Benefits of coffee: Coffee is good for you. Where is it? A case of pious optimism

Coffee is good for you. Or it is not. Maybe it does, then it doesn’t, then it still does. If you drink coffee and follow the news, you may have noticed this pattern.

A recent study showed that coffee, even sweetened, was associated with health benefits. But other studies have come to more mixed conclusions.

What drives these swings of the pendulum in coffee health? Like a good cup of coffee, the answer is complex, but seems to come down to human nature and scientific practice.


Godly optimism

Globally, we consume approximately two billion cups of coffee every day. That’s a lot of coffee, and many who drink it want to know what that coffee does to us, in addition to waking us up.

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As a species, we are often wildly optimistic. We want the world to be better, maybe simpler, than it is.

We squint our morning cup through those same pink glasses: we really want coffee to bring us health, not just a sunny disposition.

But is it likely? By drinking coffee, we ingest a complex brew that includes literally thousands of chemicals, including one that evolved to deter herbivores from munching on the coffee plant: caffeine.

Coffee for caffeine

Our morning boost comes from a plant toxin. The possible health benefits of coffee are usually attributed to other molecules in the brew, often antioxidants, including polyphenols, a group found in substantial concentrations in coffee.

But they, along with other antioxidants, are also found in many plants like broccoli or blueberries, and in higher concentrations.

We drink coffee for the caffeine, not the antioxidants. The best we can reasonably hope for is not to harm ourselves by drinking coffee.

Hopefully, coffee doesn’t kill us as quickly as the other things we do to our bodies. I’m looking at you donuts, microwave popcorn, and celebratory cigars.

The dynamic nature of science is also behind our recurring medical love affair with coffee.

Scientists love studying coffee almost as much as we love drinking it; there are almost three and a half million scientific articles devoted to coffee (thanks Google Scholar).

Even the number of cups we consume is surprisingly controversial, with many aspects the subject of scrutiny, study and debate.

Editing search results
The dizzying fluctuations in the health of coffee highlight a fundamental challenge to modern science.

Research is an ongoing process, and our understanding of the world around us changes as we explore and learn. We question, review and make decisions based on the best information we have. These decisions can and should change as we get new information.

In 1981, a highly publicized New York Times opinion piece loudly proclaimed that our morning cuppa was leading us to an untimely grave.

The writers wrung their hands as they vowed to quit coffee and face the gray reality of their post-coffee world. Their passionate beliefs were prompted by a then-recent study in which researchers clearly linked even moderate coffee consumption to a substantial increase in premature death.

Three years later, the study was refuted by some of the same scientists, and the editors were presumably back in their cups of coffee – if they had ever actually walked away.

The initial study was well done, included more than 1,000 patients from nearly a dozen hospitals and five reputable scientists. The results were clear and the conclusions seemed justified.

But a follow-up study failed to replicate the admittedly shocking findings: The authors found no link between coffee drinking and premature death.

What went wrong? One thing may have been the researchers

on a common measure of statistical significance, the p-value.

Value was developed as a way to explore data, but it’s often treated as a silver bullet that identifies meaningful results.

But there is simply no foolproof, objective, or irrefutable way to identify or quantify the significance of an outcome. We can come to reasonable conclusions that we have some confidence in, but that’s about as good as it gets.

We need to question conclusions that seem too good to be true, like the idea that eating a plant toxin could make us live longer, that only eating a fictional caveman diet will make us healthier, acting like the COVID-19 pandemic is over, even in the face of daily evidence that it isn’t, will make it go away, or that just ignoring massive fluctuations in the weather will make it go away global climate change. Common sense can go a long way.

Health Benefits

Is coffee good for you? Yes, in the sense that it will wake you up, lift your mood, maybe even give you an excuse to get out of the house and chat with friends at a local cafe.

Will drinking coffee make you healthier or help you live longer? Probably not.

Sure, the antioxidants in our morning cup might actually help our bodies, but there are far better ways to boost your antioxidant intake.

So wake up with a good cup of coffee, but stay healthy with a complex and varied diet.

About Jeffery L. Parker

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