There is no doubt that America loves its coffee. According to a 2017 study by the National Coffee Association, 62 percent of Americans drink this caffeinated beverage on a daily basis (NCA, “Daily Coffee Consumption Up Sharply,” 03.25.2017), consuming close to 400 million cups per day (The Motley Fool, “11 Coffee Stats That Will Blow You Away,” 01.23.2017). That’s more than 140 billion cups of coffee per year.
On top of that, Americans have no intention of straying from this path. Studies have found that 31 percent of coffee drinkers consider brewing coffee to be the most important activity in the morning and 52 percent of drinkers stated they would rather skip the morning shower than their cup of joe (The Huffington Post, “America’s Coffee Obsession: Fun Facts That Prove We’re Hooked,” 11.02.2011). It’s safe to say neither Starbucks nor your local coffee shop will fall out of fashion anytime soon.
But while coffee’s immense popularity is unquestionable, can we say the same in regards to its health benefits? This has been a contentious issue for a long time, as countless studies over the past several years have either branded this beverage as a cure-all that increases lifespan or a deadly toxin that shortens it. Case in point: In 1981, Harvard published a study that connected coffee with high risk of pancreatic cancer, which sent the entire nation into a frenzy (The New York Times, “Sorting Out Coffee’s Contradictions,” 08.05.2008). Later, those same Harvard researchers concluded that smoking may have been the real culprit instead. Like with dark chocolate and red wine, it’s incredibly difficult to pin down any definitive answer regarding coffee’s effects on the body because it’s by nature impossible to prove cause-and-effect in food studies. However, we should still be able to gather a general idea of its effects and whether the benefits outweigh the risks.
So what does science really say about the health effects of coffee? For the most part, it’s good news—or at the very least, coffee won’t kill you. There are numerous studies that suggest that drinking coffee regularly offers a wide range of health benefits, such as lowering the risk of stroke and dementia (PopSugar, “Coffee Bad For You? Here Are the Facts, Straight From a Doctor,” 07.30.2017).
In fact, there doesn’t seem to be an end to the good news. A 2012 study indicates that the caffeine in coffee could decrease the risk of type 2 diabetes (The Atlantic, “The Case for Drinking as Much Coffee as You Like,” 11.30.2012). The study featured almost 80,000 women and more than 40,000 men and controlled for all major lifestyle and dietary risk factors. After more than 20 years, they discovered that coffee consumption was associated with an eight percent risk decrease in women and four percent risk decrease in men (The Atlantic).
The same could even be said for heart disease. In a 2015 meta-analysis of studies investigating long-term coffee consumption, Harvard researchers found that people who drank about three to five cups of coffee a day had the lowest risk of heart disease among more than 1,270,000 participants (The New York Times, “More Consensus on Coffee’s Effect on Health Than You Might Think,” 06.11.2015). Not only that, but those who consumed five or more cups a day did not suffer any higher risk than those who didn’t drink coffee at all. This information lines up with what a team of cardiologists at the University of California, San Francisco, stated all the way back in 1994: “Contrary to common belief, [there is] little evidence that coffee and/or caffeine in typical dosages increases the risk of [heart attack], sudden death or arrhythmia” (PubMed, “Caffeine and Coffee: Effects on Health and Cardiovascular Disease, 10.1994).
On the other hand, studies investigating the supposed ill effects of drinking coffee have surprisingly come up short. To begin with, most of the negative connotations that surround coffee are mere myths. For instance, the old wives’ tale about how kids shouldn’t drink coffee because it stunts their growth is just not true. Years of studies have shown that there is no scientifically valid evidence that suggests that coffee affects a person’s height (The New York Times, “The Claim: Drinking Coffee Can Stunt a Child’s Growth,” 10.18.2005).
Likewise, the idea that drinking coffee will lead to lower bone density and greater risk of osteoporosis is also dubious. Scientists believe that this fear likely stemmed from early studies that linked caffeine with reduced bone mass (NYT, 10.18.2005). However, those early studies were mostly conducted on elderly people whose diets already lacked milk and other sources of calcium. To top it all off, even fears of coffee increasing the risk of hypertension turned out to be unfounded thanks to a 2002 study by Johns Hopkins (NYT, 08.05.2008). Exactly what is it in coffee that provides all these benefits? Most studies point to coffee’s high antioxidant content, which protect the body from free radicals that harm the body and factor into cancer development (PopSugar). In fact, according to the American Chemical Society, coffee is the leading source of antioxidants in American diets due to how often we drink it.
Does this mean that coffee is a miracle drink after all? It’s difficult not to come to that conclusion, especially since two new studies published this year concluded that those who drink coffee regularly tend to live longer than those who do not (TIME, “Coffee Drinkers Really Do Live Longer,” 07.10.2017). However, it’s best not to get carried away since, as stated earlier, food studies are notoriously inconsistent. These are all correlations, not causations. The caffeine in coffee is still a drug that has widespread effects that we’re not even close to uncovering. Coffee is still linked to insomnia, heartburn, addiction and digestion problems (PopSugar), as well as weight gain if consumed in excess (even without cream and sweeteners) (NY Daily News, “Too Much Coffee Can Make You Fat: Study,” 05.29.2013).
Both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the International Food Information Council recommend that you don’t exceed 400 milligrams of caffeine a day, which is roughly equivalent to four regular cups of coffee or one Starbucks Venti (The Atlantic, “Drinking Four Cups of Coffee Is Probably Safe,” 04.26.2017). As always with food or drink, moderation is key.