You may have heard one popular legend surrounding the discovery of coffee: Over 1,000 years ago, some Ethiopian goat herders noticed their goats acting frisky after eating the leaves and berries from a bush. The herders tried the plant themselves, felt a buzz, and thus began the long relationship between humans and coffee.
Coffee is a valuable commodity worldwide and a beloved beverage, with almost 2 billion cups of coffee consumed every day, according to The Coffee Exporter’s Guide, Third Edition (International Trade Centre, 2012). But is coffee good for you?
What Makes Coffee Good for You
In a word, yes. Coffee contains high levels of beneficial antioxidants and organic acids. A 2014 meta-analysis published in Diabetes Care showed both caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee decreased risk of developing type-2 diabetes, with a greater risk reduction as people drank more cups of coffee each day. Another analysis published in 2014 in the American Journal of Epidemiology showed similar results, but this time coffee lowered both the risk of cardiovascular disease and the risk of dying from any cause. These results were replicated in a similar study published in 2014 in the European Journal of Epidemiology.
Another meta-analysis published in 2011 in BMC Cancer showed that coffee drinking was associated with a lower risk of developing 11 types of cancer, including breast and prostate cancer. Risk was lowered about 3 percent for every daily cup of coffee. Most recently, a study published in January 2015 in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute showed that drinking four or more cups of coffee per day lowered the risk of malignant melanoma, a type of skin cancer, by 20 percent.
These positive health associations, however, do not necessarily mean everyone should increase coffee consumption. How much is too much can only be determined on a person-by-person basis, as the body can build up a tolerance to caffeine; also, the rate at which your body metabolizes caffeine is determined by genetics, so some people can drink much more coffee than others.
Coffee isn’t a wise choice for some people. Pregnant women should avoid coffee to lower the potential risk of having a baby with a low birth weight. In people who already have diabetes, coffee can make blood sugar difficult to control and increase insulin resistance. Unfiltered coffee—made with an espresso machine or French press—can raise cholesterol levels. Coffee can worsen heartburn and peptic ulcers, and caffeine can cause elevated blood pressure, insomnia and anxiety. The caffeine it contains is also an addictive substance that can lead people to replace more nutritious foods with nutrient-poor coffee.
Another consideration is the impact our coffee habits have on the places where it is grown. Due to its high value, coffee is an integral part of the economies of many tropical countries. Small-scale farmers depend on coffee for their livelihoods, and an increasing demand for coffee means more land is needed for farming. In tropical areas, this farmland may come at the expense of rainforest habitat. To protect rainforest habitat, look for organic coffee and labels that say “rainforest-friendly” or “shade-grown,” indicating that coffee was grown with forest trees, promoting a critical habitat for birds and other wildlife.
Natalie Walsh, N.D. (www.drwalshnd.com), is a resident physician at the Bastyr Center for Natural Health in Seattle, Washington, and an instructor at Bastyr University. She has a doctorate in naturopathic medicine and a master’s degree in applied ecology.