Drink On, Coffee Addicts!

The last thing students want to hear is that coffee, the life source for many of us approaching finals, is unhealthy. So I, self-proclaimed coffee-snob, am here checking in with a mission: to assure you once and for all that coffee is not bad for you. In fact, it has a number of beneficial health effects, which I think outweigh all else.

The first place I went to test this theory was WebMD. The contributors there tend to be a little pessimistic and always let you know when there are the tiniest health risks involved with anything, but even they have good things to say about the drink.

One aspect of my preliminary search showed positive results right away: the nature of studies on effects of drinking coffee can’t actually prove that coffee causes any side effects. These studies deal with people who have already established regular three or four or five cups-a-day coffee-drinking habits. Even though they can’t show that coffee caused something in particular, what they can do is show a strong correlation between these people and decreased risks for type 2 diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s and dementia.

While it is impossible to test for causation, we can still analyze the chemicals in the drink. Dark roasted coffee beans have had all of their flavor and aroma burnt out of them – I’m looking at you over-roasters at Starbucks – but it’s precisely this process that adds valuable antioxidants to the bean. Antioxidants are great for you! They prevent cancer by repairing damage done to tissues in your body by scary free radicals and make your skin soft like a baby’s bum.

Still, there are those who hold steadfast to the two main factors that might make coffee bad for us (note again the lack of certainty): caffeine and cafestol.

Concerning the first: whether you are small and caffeine sensitive, as I am, or are a man, naturally more susceptible to the effects of the substance, studies agree that the caffeine in coffee is not harmful in moderation. However, many people continue to cite osteoporosis, hypertension and sleep loss as well as heart disease as unhealthy side effects.

The diuretic properties of caffeine may quicken progression of osteoporosis, but only for excessive consumption. This mostly affects women with already low bone density and can be mitigated with increased calcium intake from daily supplements and foods like yogurt and cheese. Hypertension and sleep loss are tough to tackle in a university setting, but they may be easily controlled by the amount you drink in a day and the time of day you do so.

Of course, you can always curb these effects by limiting consumption to the recommended 300 mg of caffeine in a day. With a cup of coffee supplying between 100-150 mg of caffeine and a single shot of espresso around 80 mg, the four to seven cups-a-day drinkers populating these studies go way beyond this recommendation.

Heart disease is a different issue entirely, and studies show mixed results linking it with coffee. On the one hand, there is a strong correlation between caffeine in coffee and lowered risk of heart disease and stroke. On the other, methods of coffee preparation allow cafestol, that second potentially harmful ingredient, into your brew.

Cafestol is a cholesterol-elevating agent, and all studies link high cholesterol with heart disease. Cafestol is found concentrated in boiled coffee (think Turkish), French-pressed and espresso, all of which allow the delicious cafestol-containing oils to flavor your cup. The paper filters involved in making drip coffee trap these oils, so this risk doesn’t apply there. Studies show an astounding 6-8 percent increase in cholesterol levels for those who drank French-pressed coffee over a four-week period, but this particular study was done, again, on subjects drinking four to seven cups a day, excessive even for sleep-deprived college students.

You know the drill, folks! Just like everything else in life, moderation is key. These studies show the most dramatic results, not surprisingly, for those who drink excessive amounts of coffee. Where one shot of espresso or eight ounces of drip or French-pressed coffee constitutes a cup, two or three a day will not hurt you.

I am of the school that believes that a healthy diet high in fiber, poly- and monounsaturated fats like walnuts, almonds and olives and regular exercise will keep your cholesterol at bay. Because a healthy lifestyle can prevent these problems, and because cafestol also has a number of anti-carcinogenic properties, which help prevent cancer, I’m going to go ahead and say that this doesn’t affect my claim that coffee’s not bad for you either.

Lastly, and boy does it make a coffee purist happy to say this, it’s important to remember that it isn’t the coffee alone that affects you, but also the stuff that goes into those frou-frou concoctions that have been made popular by chain stores.

Excessive sugar (more than five teaspoons or 40 grams a day) from flavored syrups, fats and cholesterol in whipped cream and milk and trans-fat in non-dairy creamers have their very own side effects. In the end, the balance of all factors says a regular old cup of Joe won’t hurt the average John or Jane Doe. I call this mission complete.

Ariana Santoro is a fourth-year physics and political science double major. She can be reached at asantoro@uci.edu.