Coffee: A NUTRITIOUS YAY OR NAY?
Victoria Cox, MSc,
Coffee – that deliciously aromatic beverage that many of us look forward to as part of our morning ritual. Coffee beans are actually the seed from the fruit of a tree, which are dried or pulped to release the beans that many of us recognise. They must then be hulled, graded and sorted by size and weight before finally being roasted, which will release the oil producing that smell and flavour which we know and love. So, being one of the most commonly consumed beverages in the world begs the question – is coffee healthy? Let’s break it down.
Coffee is known for its caffeine content, which is just one of a range of substances present in your morning cup of java. Caffeine is a stimulant which can of course help us to feel less tired and increase energy levels. Interestingly, research shows that coffee can help to improve various aspects of brain function, including memory, mood, reaction times and overall mental function. Up to about 400 mg of caffeine a day is generally deemed safe for most healthy adults, which equates to about four cups of brewed coffee.
However, if you are at all concerned it is always best to check with your doctor, as there are some specific groups of people who may benefit from avoiding or limiting caffeine, such as pregnant women, individuals with insomnia, or persons who experience unwanted side effects after drinking coffee, such as fast heartbeat, nervousness and irritability.
When thinking about antioxidants, ingredients such as blueberries or green tea may come to mind, but coffee actually contains an impressive number of compounds with antioxidant properties. Antioxidants are molecules that fight free radicals in our body; free radicals cause harm when found in high amounts and are linked to diseases such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes.
Interestingly, for many people coffee provides more antioxidants from their diet than fruits and vegetables! While this in no way takes away from the need for and benefits from eating fruits and veggies, we see that coffee can hold its own in the world of “health foods”.
Coffee’s antioxidant and potential anticancer effects, along with potential anti-inflammatory properties, have led to researchers looking into the impact of coffee on cancer, cardiovascular disease, metabolic disease, neurological disease and more.
The Down Side
So far, we have touched on the safety of coffee, as well as its potential varied health benefits – what about the possible downsides? From a nutrition perspective, the truth is that coffee often becomes “unhealthy” not because of the coffee itself, but because of what we choose to add to the coffee beverage.
“I’ll take that with cream and sugar!”
A cup of brewed coffee alone contains a negligible number of calories (just about five calories or less), and is entirely fat- and sugar-free. However, the reality is that many persons do not enjoy coffee “just so” but add large amounts of sugar and milk or milk alternative to their caffeinated beverage, and this is what can make the drink damaging to health.
A sugary coffee drink, whether hot or cold, is just as health damaging as any other sugar-sweetened beverage. In fact, it can be argued that the average sweetened coffee beverage is even MORE health damaging than a sugary juice or soft drink, because most of these coffee beverages also contain large amounts of cream, meaning that we introduce not only sugar but saturated fat.
Frequently drinking sugary and highfat coffee beverages will contribute to increased risk for conditions such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Let us take a look at a few popular drink options and see how they compare with a plain brewed coffee:
Tips on making or ordering coffee
If you enjoy the flavour of coffee, and look forward to your energy-boosting caffeinated beverage on a daily basis, here are some tips to ensure that you are not making poor health choices.
Avoid flavoured (think: vanilla or caramel) and blended coffee beverages; these drinks are typically the ones highest in sugar (often made with flavoured syrups), as well as often topped with whipped cream. A blended coffee beverage (especially a cold one) is basically just milkshakes in disguise.
If making instant coffee, to which you just add boiling water, be sure to avoid the pre-sweetened or flavoured instant coffee packages. It is best to use the plain coffee and then add your own milk or sweetener if needed.
Choose low fat and unsweetened milk or milk alternatives. If using dairy, stick to 2% or skim milk; if using non-dairy milk, e.g. almond milk, be sure that the carton says “unsweetened” rather than “original” or “vanilla” as these will contain added sugars.
If you usually enjoy your coffee with sugar, try slowly reducing the amount that you typically add to your mug.
For example, if you normally use two teaspoons of sugar, commit to only using one and a half for a few days, and then proceed to only using one. The end goal is to get used to a less-sweet coffee and ideally enjoy your drink with little to no sugar. Alternatively, you can choose to replace the sugar with a calorie-free sweetener, such as Stevia or Splenda.
These will provide a sweet taste but contribute no calories, nor do they raise blood sugar levels.
Overall, coffee is a universally revered drink, and for those who can safely tolerate caffeine, it provides a valuable source of antioxidants along with a boost in energy and even mental function. The key is to avoid overshadowing these benefits by adding heaps of sugar and cream; for your health, it is best to enjoy coffee as close to its originally brewed state as possible.