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Time to give coffee a break

With the threat posed by the coronavirus outbreak dominating the news — as it rightly should — I thought I would offer up a familiar subject for contemplation. Something that you might take a break with as you sit back, relax and drink it in. It should not be hard to swallow.

According to the National Coffee Association, the number of Americans drinking a daily cup of coffee (or three, the average daily intake) is at its highest level since 2012. As you drop that spoon in the cup and twirl it around, know that Americans consume 400 million cups of coffee per day and that we are the leading consumer of coffee in the world.

This accounts for an estimated $18 billion U.S. coffee market.

I’m guessing that most coffee lovers — whether they prefer espressos, cappuccinos, lattes or iced coffee — probably aren’t thinking about its health benefits or risks when reaching for their favorite brew. Still, whether coffee is good or bad for you is a matter of debate that continues to this day.

Into the mid-1990s, daily coffee consumption was in decline as Americans drinking coffee on any given day fell below 50 percent. Back then, there was a growing belief that coffee drinking contributed to heart disease and possibly cancer.

In 1991, coffee was included in a list of possible carcinogens by the World Health Organization. By 2016, drinking coffee was vindicated as newer research emerged suggesting that when consumed in moderation, coffee can be considered a healthy beverage.

Studies were generally finding no connection between coffee and an increased risk of heart disease or cancer. It’s quite possible that the bad rap on coffee drinking over the years has to do with the company that it keeps. Coffee drinking has long been done in tandem with cigarette smoking.

The demonizing image of coffee as a carcinogen continued to persist when a 2018 ruling by a superior court judge required that all California coffee shops and sellers must warn consumers about the “potential cancer risk” from drinking coffee.

This ruling was made despite testimony from scientists who were adamant that coffee does not need a warning label and that research on humans shows that coffee may even be protective for some cancers and other diseases.

A year after the California Superior Court ruled, the state walked back its decision. According to a Bloomberg report, California coffee cups will not need to include cancer warning labels after state regulators issued an exemption.

“The litigation against the coffee makers and retailers is still pending,” Bloomberg reported. The case was “put on hold” while regulators decided whether or not to move forward with the warning requirement.

While smoking continues to be associated with chronic lung disease, coronary heart disease and stroke, observational studies have linked drinking coffee with a lower risk of Type 2 diabetes.

A study by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health designed to determine if coffee consumption reduces the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes also yielded an unexpected result. It revealed that drinking four cups of coffee daily could reduce body fat by about 4 percent.

Coffee is an intricate mixture of more than 1,000 chemicals. While the cumulative research on coffee points in the direction of health benefits, it remains to be seen how much of the credit goes to caffeine versus the role of other plant compounds in the coffee bean.

As reported by Harvard, human response to coffee and caffeine can vary substantially across individuals. Low to moderate doses of caffeine may cause increased alertness, energy and concentration, while in others, the same dose may have negative effects such as anxiety, restlessness, insomnia and increased heart rate.

Decaffeinated coffee is a good option if one is sensitive to caffeine, and according to research, it offers similar health benefits as caffeinated coffee.

Also, it is a myth that darker roasts contain a higher level of caffeine than lighter roasts; lighter roasts have a slightly higher concentration.

It is also possible that the benefits of coffee are being negated by today’s beverages that look more like milkshakes. As Harvard points out, “the extra calories, sugar, and saturated fat in a coffee house beverage loaded with whipped cream and flavored syrup might offset any health benefits found in a basic black coffee.”

As Michael Pollan, the award-winning author of several books on the sociocultural impacts of food, recently explained to NPR’s Terry Gross, “there are studies that show that people’s both mental performance and athletic performance are improved by coffee. If you have a cup of coffee after you’ve learned something or read a textbook chapter, you are more likely to test better on it the next day.”

“… I don’t know that you could ever have had a night shift or even a late shift before you had caffeine,” he tells Gross. “Caffeine really helps capitalism conquer the frontier of night … That’s why I do think (its) impact on the modern world has been profound and that this has had a huge effect on our civilization and on ourselves,” he adds.

Write to Chuck Norris ([email protected]) with your questions about health and fitness.

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