Coffee: The Best Health Habit of All?

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What science can teach us about coffee.

By Dr. Bob Arnot, author, The Coffee Lover’s Bible


Coffee may be the greatest nutritional miracle in our world today. What other delicious beverage gives you such a bright, optimistic outlook while making a tremendous impact on your overall health, well-being, and longevity?

Coffee is also one of the greatest indulgences, a sensory experience that rivals the best wines. How else can you make such a robust improvement with such minimal effort. That wasn’t always the case.

I’ve written more than a dozen books on nutrition including two on Coffee. When I was chief medical correspondent for Dateline NBC, Today, NBC Nightly News, and CBS Evening News from the 1980s into the 2000s, and most recently as a contributor on Dr. Oz, we were always on the lookout for the next great nutrition story.

Ironically, we were alert to stories about why coffee was bad for you. At that time, coffee had a reputation for causing harm, and most people feared that it was unhealthy.

Why?

Coffee was a marker for bad behavior: eating, drinking and smoking too much while avoiding fruits, vegetables and exercise.

Then a watershed study appeared in the most prestigious of all journals, the New England Journal (NEJM)  With 5,000,000 consumer years of coffee drinking, the study was so large that the results were irrefutable.

Researchers found a subgroup of coffee drinkers with no bad behaviors and with stunning results.  Female coffee drinkers had a 15% decrease in all cause death, 10% for men.  Across the entire spectrum of medicine, there is no other food beverage, medication or supplement that can compare with this spectacular result.

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Then the World Health Organization, which for 25 years listed coffee as a possible carcinogen, reversed its course and said it wasn’t and might even help prevent two cancers.

Hundreds of other studies follow with benefits ranging across the spectrum, from heart disease and diabetes to Parkinson’s Disease and Alzheimer’s.

Even if you don’t exercise and eat all the wrong foods, you will benefit from coffee. (Of course, if you make other lifestyle changes you’ll magnify the benefits.)

The big question is: why?

Polyphenols, researchers suggested, the highly anti-inflammatory substances that make fruits, vegetables, red wine, olive oil and green tea so healthy .

Since inflammation is a huge driving factor behind many major diseases from heart disease to depression, an anti-inflammatory beverage should be considered a miracle.

In our lab, we looked at polyphenols (3 CQA) and found an enormous range from as low as 1968 mg/ cup in a commercial dark roast to as high as 19162 in a lightly roasted Ethiopian.

What made the difference? A lighter roast, and better beans from high altitude estates.

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To look at the effect of this incredibly powerful coffee, students drank it and had their mood measured using a professional scale.

While most coffees have no more than 250 mg of CGA per cup, we had one that had 1056 mg (3CQA).  With this single cup we showed a robust improvement in energy and vigor at the prestigious North Carolina Research Campus.  This gave support to the famous Harvard School of Public Health study showing the 20% decrease in depression in women drinking 4 or more cups a day.  Little wonder it boosts your mood!

We’re now looking at other substances, such as melanoidins and anti-inflammatory fats in coffee.

So how much coffee should you drink?

Here, the research varies slightly: Five to six cups a day was associated with the greatest benefit for males in the NEJM study.  Four or more cups for a female was associated with a 20% decrease in depression in the Harvard study.

However, up to 45% of Americans are slow caffeine processors and may suffer from anxiety, poor sleep and even an increase in blood pressure drinking so much coffee.  The solution for them is either: 1-2 cups of an extremely high polyphenol coffee.  4-6 cups of a high quality, high polyphenol decaf. (23and me tests for this)

[Ed. note: If you have medical questions or concerns, always consult a doctor. When it comes to caffeine, every body is different.]

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What else can science do to improve your coffee?

Coffee science has an enormous amount to offer in how we choose and drink or coffee for the greatest benefits and tastes.

In our lab, we’ve looked at these:

AROMA: Superb coffees have more sensory elements than red wine. We created a panel of over 128 key aroma compounds to identify the most powerful sensory aromas for the greatest sensory experience. Our biggest surprise was that light-roasted coffees lost the fragile and delicate flavors they are famous for, just minutes after grinding. Darker roasts had more robust flavors which lasted longer explaining why so many consumers prefer a darker roast.  However properly roasted, stored and prepared light roasts had the best tastes and benefits. Just hard to do!

STALING: We defined staling as the loss of high-intensity aromas, followed by an increase in staling flavors. We identified over twenty chemical markers of staling, which increase as coffee gets older. To our surprise, we found many grocery store coffees in our survey had some staling.

FRESHNESS: We pinpoint those coffees with the very lowest of staling and highest aromas. The surprise? A custom K-cup, with the coffee protected by nitrogen throughout production, had the lowest staling after one year of all ground coffees.

PURITY: Our roasting and brewing methods have dropped acrylamide levels by over 75 percent.


Lists of the best commercial coffees and beans are in The Coffee Lover’s Bible!

Dr. Bob Arnot, M.D. internal medicine, is an award-winning journalist, author of twelve books on nutrition and health, host of the Dr. Danger reality TV series, and previously chief medical and foreign correspondent for NBC and CBS. He is also the founder, and former or current board member of several humanitarian aid organizations.

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