Coffee, tea, chocolate, beer, wine, and hard liquor has been part of our human diet for thousands of years, and in most parts of the world. What do these foods all have in common? They are plant based. They are usually fermented, roasted, and prepared over a length of time, creating the perfect balance of flavor, health, and shelf life. When we ferment, dry, or roast foods, we create a natural way of preserving them for a longer time period on our shelves. This was especially important before electric refrigeration was invented.
Today we are going to focus on coffee. We will explore the health benefits from breaking down the bean, from the bean to the cup.
In 2015, a National Institute of Health study showed improved health in those who drank 3-5 cups of coffee a day. I am not referring to the gigantic mugs we all are used to drinking from nowadays. I mean 8 ounces equaling a cup of coffee. The health benefits even occurred in those enjoying decaffeinated coffee. The study showed reduced risks of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes in adults.
Also in 2015, the United States Dietary Guidelines Advisory committee included moderate coffee consumption into a healthy dietary pattern, along with other healthful behaviors. In 2016, the National Geographic Fellow, Dan Beuttner, was gathering information about groups of people living longer and healthier lives than any other group of people on earth. These healthy aged people live in zones we now commonly refer to as the “blue zones.”
Here are the “blue zones:”
- Okinowa, Japan
- Sardinia, Italy
- Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica
- Loma Linda, California
- Ikaria, Greece
I am not referring to a caramel frapuccino from Starbucks. That’s called dessert. I’m talking about high quality coffee, ground up fine, tasting richer, and it is slightly muddier in texture on the palate. The finer the grind, the more particles from inside the bean are extracted, and we can reap the benefits.
Let’s look at the benefits inside the bean:
Two substances provide coffee’s primary benefits. These are caffeine and polyphenols. We find polyphenols in vegetables and fruits as well, making them the super heroes of food.
Polyphenols are compounds which release antioxidants and anti-inflammatory effects during digestion and absorption. Antioxidants keep the cells healthy and defeat the cell damage done by pollution, stress, eating junk food, using chemicals, etc. Anti-inflammatory effects are when the body is inflamed, swollen, and in a state of dis-ease in all the tissues and cells, but then the good nutrients calm everything down and we can retain our balance at the cellular level.
Even if one prefers decaffeinated coffee, the benefits from the polyphenols are present. Of course, some varieties of beans have more polyphenols than others. If we skip the filter and boil the coffee, more fat is released. This can give us more energy. The fat in coffee is called cafestol. This fat has a role in cleaning sugar from the blood stream.
Let’s look closer at the compounds in coffee that are beneficial to human health:
CGA is chlorogenic acid, a polyphenol that is found in many foods and plants. CGA reduces system wide inflammation. It also reduces the jittery effects of caffeine. That is why it is important to buy the highest quality beans one can afford.
In a large study at Harvard in 2013, the results revealed that men and women who drank several cups of caffeinated coffee a day had a 50% decreased risk of depression and suicide. Even those who had high phenol decaf coffee showed increased vigor and a positive mood elevation. Coffee seems to make us happy.
Benefits of CGA:
- CGA is an anti-inflammatory compound
- CGA helps reduce heart disease
- CGA helps the body burn fat
- CGA raises metabolism
- CGA provides extra energy and better athletic performance
- CGA improves blood sugar
The fat in coffee, cafestol, is a healthy dietary fat. It can increase insulin sensitivity and improve glucose clearance. That means our insulin works better doing its job, being more efficient at clearing blood glucose from the blood stream. This can aid in the prevention and treatment of type 2 diabetes.
Now let us turn our attention to cancers. In over 1000 studies at the American Institute for Cancer Research, results indicated that for some cancers, regular coffee consumption reduces the risk.
What makes some coffee beans have a lot of these healthy chemicals and others not?
The higher the altitude and the closer to the equator the coffee plants are, the more robust and hardier the plants have to be in order to survive. The intense sun and heat with its UV rays during the daytime and the cold, harsh nights make for slowly maturing super coffee beans. They will have high phenols, good fats, and a rich dense flavor.
The best coffees for their health benefits come from Kenya, Ethiopia, Colombia, and Brazil. Be aware, though, that even in these regions of the world, coffee can vary in its goodness depending upon the farming practices and the diversity of the micro-climates. This is similar to San Francisco’s micro-climates showing naturally growing plants in one neighborhood and entirely different naturally growing plants in another neighborhood. The environmental influence on the coffee flavor is called terroir, just like in the wine world.
When looking for a coffee to buy, try to purchase a single origin bean, which means it is from a single farm estate with one grower at one location. We can always mix the beans at home for the darker or lighter roasts. The body and flavor of Ethiopian beans are lighter and the beans from South America are usually fuller bodied and roasted darker. The original blend of beans was called Mocha Java. Hundreds of years ago, ships carrying Javanese beans from Indonesia would stop at the port of Mocha in Yemen. For centuries, coffee houses in Europe would combine the beans. Coffee originally was consumed black without sugar.
Quality coffee beans do cost more. The benefits do outweigh the costs though. According to an international pharma-economics group, coffee consumption may be the most economic way to prevent chronic illnesses. I suggest getting to know your coffee houses and ask questions of the staff there. Usually coffee enthusiasts love to share their knowledge with others. A good resource for coffee test scores and where to buy the best ones are found on the internet at Specialty Coffee Association of America.
It is better to keep coffee in a cool dark place or room temperature than in the refrigerator of freezer. It may absorb other flavors from the other food kept there. Grinding the beans right before brewing coffee retains more of the polyphenols. It also prevents loss of the rich flavor due to oxygen degradation when ground and stored.
Light and medium roasts of the highest quality beans retain more of the anti-inflammatory CGAs. The finer the grind, more parts of the bean are exposed to the water during brewing. It takes longer for the hot water to go through the dense and powdery beans, extracting more of the good stuff. The French press style or the Greek, Turkish, and Ethiopian style of boiling the water and grind together and letting it sit a few minutes extracts the most polyphenols. If you don’t like the muddy texture of the Greek style, try the French press or an old- fashioned Italian stove-top metal espresso pot.
Most of us have a coffee in the morning, as a pick me up in the late afternoon, or after a heavy meal. If one exercises after the coffee consumption, the digestion of the fatty acids in the coffee frees up other fatty acids in the body’s fat stores, allowing us to use the body’s excess fat as fuel. Coffee also enhances the metabolism during exercise, burning more fat and giving one more energy. After a heavy fatty meal, having coffee actually helps us absorb less fat from the meal during digestion.
In conclusion, if you have given up coffee because of the caffeine or the calories when enjoying a whipped cream and sugar laden coffee treat, I implore you to take another look at the science. I have given up caffeinated coffee but still enjoy decaf now and then. In the USA, the most anti-oxidants we consume does not come from our consumption of fruits and vegetables. It comes from the super-food, coffee.
I want to hear from you! What do you think about coffee now? What has been your experience?
Resource: Arnot, Bob, MD. The Coffee Lover’s Diet. Harper Collins Publishers, NY, NY, 2017.