Mixed messages: Is coffee good or bad for us? It might help, but it doesn’t enhance health

Drinking a cup of coffee means ingesting a complex mixture of chemicals. Research has given us mixed messaging about whether coffee is beneficial or harmful.
Coffee is good for you. Or it’s not. Maybe it is, then it isn’t, then it is again. If you drink coffee, and follow the news, then perhaps you’ve 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’s driving these pendulum swings in the health status of coffee? Like a good cup of coffee, the answer is complex, but seems to boil down to human nature and scientific practice.
Wishful optimism
Globally, we consume about two billion cups of coffee each day. That’s a lot of coffee, and many of those who imbibe want to know what that coffee is doing to us, in addition to waking us up.
As a species, we are often delusionally optimistic. We want the world to be better, maybe simpler, than it is. We squint at our morning cup through those same rosy glasses: We really want coffee to bring us health, not just a sunny disposition.
But is that likely? In drinking coffee, we’re ingesting a complex brew that includes literally thousands of chemicals, including one that evolved to dissuade herbivores from munching on the coffee plant: caffeine.
Coffee for the caffeine
Our morning kickstart comes from a plant toxin. The possible health benefits of coffee are generally attributed to other molecules in the brew, often antioxidants including polyphenols, a group that are found in substantial concentrations in coffee. But they, and 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 realistically hope for is that we aren’t harming ourselves by drinking coffee. With any luck, coffee isn’t killing us nearly as quickly as other things that we’re doing to our bodies. I’m looking at you doughnuts, microwave popcorn and celebratory cigars.
The dynamic nature of science also drives our on-again, off-again medical love affair with coffee. Scientists like to study coffee almost as much as we like to drink it; there are almost three and a half million scientific articles focused on coffee (thanks Google Scholar). Even the number of cups we consume is surprisingly contentious, with many aspects being subject to scrutiny, study and debate.
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