Remember when coffee was the enemy? Many of us looked down our noses at java addicts, clucking about the stress, high blood pressure and even heart disease that drinkers might be inflicting upon themselves.
How times have changed. Today we know that coffee drinkers have a lower risk of Type 2 diabetes, a disease that's poised to be a huge health threat in the fattest of Western nations. Moreover, it's the coffee drinkers who are most addicted to the brew that seem to reap the most benefit.
We also know that coffee gives one's mood a significant boost. Java enthusiasts have a lower risk of suicide. Just one cup of coffee per day seems to do the trick. Coffee also increases mental agility in the elderly and boosts physical performance in athletes. It also seems to protect against Parkinson's disease, colon and liver cancer.
Now comes news for people who still aren't convinced: Coffee is the number one source of cell-protecting antioxidants in the U.S. diet, according to a study by researchers at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania. Of a study of 100 foods—including tea, chocolate and cranberries—coffee outranked them all.
"Nothing else comes close," says study leader Joe Vinson, Ph.D., a chemistry professor at the university. Both decaf and regular coffee have similar antioxidant levels, according to the study. Dates were the only food to outrank coffee in antioxidant concentration, says Vinson. But because Americans are not nearly as fond of dates as they are of coffee, java came out on top due to sheer popularity.
Studies show that coffee packs such a powerful punch in terms of antioxidants. These tiny molecules help neutralize the body's free radicals—highly reactive molecular fragments that, left to their own devices, undermine normal body processes by attacking cell membranes and the genetic material contained inside cells. Free radicals accumulate in tissue as a result of normal metabolic activity, exposure to toxins and age. The damage they do is collectively known as oxidative stress, and it is thought to cause cancer and other age-related diseases.
Researchers say the study isn't license to cut down on the other healthy foods that also contain antioxidants in abundance, including dark berries, colorful vegetables and chocolate. Each provides a different antioxidant, of which there are hundreds, even thousands.
But Vinson says that researchers are learning that high levels of antioxidants in food don't necessarily translate into benefits for the human body. Scientists still don't quite understand how antioxidants are absorbed and used by the body.
So for now, we can all sing coffee's praises. But researchers caution that the latest java news doesn't mean that the more coffee, the better. Vinson still advocates moderation. "One to two cups a day appear to be beneficial," he says. If you don't like coffee, consider drinking black tea, which is the second most consumed antioxidant source in the U.S. diet, Vinson says. Bananas, dry beans and corn placed third, fourth and fifth, respectively.
Word is getting out, it seems. Even with a Starbucks seemingly on every other corner, coffee is still increasing in popularity in the U.S. More than half of all Americans drink it every day.
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