Coffee is the second most popular drink in the world, behind water. It is thought the caffeinated beverage first entered Europe in the 14th century; today it is widely consumed across the bloc.
In France, a whopping 94% of the population is estimated to drink coffee. But it is Finland that takes the cake for the world’s biggest consumer of coffee on a per-person basis: the average Finn is thought to drink close to four cups of coffee a day.
While unlikely those four cups of coffee – and the 10-minute coffee breaks legally mandated in Finland for workers – relate directly to the potential health benefits associated with the beverage, a recent influx of research suggests drinking coffee offers myriad advantages – from maintaining low blood pressure to potentially protecting against COVID-19.
From maintaining low blood pressure to anti-inflammatory effects
Long-standing fears surrounding the negative health consequences associated with coffee consumption – predominantly due to its caffeine content – are now being put to bed.
“Caffeine is only one of the several coffee components and certainly not the only one with an active role,” explained Arrigo Cicero, professor at the Department of Medical and Surgical Sciences at the University of Bologna in Italy. “We know that caffeine can increase blood pressure, but other bioactive components in coffee seem to counteract this effect with a positive end result on blood pressure levels.”
This was amongst the University’s findings in a study published this month: that drinking coffee helps maintain low blood pressure. The researchers found that people who drink two or three cups of coffee a day have lower blood pressure than those who drink just one cup or none at all.
“This is the first study to observe this association in the Italian population, and the data confirm the positive effect of coffee consumption on cardiovascular risk,” added Professor Claudio Borghi, who led the study published in academic journal ‘Nutrients’.
Earlier this year, in January 2023, researchers in Copenhagen also turned their attention to the potential health benefits of coffee – but when consumed with milk.
In a study published in the ‘Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry’, researchers at the Department of Food Science, in collaboration with researchers from the Department of Veterinary and Animal Sciences at the University of Copenhagen, found that a combination of proteins and antioxidants doubles the anti-inflammatory properties in immune cells.
The researchers had already demonstrated that polyphenols, present in high quantities in coffee beans, bind to proteins in milk. “Our results demonstrate that the reaction between polyphenols and proteins also happens in some of the coffee drinks with milk that we studied,” said Professor Marianne Nissen Lund from the University’s department of food science. “In fact, the reaction happens so quickly that it has been difficult to avoid in any of the foods that we’ve studied so far.”
The issue is that humans do not absorb high quantities of polyphenols without the presence of proteins. As a result, researchers are studying how to encapsulate polyphenols in protein structures which improve their absorption in the body.
“This strategy has the added advantage of enhancing the anti-inflammatory effects of polyphenols,” explained Professor Lund.
Could a cup of filter coffee inhibit COVID-19 infection?
In Germany, coffee has received newfound attention in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Researchers at Jacobs University in Bremen discovered that the chemical compound 5-caffeolyquinic acid – otherwise known as chlorogenic acid – which is found in coffee, inhibits the interaction by a factor of 50 between the SARS CoV-2 spike protein of the coronavirus and the ACE-2 receptor, the docking site for the virus on the human cell.
A regular cup of filter coffee contains around 100mg of the 5-caffeolyquinic acid, which laboratory research suggests is a high enough concentration to prevent the docking of the spike protein to the ACE-2 receptor, and therefore also inhibit the infection process.
Whether consuming a cup of coffee in a real-world setting is an effective way of protecting oneself against coronavirus infection has yet to be proven. But at the very least, the researchers say it is plausible.
“As chemists, we cannot answer the practical question of whether drinking coffee could really serve as a preventative measure to protect against infection. But we can say it is plausible,” said Jacobs University professor Nikolai Kuhnert. “Many people drink coffee and that it has many other positive effects is well established.”
As to next steps, the professor believes epidemiological studies could determine whether regular coffee drinkers become more often infected with COVID-19 or not.
Another potential health benefit associated with coffee consumption is reduced severity of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) in people with type 2 diabetes, according to research out of Portugal.
The study – published in journal ‘Nutrients’ and sponsored by the Institute for Scientific Information on Coffee (ISIC), whose members include coffee majors Illycaffè, Lavazza, and Nestlé – is the first to assess the potential independent mechanisms of both caffeine and non-caffeine components in reducing the severity of NAFLD.
Coimbra University researchers found that study participants with higher coffee intake had healthier livers. Those with higher caffeine levels were less likely to have liver fibrosis, while those with higher levels of non-caffeine coffee components were ‘significantly’ associated with reduced fatty liver index scores.
“Due to changes in modern diet and lifestyle, there is an increase in obesity rates and incidence of both type 2 diabetes and NAFLD, which can ultimately develop into more severe and irreversible conditions, burdening healthcare systems,” said John Griffith Jones, senior researcher in the center for neuroscience and cell biology at the University of Coimbra, Portugal.
“Our research is the first to observe that higher cumulative amounts of both caffeine and non-caffeine metabolites in urine are associated with a reduced severity of NAFLD in overweight people with type 2 diabetes.”
But coffee might not be a panacea for everyone
It’s not all good news for the celebrated beverage, however. In December last year, a study published in the ‘Journal of the American Heart Association’ linked consumption of two or more cups of coffee a day with twice the risk of death from cardiovascular disease among people with severe hypertension, compared to non-coffee drinkers.
In contrast, the researchers found that one cup of coffee – and daily green tea consumption – did not increase the risk of death related to cardiovascular disease at any blood pressure measurements, even though both of these beverages contain caffeine.
“Our study aimed to determine whether the known protective effect of coffee also applies to individuals with different degrees of hypertension; and also examined the effects of green tea in the same population,” said the study’s senior author Hiroyasu Iso, director of the institute for global healthy policy research at the National Center for Global Health and Medicine in Japan.
“To the best of our knowledge, this is the first study to find an association between drinking two or more cups of coffee daily and cardiovascular disease mortality among people with severe hypertension.”
This could mean that people with severe high blood pressure should avoid drinking excessive coffee, added Iso. “Because people with severe hypertension are more susceptible to the effects of caffeine, caffeine’s harmful effects may outweigh its protective effects and may increase the risk of death.”
‘Self-Reported Coffee Consumption and Central and Peripheral Blood Pressure in the Cohort of the Brisighella Heart Study’
Published 8 January 2023
Authors: Arrigo F. G. Cicero, Federica Fogacci, Sergio D’Addato et al.
Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry
‘Phenolic Acid-Amino Acid Adducts Exert Distinct Immunomodulatory Effects in Macrophages Compared to Parent Phenolic Acids’
Published 30 January 2023
Authors: Jingyan Liu, Mahesha M. Poojary, Ling Zhu, Andrew R Williams, and Marianne N. Lund.
Food & Function
‘Investigating the interaction between dietary polyphenols, the SARS CoV2 spike protein and the ACE-2 receptor’
Published 23 June 2022
Authors: Dorothea Schmidt, Inamullah Hakeem Said, Nicholas Ohl, Mobinassadat Sharifii, Paula Cotrell and Nikolai Kuhnert.
‘Increased Intake of Both Caffeine and Non-Caffeine Coffee Components Is Associated with Reduced NAFLD Severity in Subjects with Type 2 Diabetes’
Published 20 December 2022
Authors: Margarida Coelho, Rita S. Patarrão, John G. Jones et al.
Journal of the American Heart Association
‘Coffee and Green Tea Consumption and Cardiovascular Disease Mortality Among People With and Without Hypertension’
Published 21 December 2022
Authors: Masayuki Teramoto, Kazumasa Yamagishi, Isao Muraki, Akiko Tamakoshi and Hiroyasu Iso.