How legit are studies on coffee and health?

How legit are studies on coffee and health?

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Living a healthy life sounds easy when pretty ads pop up on our socials. But when it comes to the beneficial effects of coffee, it gets a bit fuzzy. Not because there are no studies on the topic—there are plenty—but because independent health science cannot be satisfied with the same validation that works for company-sponsored studies with small groups of people and external products.

Say, for instance, cosmetics—it's easy to find 30 women in the same age range with predefined skin conditions and survey their results over 30 days of using a product. If 27 of them find their skin to be a bit firmer, the ad will read “90% of users saw firmer skin within 30 days!” Impressive. With natural products that are prepared by the end user and ingested, this is a bit trickier.

How is Coffee Studied?

The most reliable findings come from large-scale observational studies (cohorts) with hundreds of thousands of participants in different locations. This type of research is not usually orchestrated by one institution but rather done in cooperation with several who share data.

There are numerous studies by renowned institutions such as the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins University, and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that research the effects of coffee consumption on a variety of conditions such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, depression, weight loss, liver health, neurological conditions, Parkinson’s disease, some cancers, and overall mortality (the trickiest of them all).

There are strong pointers in the direction of coffee indeed having beneficial effects on all of the above. This is amazing news for consumers as well as for health-conscious coffee companies. However, there is also room for misinterpretation.

How Conclusive are Large Studies?

Three main challenges with long-term cohort studies are that:

  1. Coffee's properties change in the 10+ steps it takes to produce it from seed to cup, which means participants don’t consume the same beverage with the same amount of chemical compounds.
  2. Consumer preferences and daily intake vary greatly from country to country, so most studies operate with ranges of intake such as up to X cups per day.
  3. Hereditary predisposition and lifestyle habits of study subjects can make it difficult to measure the effect of coffee in combination with other factors (i.e., coronary diseases can be worsened by smoking or unhealthy food choices, so coffee's potential beneficial effects might be less noticeable).

Cohorts of several thousand or even hundreds of thousands of participants give reliable data on the overall benefits. But the only way to include the factors above is to go deeper and conduct experiments in a lab setting.

Combining Fields of Study

Cohort studies look at overall health benefits as mentioned above. So you know that when you drink coffee, something happens. Experimentation goes into greater detail and examines how the production and brewing of coffee impact the amount of beneficial chemical compounds in the final beverage. The aim is to determine the amounts of these compounds in different types of coffee, how much we need to see effects, and how well compounds are absorbed into the body when we drink the beverage (bioavailability). This type of research is mostly done in food and agricultural science.

Combining these areas of study is a fascinating field with much ground to cover. Doing so is of vital importance for coffee-loving consumers who not only want to know what their coffee can potentially do for them but also what kind, in what dose, and at what time best helps them achieve maximum well-being and reliably reproduce results.

What Impacts the Chemical Composition of Coffee and What Can I Control?

The chemical composition of coffee is influenced by how it is grown, what kind of fertilizers and/or pesticides were used, whether it is wet or dry processed, and how it is roasted. As a consumer brewing at home, you control extraction with the method you use, the water temperature and composition, as well as the brew time. All of those factors influence the amount and type of compounds present in the beverage. If you don’t brew at home and use ready-to-drink (RTD) products, see if the label or company tells you how the coffee was sourced and processed. One potential benefit of RTD drinks is that they contain what they contain in constant amounts. One downside can be that they also contain stabilizers and other additives that neutralize the potential health benefits. We will examine chemical compounds in depth in the following article.

So How Much Coffee Should or Can I Drink for Maximum Benefit?

An example of misguided consumer information on this question is “healthy coffee” ads that cite a Johns Hopkins study which found that four cups of coffee per day have a beneficial effect on overall health. What is sold in these ads is a “you can have your cake and eat it too” mentality in order to sell more products (surprise!). In reality, the assumed cup size in most studies is 8 fluid ounces (again, it’s impossible to make half a million coffee drinkers from different places stick to a strict amount over years). Eight ounces corresponds with coffee culture in countries like Italy or Germany, but is nowhere close to what the average US consumer deems a normal cup of coffee. Small is usually 12 ounces; most people go for 16 in the morning. That makes four US cups double the recommended amount. For that reason, some studies won’t even go so far as to recommend a certain number but say “a moderate amount”, or one cup per day, when the study examines a specific effect such as a type of cancer in Japanese women.

More is Not Better, but Better is Better

Everything in moderation. For most people, two coffee drinks per day are a good amount. More than that is usually more a sign of habit rather than a conscious choice. While you can’t really consume a lethal dose of caffeine unless you really, really try (40+ cups), you can overconsume and trigger reverse effects on your digestive system and headaches. How fast that happens depends on your body composition and caffeine tolerance. Seeing coffee as a treat and functional food is a great way to combine benefits and enjoyment without getting hooked.

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