Coffee's History of Health Benefits
by Eric Madrid MD
Coffee is one of the most consumed beverages in the world, second only to water. In most countries around the world, coffee drinkers outnumber tea drinkers—exceptions include China, the United Kingdom, and Turkey while in Japan, both drinks are equally popular. It is well known in many cultures that tea, specifically green tree, has numerous health benefits, but does coffee also promote good health?
The answer is likely yes. In August 2017, the Annals of Internal Medicine, a leading scientific journal, published two large studies that, when combined, included over 700,000 people. Both studies showed that moderate coffee consumption had a significant relationship with lower mortality rates.
However, before we get into the specific details, let's discuss the history of coffee and its place in the world.
The coffee plant originated in Ethiopia and was initially discovered sometime during the 9th century. Legend tells us that a goat herder named Kaldi discovered the coffee tree when his goats ate the red berries of the tree. After that, the goats were found to have increased energy and did not sleep during the night, leaving Kaldi tossing and turning himself.
Kaldi ate the fruit and noticed his own energy increased. He shared his discovery with a local monastery, where the monks boiled the fruits, but when consumed, the berry brew was so bitter tasting that they threw the remaining fruits into the fire. However, when they tried roasting the seeds, a sweet aroma filled the air, and they realized the resulting product could be used to make a tasty drink. Some have argued Kaldi’s discovery did for the world what Steve Jobs did for Apple.
Coffee After its Discovery:
1414: The first coffee houses start to appear in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. The tens of thousands of Muslims who make their pilgrimages to Mecca each year spread the drink's popularity to their hometowns—coffee became immensely popular in Yemen, where they call it "Arabica".
1555: Coffee reaches Istanbul, and coffee houses begin to open far and wide. Coffee becomes a popular drink consumed during social gatherings and business meetings. It becomes prized for its ability to increase clarity of thinking and productivity.
1600s: The people of Venice, Italy drink their first cups of coffee (legend has it Venetians were the first Europeans to try it).
1645: The first coffee house opens in Venice, and coffee's popularity spreads, but not without controversy—for a time many Catholic priests considered coffee to be “Satan’s drink”.
1605: Pope Clement VIII tastes coffee provided by a Venetian merchant and declares it acceptable for Christians (prior, it was considered a drink of Muslims.)
1660: Coffee makes it to the shores of France, reaching Paris in 1665.
1667: Coffee is introduced to the people of Germany.
1700s: For the first hundred years, only the upper class drinks coffee. It becomes more broadly popular in the late 1700s when it's realized that a strong cup of coffee in the morning can help wake one up, especially after a long night of consuming beer in excess.
1723: The coffee plant is introduced to the Caribbean islands, soon making its way to North America on a larger scale.
1727: Portuguese sailors introduced coffee to South America—three hundred years later, Brazil has become one of the leading producers of coffee around the world.
1607: Captain John Smith brings coffee to Jamestown when he arrives in North America
1773: Coffee gets its "big break" when the people of Boston revolt against King George’s tax on tea imports from England, throwing British tea off the ships into the harbor and sparking the infamous Boston Tea Party. Coffee's popularity grows in the absence of tea.
1903: In the 20th century, coffee consumption reaches an all-time high and many advancements are made. In this year, decaffeinated coffee is introduced under the name Sanka, which comes from “sans caffeine” ("without caffeine").
1906: The modern-day espresso machine is unveiled at the Milan Fair, providing new options in brewing.
1971: A coffee house called Starbucks opens in Seattle, Washington.
1990: Starbucks opens its 84th location.
2017: Over 20,000 Starbucks operate worldwide, broadening coffee's popularity exponentially.
As coffee's popularity has exploded, over 2.25 billion cups of coffee are consumed daily. Americans are responsible for 400,000,000 cups per day. Approximately 1/3 of the world's’ coffee is produced in Brazil.
What are the Benefits of Drinking Coffee?
Caffeine is the main ingredient in coffee, and this has made it popular. Caffeine has a stimulant effect, meaning that it gives people more energy and increases mental alertness. Coffee also contains polyphenols, which have antioxidant properties and are believed to be a big reason coffee provides a health advantage.
An August 2017 study in the Annals of Internal Medicine published some good news for coffee consumers.
The first study included 185,855 African-Americans, Native Hawaiians, Latinos, Japanese Americans and whites. The 16-year study concluded that those who drank four or more cups per day of coffee were 18 percent less likely to die from heart disease, cancer, lung disease, stroke, kidney disease and complications of diabetes.
The second study was conducted throughout 10 European countries and included 521,330 people. Baseline blood tests and health questionnaires were given to the patients, and they were followed for over 16 years.
What the researchers found is great news for coffee drinkers. The benefits were most pronounced when moderate drinkers, those who drank 3 to 5 cups per day, were compared to non-coffee drinkers.
Specifically, men who were moderate coffee drinkers were nearly 20 percent less likely to die while women were 10 percent less likely to die.
Even better, moderate coffee drinkers were also almost 60 percent less likely to die from diseases like liver cancer and liver cirrhosis.
The study also showed women who were moderate coffee drinkers were 30 percent less likely to die from strokes.
Additional Health Benefits of Coffee
- Reduces the risk of heart attacks
- Lowers inflammation in the body
- Provides mental health benefits and increased alertness
- Reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes
- Reduces symptoms of Parkinson’s disease
- Reduces the risk of suicide
- Lowers inflammation in the liver
- Lowers CRP, a marker of inflammation, in women
Coffee has tannins, which can deplete the body of Magnesium, Calcium, Iron, Vitamin B1 and Zinc. Supplementing with a multivitamin should be considered, especially if your diet is not rich in fruits and vegetables.
While the studies did not evaluate coffee drinker’s use of added cream and sugar, use of these additional “add-ons” should be done so sparingly. I would propose that black coffee has more health benefits than coffee full of sugar and creamer. Also, many of the flavored creamers sold contain high-fructose corn syrup, which is known to have negative health effects.
If milk and sugar are desired, my recommendation is to use almond, soy or coconut milk and 1-2 servings of raw cane sugar or stevia, as an alternative sweetener. There are stevia flavored sweeteners available which are a suitable option.
- Gunter MJ, Murphy N, Cross AJ, Dossus L, Dartois L, Fagherazzi G, et al. Coffee Drinking and Mortality in 10 European Countries: A Multinational Cohort Study. Ann Intern Med. 2017;167:236–247. doi: 10.7326/M16-2945
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