By Dr. Laura Pawlak
A coffee plant can live 100 years. Could humans extend their lives closer to a century by enjoying a cup — or more — of the brew each day?
Coffee beans are seeds of a red fruit called the coffee cherry. Like all plant foods, coffee beans contain more than a thousand healthful chemicals.
The benefits of drinking coffee are pretty impressive. The roasted bean has been shown to enhance brain function, increase metabolic rate, and improve exercise performance. Used to make a daily beverage, the bean has also been linked to a lower risk of dementia, Parkinson’s disease, Type 2 diabetes, stroke, liver disease, and some cancers.
Several studies have found that men who regularly consumed the most coffee (including decaffeinated) had a 60 percent lower risk of advanced or lethal prostate cancer than nondrinkers. Even drinking one to three cups per day was linked to a 30 percent lower risk.
However, the coffee bean also contains a potentially harmful chemical called acrylamide. In 2002, Swedish scientists discovered that acrylamide was a product of the browning reaction. When foods are heated at a high temperature during baking, broiling, frying, or roasting, the appearance, flavor, aroma, and texture of foods are enhanced by the browning reaction — as in toasted bread, French-fried potatoes, and roasted coffee.
The amount of acrylamide in coffee can vary greatly. Well-roasted, dark coffee beans have less of the chemical than light, roasted beans. All instant coffees have more acrylamide than fresh versions.
There is no way to remove all the acrylamide from coffee. Still, the coffee industry is working on practical solutions to reduce its presence. Should buyers be informed about this chemical with warning labels on the package? This question is currently being debated in the California court system.
Presently, Americans consume less acrylamide than the maximum exposure levels recommended by the European Food Safety Authority. To top it off, two recent studies in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that coffee drinkers have modestly lower mortality rates than people who don’t drink coffee.
The Food and Drug Administration’s best advice regarding acrylamide is that consumers adopt a healthy eating plan. The Wellness Letter, University of California, Berkeley, states: “There is no reason to deprive oneself of coffee if you like the lift it gives and the sociability it affords.” If coffee affects you adversely, tea is another popular beverage linked to many health benefits.
Dr. Laura Pawlak (Ph.D., R.D. emerita) is a world-renown biochemist and dietitian emerita. She is the author of many scientific publications and has written such best-selling books as “The Hungry Brain,” “Life Without Diets,” and “Stop Gaining Weight.” On the subjects of nutrition and brain science, she gives talks internationally.