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Coffee and health

My relationship with coffee is complicated. I feel it is a type of toxic partnership which should be avoided, but during the week it becomes a necessary evil if I am to manage the stresses of early mornings with any dignity.

This is all due to a sentimental memory which puts me into conflict with the coffee container. In my childhood and teen years, coffee-drinking was considered an unhealthy habit of adults who didn't care a jot about their lifestyle, in the same way as smoking. For me, coffee and tobacco were an inseparable pair that demonstrated the toxic way of life of grown-ups.

That's why I have always been sceptical about studies which said that drinking coffee is actually good for you. I recognise that my scientific neutrality was somewhat upset when face to face with the show of muscle of our protagonist; nor did it help that most of the studies were observational. What is true, though, is that the accumulation of evidence is proving overwhelming, so I have no choice but to relate some facts about this dark potion.

Bad reputation

The association of coffee with an unhealthy lifestyle began a long time ago but, perhaps unsurprisingly, it is the most-consumed psychoactive drug on the planet. However, it seems that the real problem was that people didn't know what caused what.

On many occasions coffee consumption is linked with habits such as smoking, stress and long hours. In addition, its greater consumption is also related, in many cases, with a greater incidence of such pernicious habits. That's why when it comes to study the consequences of coffee consumption, it was very difficult to separate it from its travelling companions.

The population studies appeared to be in no doubt: drinking coffee was indisputably connected with an increase in cancer and cerebro-vascular accidents. Howev er, as on other occasions, a lack of proper discernment was giving exactly the opposite message to the real one.

We know more about it

The roots of this shrub-like plant of Ethiopian origin have been lost in stories which are surely apocryphal from the tenth century. The way we roast and consume coffee now did not start until the 15th century on the Arabian peninsula, from where it spread rapidly.

Its invigorating properties were always highlighted until in 1905 a German businessman discovered that if you wet the coffee grains they lose their caffeine but the flavour is hardly affected. Decaffeinated coffee became the German superseller that was even promoted by Hitler himself.

It seemed that with this 'poison' removed, coffee became a nutritionally impeccable product. It was a shame that at that time nobody knew about some of the properties which are associated with caffeine nowadays: anti-inflammatory and diuretic actions, as well as effects which are beneficial at an endothelial level, in other words the internal wall of the blood vessels.

Roasted coffee has more than 1,000 bioactive components, but if anything is outstanding in it it has to be the caffeine. Caffeine is a crystaline alcaloid, white, with no smell and a bitter flavour. It forms part of the group of xanthines and those all have similar actions: they activate the nervous system, have diuretic effects, relax the smooth muscles, increase the basal mechanism. Caffeine is the most potent of them all, acting at the level of the cerebral cortex, reducing fatigue and increasing motor capacity.

Latest studies

One of the most recent studies has used the UK Biobank, a centre which monitors the health of nearly half a million anonymous volunteers and provides the information to accredited scientific researchers in the UK and abroad. The study on coffee consumption which was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) was developed by the NCI (National Cancer Institute of the United States of America). The conclusions were that consumption reduced in an inversely proportional way (in other words more consumption, less incidence) the mortality rate of cardiovascular illnesses, the appearance of cancer and strokes.

Just a few weeks earlier the British Medical Journal (BMJ) showed that roasted coffee is an amalgamation of substances with antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antifibrotic and anti-carcigenic effects.

These studies are from 2018 but it seems that in 2019 the data has continued to show coffee as being a real compendium of virtues. One of the most recent was from the University of Catania and CIBEROBN (Centro de Investigación Biomédica en Red. Fisiopatología de la Obesidad y Nutrición) and is a meta-analysis which links moderate coffee consumption with a reduction in the incidence of metabolic syndrome. That could be the result of the enormous variety of substances contained in a cup of fragrant coffee: polyphenols, trigonelline, caffeine and melanoidins, among others.

It is true that the studies are above all observational, but the accumulation of indications is proving incontestable, such as those directly relating longevity with coffee consumption. And after all, if something looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it is very probably a duck.