post exercise. This is especially effective after high intensity workouts.

There is a risk of becoming too dependent on the caffeine boost from coffee.  Too much caffeine can overstimulate the body and wear down the adrenal glands.  If you have struggled with chronic fatigue, adrenal or thyroid issues be aware that coffee can exacerbate these problems.  An easy way to check to see if you’re becoming too dependent on your caffeine fix is to skip it for a day or two and see how you feel.  If you simply miss your coffee and feel a little let down by it’s temporary replacement (i.e. herbal tea, etc) then most likely you are fine.  If skipping your coffee leads to headaches, irritability and trouble concentrating then you may need lower your caffeine consumption and give your body a break.  It’s normal to use caffeine to power through an occasional busy stretch;  however, when it becomes the thing that gets you through the day it’s time to reevaluate your diet and lifestyle.

There are a couple of additional factors to be aware of when we’re choosing our coffee beverages.  The first is to be careful with what we’re putting into our coffee.  Sugar and many creamers are not beneficial to our health.  Creamers may contain artificial sweeteners, artificial flavors, and partially hydrogenated oils, among other things.  If you prefer creamier coffee consider adding grass fed butter and MCT oil.  MCT oils may increase blood ketone levels, increase energy and reduced blood glucose levels.  This “Bulletproof” style coffee is a much healthier alternative than adding sugar and creamers.  The second thing to be aware of is that coffee is a heavily pesticide contaminated crop, so it’s important to always choose organic. Organic coffee contains no chemicals or synthetic fertilizers.

I think that for most of us the health benefits of coffee outweigh the risks, especially considering the sky high amount of antioxidants that coffee provides us. We each have an individual tolerance to caffeine so I think that using logic is important in determining how much is good for us. Simply observing how something makes us feel is always a good indicator.  If caffeine gives us a nervous and anxious feeling it’s probably best to skip it.  Otherwise, we may as well reap the health benefits and enjoy that little bit of extra focus.  After reviewing all of the health benefits of coffee I’ll definitely still be having my daily espresso!

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