Nutrition Column – Coffee is a Good Source of Antioxidants

Coffee, the brown drink many of us wake up to, appears to provide more than just a morning jolt. According to a recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania, coffee is a primary source of dietary antioxidants for many Americans. And it doesn’t matter if you prefer the caffeinated or decaf version – both appear to provide similar levels of antioxidants.

Antioxidants in general have been linked to a number of potential health benefits, including protection against heart disease and cancer. In the study mentioned above, Joe Vinson, a chemistry professor, and colleagues analyzed the antioxidant content of more than 100 different food items, including vegetables, fruits, nuts, spices, oils and common beverages. The level of antioxidants found in each of these foods was then expressed in terms of average U.S. per capita consumption.

Taking into account both the frequency of coffee consumption and the amount per serving, coffee came out far ahead of any other food evaluated. According to the National Coffee Association, 54 percent of Americans drink coffee every day and another 25 percent drink it occasionally. Based on current consumption rates in the U.S., the top 10 dietary sources of antioxidants were coffee, followed by black tea, bananas, dry beans, corn, red wine, lager beer, apples, tomatoes and potatoes. Among all foods studied, dates had the highest antioxidant level on a per-serving basis but, given its low rate of consumption, ranked lower as a dietary source of antioxidants for Americans.

The study authors cautioned that high antioxidant levels in foods and beverages don’t necessarily translate into active functioning levels of antioxidants in the body. The potential health benefit of any dietary antioxidant ultimately depends on how it is absorbed and used in the body, a process that is poorly understood.  

Still, this study is one of a growing number of studies touting the potential health benefits of drinking coffee. Besides keeping you alert and awake, coffee has been linked to reducing the risk of liver and colon cancer, type 2 diabetes and Parkinson’s disease.

There’s also a downside to coffee: too much can make you jittery and cause stomach pains. Some studies have also tied excessive coffee consumption to elevated blood pressure and heart rates. Others have shown that caffeine promotes a small increase in urinary calcium. More research is definitely needed, particularly human studies.

While the findings seem to encourage adults to drink more coffee, even Vinson emphasizes moderation. While one to two cups of coffee per day may provide beneficial antioxidants, more is not better. Also, coffee doesn’t contain the important vitamins, minerals and fiber found in fruits and vegetables, which are good sources of antioxidants as well.

– 30 –

by Pat Kendall, Ph.D., R.D., Food Science and Human Nutrition Specialist, Colorado State University, Cooperative Extension