The coffee health debate

In June last year, one research story was picked up by news sources spreading across Europe, Asia and the Americas, and t undefined

he likely topic of much debate over morning cups of coffee.

The topic was the result of a small study conducted by Australia’s La Trobe University. The test saw 92 non-clinical participants asked to listen to white noise, and report each time they heard Bing Crosby’s rendition of ‘White Christmas’.

According to the university, the song was never played, although some students did report hearing it. A university press release reported that the test “indicated that the interaction of stress and caffeine had a significant effect on the reported frequency of hearing ‘White Christmas’.”

News agencies the world picked up on the press release, declaring the causal link between coffee and hallucinations, with headlines appearing everywhere from the United Kingdom’s Daily Mail, the Times of India and the United States’ LA Times.

These are the headlines that likely make Roger Cook, Science Manager at the Institute for Scientific Information on Coffee (ISIC), roll his eyes when he starts off his day. Cook has worked in the field of coffee and health for 18 years, and spends much of his time reviewing studies like this to help medical professionals discern their relevance, largely through ISIC’s Coffee & Health website.

When a journalist rang up Cook to ask him about the La Trobe study, Cook looked at the full report and found that “non-clinical” participants meant that they weren’t asked if they had taken any other substances prior to the tests.

“It would be unusual to find 100 university students who have not tried other substances that importantly were not controlled for in this paper,” says Cook as he recalls his chat with the journalist.

An interest in the health effects of coffee is nothing new. Cook says the first documented scientific research into coffee dates back to the 1700s, with efforts increasing significantly in the late 1960s and 1970s. During that time, Cook says that smaller sample sets over short time periods were popularly used in scientific studies. Association between two factors was often enough to be considered a causal link. With smoking habits so strongly linked to coffee drinking, the drink took on a negative reputation among science and health circles.

Coffee health debateThe culmination of this trend is illustrated in a scholarly article published in 1984 ‘Coffee Drinking: An Emerging Social Problem’. The article draws parallels between the controversy over coffee and the early stages of the definition of cigarette smoking as a social problem.

“Though coffee has been suspect for some 300 years, public attention since 1970 has been focused on medical research which suggests that caffeine in coffee may cause cancer, birth defects, and heart disease,” wrote authors Ronald J. Troyer and Gerald E Markle in the journal Social Problems.

While tobacco has continued its downward reputation spiral to the point where few would dare seriously defend its health benefits, coffee seems to have emerged victorious. In recent years, many damaging health claims (hallucinations aside) have been replaced with discussions over the positive effects of drinking coffee.

“There’s something like 2.5 billion cups of coffee consumed everyday. I think that if there were damaging effects, it should have been pretty obvious,” says Cook. He says the shift has largely come about as research methodology has improved, better isolating coffee from other factors. With increased consumption of coffee has come about an astounding amount of research into its health benefits. Cook says the drink is probably one of the most researched foodstuffs in the world.

“It’s one of those things that is relatively easy to research,” he says. “You don’t have to inject people with anything, there isn’t much of a risk. People are usually pretty happy to drink coffee.”

Cook warns that the emergence of so many studies, and journalists’ eagerness to report on one of the world’s most widely consumed drink, has unfortunately led to some “mix-messages”.

“People don’t always get the facts,” he says. “Universities are being proactive these days in sending out press releases, but they aren’t able to put the studies in the broader context. Journalists often just print the information from the press release without actually looking at the study.”

Ease of research is not the only reason coffee receives so much attention. As one of the world’s most widely consumed beverage, there are more than a few companies out there interested in promoting the consumption of coffee. The service Cook provides in helping medical professionals discern health reports is funded by seven major European coffee companies: Illycaffè, Kraft Foods, Lavazza, Nestlé, Paulig, Sara Lee and Tchibo.

With the global coffee industry representing such strong business interests worldwide, Dr. Ben Desbrow, a Senior Lecturer at Australia’s Griffith University, says its natural that such a heavy amount of resources are being invested into studying the consumption end of coffee.

“There are massive industry vested interests in keeping consumption of coffee alive,” says Desbrow. “And we’re only seeing that escalate.”

Desbrow says the “mixed messages” coming from the scientific community is the natural result of the intense amount of research, and the complexity of the drink. “Coffee is a complex combination of compounds,” he says. “To label it good or bad is just impossible.”

For regulatory purposes, however, labels are sometimes necessary. Up until 2004, a maximum level of caffeine was included on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) list of prohibited substances. In deciding to take a substance off the list, Desbrow says, WADA takes into account three main factors: the threat to an athlete’s health; if the substance is against the “spirit of sport”; and how much it affects performance.

On its website, WADA says it took the decision because: “Many experts believe that caffeine is ubiquitous in beverage and food and that reducing the threshold might therefore create the risk of sanctioning athletes for social or diet consumption of caffeine.”

The reasoning shows a link between the spread of coffee consumption and the decline in the health stigma of coffee.

“Coffee is a beverage that is consumed globally and habitually,” says Desbrow. “It’s reasonably widespread and WADA came to see that not all countries have the same understanding of its effects. There is considerable belief out there that it’s not performance enhancing.”

The decision to take caffeine off the list opened the pathway for sports nutritionists like Desbrow to start looking at these effects of caffeine on performance, generating a new onslaught of scientific research. 

Desbrow’s own look at caffeine in sports performance has led to discoveries relevant for the coffee industry. In his study on the effects of caffeine, the first step was to determine some kind of standard level of caffeine consumption in a single drink, with coffee the obvious choice to start with.

For the study, they measured the amount of caffeine in 135 coffees. The findings showed that caffeine levels varied from 25 milligrams to 215 milligrams a serving.
“When we looked at the data, we were shocked by the degree of variance in caffeine levels,” he says. “If you think about that, if you have a nine-fold variance in the level of caffeine and you multiply that by 10 coffees a day, the health impact could be massive.”

Desbrow’s conclusions so far are that advice on how many cups of coffee to drink a day means little when the standard amount of caffeine in a cup is unknown. Desbrow can only say that if coffee drinkers limit their coffee to around two cups per day, than the absolute health impacts will be kept to a minimal.

All this scientific research aside, as a social beverage, Desbrow points out that all of the effects of having a cup of coffee, won’t always be found on a data sheet.
“Coffee is similar to alcohol in the sense that it’s social, it’s usually consumed with other people. People consume it to unwind, to relax,” he says. “There are psychological effects that are outside of its nutritional value. To talk with your friends over a cup of coffee can be equally positive.”

The seemingly conflicting opinions over the benefits of coffee are of little help to a coffee drinker looking to find out what a healthy threshold of coffee consumption is. In this regard, both Desbrow and ISIC’s Cook agree that common sense should prevail.

“When you find your health is affected from drinking too much coffee, you should of course cut down,” says Cook. “People tend to consume the amount of coffee that they feel comfortable with. You need to monitor your health and your intake just like everything else you consume.”

Desbrow offers similar advice: “Find a coffee you like to taste, find some people you like to share it with and just don’t overexpose yourself. You’ll get all the health benefits and avoid the negatives.” 

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