Natural Foods Merchandiser

Jittery about coffee? No need to stress

For health-conscious consumers who drink coffee, the fragrant brew has traditionally been a guilty pleasure. In fact, many of your customers probably have tried to kick the habit.

But the latest research on coffee—and the current opinion of many nutritionists and other experts—is that drinking coffee seems to do little harm. And, from a health perspective, it might even have some perks.

"We don't consider coffee to be un?healthy," says David Schardt, senior nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer watchdog group specializing in food and nutrition. "It's a no-calorie beverage with phytochemicals that could even turn out to be beneficial, much like grape juice or pomegranate juice. But the jury's not in on that yet."

But for those who love the jolt of a cup of joe, the latest scientific studies look encouraging.

Good news brewing
Coffee has been studied for the past 30 years and, especially in the past few years, has been linked to possible health benefits:

  • Lower risk of death from heart disease.
    Research published last year in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, based on the Iowa Women's Health Study, which followed more than 40,000 post-menopausal women, found that women who drink between one and five cups of coffee per day were less likely to die from cardiovascular and inflammatory disease. The researchers guessed that the high amounts of antioxidants found in coffee might play a role.
  • Lower risk of type 2 diabetes.
    A review of nine epidemiological studies, published in 2005 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that regular coffee drinking was linked with a substantially lower risk of type 2 diabetes. The more coffee the participants drank, the lower the diabetes risk; those who drank more than six cups a day had a 35 percent lower risk than those who drank zero to two cups.
  • No increased risk for high blood pressure.
    An analysis of data from 155,000 participants in the Nurses' Health Study, published in JAMA in 2005, showed that coffee does not seem to increase the risk for hypertension after all. While coffee drinking does cause a blood pressure increase in the short term, the bodies of habitual coffee drinkers seem to get used to it.
According to the Harvard School of Public Health, other recent research shows that coffee is linked to a lower risk of gallstones and seems to be linked to a lower risk of Parkinson's disease in men. Also, it may have anti-cancer properties; a 2005 study published in the Journal of Hepatology showed that coffee drinkers were 50 percent less likely to develop liver cancer.

The recent research findings seem to have had a major impact on how consumers view coffee, says Joseph DeRupo, spokesman for the National Coffee Association of U.S.A., a coffee industry trade group. About 40 percent of Americans surveyed by the NCA in 2006 said they view coffee as a healthy drink—up from 26 percent a year earlier.

"I think [the new scientific findings] are giving them the permission to go forward with their coffee drinking, which they appear to enjoy more than ever in terms of varieties that they are looking for and numbers of them who drink coffee—which is now 82 percent of American adults," DeRupo said.

Caution with caffeine
But the new findings don't mean that everyone should run out and buy stock in Starbucks. When it comes to coffee, moderation is the buzzword.

"I encourage people who already drink coffee to relax and enjoy it," says Dr. Herbert Muncie, a professor of family medicine at Louisiana State University in New Orleans. "In my opinion, we obsess too much about things that are of no significant consequence to our health, and we don't obsess enough about the things that are."

But, Muncie cautions, some people are more sensitive to caffeine than others—and too much of it can cause a jittery feeling and even contribute to insomnia. Supersized portions and free refills don't help, either—coffee lovers sometimes don't realize how much they're drinking.

And Edith Howard Hogan, a registered dietitian and caffeine expert, encourages pregnant women to either cut back on or avoid caffeinated beverages—research has shown too much can be linked to low birth weight. "It's really up to them how much they consume, but they should talk to their doctors," she says.

To avoid overdoing it, some consumers who fuel up with coffee in the morning may turn to alternatives as the day winds down, says T.J. McIntyre, co-founder of Pixie Maté in Boulder, Colo., which sells yerba maté—a milder caffeinated drink brewed from a South American tropical rain forest plant.

"People who work in an office—if they're hitting the office coffee pot all day—by the end of the day, their nervous system is fried," McIntyre says. "So, they look for something else."

Marina Kushner, founder of the Caffeine Awareness Alliance and chief executive officer of Royersford, Pa.-based Soy Coffee, which makes a coffee alternative, Soyfee, is a self-described former coffee addict. "Coffee consumption at the level of one to two cups a day is a health hazard, but most coffee drinkers don't stop there—they drink five, 10, 15 cups," Kushner says. "I don't think it's a good idea to drink it at all."

Hold the coffee, please
For those who prefer coffee alternatives, the options fall into several categories: grain-based hot beverages, maté and tea.

Grain-based beverages—such as Teeccino, made by Teeccino Caffe, in Santa Barbara, Calif.—have a rich, nutty flavor that coffee lovers might find familiar, but without the caffeine. And Teeccino, a blend of roasted grains, herbs, fruits and nuts, delivers a nutrient boost, including a high dose of potassium. Unlike coffee, it is not acidic, and it contains inulin—a soluble fiber found in chicory root that can act as a digestive aid.

Yerba maté, which is gaining popularity among health-conscious con?sumers, does contain caffeine, but not as much as coffee, and it also contains vitamins A, C and E and trace minerals such as potassium, magnesium and iron. While it doesn't naturally taste much like coffee, some companies are offering flavored maté. Pixie Maté, for example, makes Dark Roast Maté—with chicory root and ramon nut, it's designed to woo the "java junkie."

Coffee alternatives, while not necessary, are a nutritionally acceptable choice, Schardt says. "It's really just a matter of personal preference."

So, whether your customers choose to get their coffee fix by drinking alternatives or the real deal or a mix of both, they probably don't need to lose any sleep—at least not from worry about their health.

Allie Johnson is a Kansas City, Mo.-based freelance writer.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 3/p. 80

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