Harvard Health Blog
Whether they take it hot or cold, black or “regular,” many people say they can’t live without coffee. The dark, seductive beverage has become a staple in the American diet. But when did we become so obsessed with coffee, and is our obsession, in fact, bad for us? Researchers have some eye-opening answers.
The origins of coffee are unclear. One legend traces it back centuries ago to the forests of Ethiopia, where a goat herder discovered that his animals were energized after eating the red berries of the coffee bush. But wherever it started from, coffee’s popularity soon spread around the globe and eventually reached Europe and the “New World” by the 17th century.
Although tea was initially the beverage of choice for the American colonists, coffee eventually replaced it after the revolt against the taxation of tea by King George III, which culminated in the Boston Tea Party in December 1773. According to the National Coffee Association, Thomas Jefferson reportedly once described coffee as “the favorite drink of the civilized world.”
In modern times, a cup (or more) of brew has become a daily ritual in the U.S. — with meals, at the office, in coffee shops and at home. It’s available in every possible size and flavor combination, both with caffeine and without. But for years, experts have debated whether coffee promotes health or threatens it.
In search of coffee’s effects on health
Coffee contains antioxidants, which can help protect cells from damage. In some studies, coffee has been shown to have a protective effect against some cancers, as well as chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and gout. The caffeine in coffee is a stimulant and may help with mental alertness and fatigue.
However, too much coffee can make you jittery, lead to sleep problems, give you headaches, raise your blood pressure and trigger heart arrhythmias. It may even promote bone loss. But is coffee really dangerous? Are coffee lovers putting their lives on the line when they reach for that next cup of java?
To investigate this further, scientists at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health looked at data from three ongoing studies involving almost 300,000 men and women for up to 30 years. The results of their research were recently published in the journal Circulation.
They found that moderate coffee consumption was actually associated with a lower risk of overall mortality, as well as a lower risk of death from heart and neurological diseases. Both caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee had a protective effect, suggesting that something other than caffeine is at play — perhaps those antioxidants. Heavier coffee drinking did not seem to further decrease the risk of death beyond that of moderate consumption, but it did not seem to increase the risk, either.
In the end, the researchers concluded, “Coffee consumption can be incorporated into a healthy lifestyle.” Great news for the millions of Americans who need only be “dying” for coffee in the most metaphorical sense — and can happily live for it.
(Mallika Marshall, M.D., is a contributing editor to Harvard Health Publications.)