Written By: Mirna Sharafeddine, B.Sc., R.H.N.
This article was originally published on July 31, 2019, and has since been updated.
Did that get your attention? It was meant to. These are the types of headlines that we see quite often when it comes to some of our favorite things including coffee, chocolate, and wine. One day, they’re bad for us, and the next, they’re deemed as the fountain of youth.
Why the controversy? Well, that’s usually because these headlines don’t tell the full story, and the media quite often misinterpret studies. So, today we will take an objective look into everyone’s beloved morning beverage, coffee with some fresh eyes and a perfectly brewed cup!
Coffee grows on small trees that are native to tropical Africa, originating in Ethiopia. Today, coffee is one of the most valuable commodities and is produced across the continents, with Brazil, Vietnam, Columbia, Indonesia, and Ethiopia ranking as the top 5 biggest exporters. Like fine wine, coffee’s taste and distinct flavor vary by region. 
In terms of consumption, it’s surprising to find out that Nordic countries, including Finland, Norway, Iceland, and Denmark, are amongst the biggest coffee drinkers, with up to 12kg of coffee per person per year, compared to 6.5kg in Canada and only 4.2kg in the US. 
Fun Coffee Facts:
- Did you know that coffee leaves can also be consumed as tea? They have a subtle taste and caffeine as well as rare antioxidants. Coffee-leaf tea has been traditionally consumed in Ethiopia for over 200 years. It’s harvested in the offseason, which helps create year-round jobs for coffee farmers.
- Caffeine acts as a natural protector for the coffee plant by helping the leaves stay pest free by warding off insects. Coffee can also be used to keep your garden pest free. 
Health Benefits of Coffee
Since the Western diet lacks the recommended daily servings of fruits and vegetables, coffee can be credited as the biggest source of antioxidants in our daily diet.
We know that antioxidants protect us from free radical damage, but what are some other benefits of your morning cup of joe?
Reduces the Risk of Alzheimer’s/ Dementia
One of the most studied and backed benefits of coffee is when it comes to our memory. Many studies and reviews have shown that caffeine has a protective effect, and coffee consumption is associated with a reduced risk for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.   
Lowers the Risk of Parkinson’s
Parkinson’s is a disease that affects the central nervous system and more specifically our motor system that’s responsible for movement. After Alzheimer’s, it’s the second most common neurodegenerative disease. While we don’t know the exact cause of Parkinson’s, we know that there are genetic components. Studies have shown that those who drink coffee have up to 60% less risk of developing Parkinson’s. This only seems to apply to those drinking regular and not decaf coffee.  
Helps Protect Against Type 2 Diabetes
A systemic review and meta-analysis published in 2009 reviewing over 18 studies and 457,922 participants showed that those who drank coffee had a lower incidence of type 2 diabetes. Each 1 cup of coffee was associated with a 7% reduced risk of developing type 2 diabetes. That doesn’t necessarily mean that more coffee is better for you, but more on that later. 
Improves Exercise Performance
This one makes sense since one of our primary reasons for drinking coffee is to boost our energy levels. Caffeine stimulates our brain and nervous system increases adrenaline production and improves exercise performance by up to 12.3%. 
May Reduce the Risk of Heart Disease… But, Not for Everyone!
This one is a little bit tricky as low to moderate coffee consumption (1-3 cups) seems to offer a protective effect especially for women. However, a subset of people who have a genetic variation (slow CYP1A2*1F allele) have a much higher risk of non-fatal heart attacks since they can’t metabolize caffeine well. More than 1 cup of coffee a day for those with the gene variation resulted in a 36% increased risk, and more than 4 cups increased the risk by 64%!   
Coffee and Longevity
The most recent cohort study of half a million people published in JAMA in August 2018 found that people who drank 1 to 8 or more cups of coffee a day lived longer than non-coffee drinkers. The surprising thing about this most recent study is that it not only found similar results for instant, ground, and decaffeinated coffee, but it also accounted for genetic variations, and the benefits occurred regardless. 
This tells us that there might be more to the merits of coffee than just caffeine.
So, what’s the sweet spot when it comes to coffee and longevity? Well according to this study it was 6-7 cups daily, which offered a 16% risk reduction of early death. A similar study that was published in 2012 in the New England Journal of Medicine had similar results, but its coffee ‘sweet spot’ was around 4-5 cups. This amount showed a 12% and 16% risk reduction of early death in men and women respectively .
If you think 6-7 or 4 to 5 cups sounds like a lot, you’re right. We’ll discuss more on that later.
Limitations of Studies
But, let’s take a step back and consider that while these study did offer us some insight, it was observational and just because there is a correlation between coffee consumption and longevity, it doesn’t mean that coffee is the sole reason or cause for that. Studies like these do take multiple factors into account, but still cannot determine causation, meaning coffee may not have been what caused certain populations to have improved longevity.
It’s important to also look at current upper recommended limits that we have on caffeine consumption, and ask did any of the people that consumed 8+ cups a day have any other side effects that weren’t accounted for?
Coffee Isn’t a Panacea
After a big moment of glory, it’s important to know that coffee does come with its fair share of unpleasant side effects for many of us.
Caffeine activates our ‘fight-or-flight’ response upon the release of adrenaline which boosts our energy as a result. But, for sensitive individuals, this may actually trigger irritability, anxiousness, and anxiety. 
As it stimulates the nervous system and increases heart rate, caffeine may also increase blood pressure so you should limit your consumption if you have high blood pressure. 
Furthermore, sensitive individuals can experience insomnia if they drink too much caffeine or have it too close to bedtime, as it can take up to 9 hours to be fully metabolized by your body.
It’s also not recommended for those with iron deficiency as it can reduce iron absorption (or should be spaced away from meals), and for anyone with digestive issues or GERD.
Enjoy Coffee, But Watch Your Serving Size
In the end, whether you drink coffee or not, have a glass of wine with dinner or a bite of dark chocolate should not be solely dependent on the latest and greatest study.
If you enjoy coffee, then that’s perfectly okay as it may be offering some good benefits for your health. It’s important to know that although some studies may show that up to 8 cups of coffee are beneficial, this is more than double the recommended daily amount by the FDA. They recommend no more than 400 mg of caffeine, or three 8 oz. cups of brewed coffee per day. 
A standard small serving of coffee, for example, a short brewed coffee at Starbucks contains 130mg of caffeine, whereas the venti (large) has around 340mg which is almost at the upper daily limit for caffeine.  Also, note that lighter roasts typically contain more caffeine. A venti Blonde Roast (light coffee) comes in at a whopping 475mg! 
I like to aim for organic and/ or fair trade coffee when I can as I know that it is sourced ethically and more sustainably. To reap the most benefits out of your cuppa, skip the sugar and use milk or milk alternatives sparingly. You can truly appreciate the taste when you have a bold pure cup without anything added.
If you’re a decaf drinker, then choose coffee made using natural methods of caffeine extraction such as the Swiss water process versus chemical solvents. Organic producers typically use this method.
It’s important to pay attention to your own body and how it reacts to coffee. If you feel irritable, anxious or agitated, or you know that you are sensitive to the effects of caffeine then opt for other drink choices. There are many healthy and delicious coffee alternatives such as green and white tea that have an incredible antioxidant profile, rooibos tea that’s low in tannins and has a heavenly scent, and coffee leaf tea that provides sustained energy and only 20mg of caffeine per cup. 
So if you’re thinking 4-5 or 6-7 or even 8 cups sounds like way too much for some people, you’re probably right. Most of us know our tolerances to coffee, so we need to take that into consideration. Overall though, it seems like coffee is something we can enjoy daily, and if we normally drink more than one without ill effects, it’s something we don’t have to worry too much about.
Are you a coffee drinker? How many cups of coffee do you have a day?
Keep Reading: Experts Say You Should Add This To Your Coffee Every Day To Keep Your Heart Healthy And Prevent Disease