Coffee and Health : Introduction

Although coffee first appeared in human culture as a medicine, the kind we now patronize as “herbal,” the modern medical establishment has viewed coffee over the years with suspicion. So much so that coffee has become one of the most intensely scrutinized of modern foods and beverages.

Why has the medical establishment chosen to focus so much attention on coffee in particular? Why not on scores of other foods, from white mushrooms to black pepper to spinach, all of which have been accused of promoting various diseases? Perhaps because coffee is such an appealing dietary scapegoat. Since it has no nutritive value and makes us feel good for no reason, coffee may end up higher on the medical hit list than other foods or beverages that may offer equal or greater grounds for suspicion, but are more nourishing and less fun.

For now, however, the coffee lover can rest easy, or at least sip easy. Despite over twenty-five years of intensive study, medical science has yet to prove any definite connection between moderate caffeine or coffee consumption and disease or birth defects. For every study that tentatively suggests a relationship between moderate coffee drinking and some disease, or between moderate coffee drinking during pregnancy and a pattern of birth defects, other studies–usually involving larger test populations or more stringent controls–are published that contradict the earlier, critical studies. It is safe to say that the medical profession is far away from slapping coffee with the kind of warning labels that decorate wine and beer bottles.

To be cautious, if you are pregnant or have certain health conditions, you should bring your coffee consumption to the attention of your physician, even if it is a moderate habit. Aside from pregnancy, health conditions that merit examining your coffee drinking include benign breast lumps, high chloresterol, heart disease, osteoporosis, and some digestive complaints. Again, nothing has been proven against moderate coffee consumption in any of these situations, but overall results are ambiguous, some physicians may disagree with certain studies that exonerate caffeine, and new studies may have appeared that complicate the matter.