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Is Your Cup Of Coffee Killing You? Here's What The Science Says

It's not a health food. ☕

Contributing Writer
​Thomas holds a mug with 'Sorry' written on the side. Right: A Chemex next to two containers full of ground coffee and whole beans.

Thomas holds a mug with 'Sorry' written on the side. Right: A Chemex next to two containers full of ground coffee and whole beans.

That piping-hot cup of coffee you’re holding isn’t going to cure cancer. Or heart disease. Or any of the list of ailments that headlines have tied it to. Whether it’s a well-crafted pour over, a shot of espresso or a paper cup from your local depanneur, coffee is a fantastic beverage enjoyed by literally millions of people every day. That little cup of heaven is going to wake you up, but it is not a health food.

A recent study was heralded as showing that drinking coffee will make you live longer. The media flutter joins a list, stretching 50 years or more, of claims that coffee drinking makes you healthier – or kills you. The continuous thread is an interest in coffee. The role of that beverage swings wildly. Most recently, the balance has been on toward curing all, but coffee has also been cast as the villain.

Why are the headlines so attractive? Because, like sex, coffee sells. Coffee is a billion-dollar industry. Also, coffee and sex intertwine (which we will explore another week).

The number of people who start their day with a cup of coffee wake-up is staggering. And, many of us would like to think we are doing more than just making sure that we don’t say grumpy things to our significant other, kids, or boss before our brain clears.

As a species, we tend to be delusionally optimistic. We want something to be true, simply because we want it to be true. Global warming will pass. The pandemic has passed. Trumpian populist politics won’t infect northward. Drinking red wine — or coffee — will make us live longer.

Coffee isn’t going to make us healthier just because we want it to, but could it actually be healthy?

What are the benefits of coffee?

Coffee is a complex drink. Caffeine, the plant defense molecule that we’ve co-opted to wake us up, is only one of hundreds of molecules in that beverage so many of us enjoy. That cup of dark goodness is also rich in molecules called “anti-oxidants”. These naturally occurring molecular scrub brushes are part of a system that cleans up the unavoidable toxic products of metabolism that are the cost of being alive. Diets rich in anti-oxidants, but not necessarily antioxidant supplements, are a way to live healthier — and likely longer.

Does drinking coffee count as a healthy diet?

Maybe. The headlines say "Yes!" The scientists tend to say something more along the lines of coffee drinking shouldn’t be "discouraged." A series of studies do associate moderate coffee drinking with longer lifespan and lower rates of some disease. But, as always, the devil is in the details. Studies like these are tricky and even really well done ones only show correlations, not causation.

Researchers work to rule out confounding factors like smoking, diet, or alcohol consumption, but there is always the possibility that there is a factor not accounted for. One ray of sunshine, the results hold with both decaf and regular coffee. Good news for those of us cutting back on caffeine.

The bottom line is that there really aren’t any magic bullets. A diet rich in antioxidants may improve your health, but there are more effective ways to get this than with a cup of coffee.

Coffee is a fantastic morning wake-up – but it’s not a magic panacea. Absolutely, start your day with a cup of coffee (or two), but create a healthy lifestyle by eating fresh, avoiding processed foods and drinking lots of water. Get outside and get some exercise, maybe even together – and possibly with another cup of coffee.

    Thomas Merritt
    Contributing Writer
    Thomas Merritt is a contributing writer for MTL Blog.
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