Depending on whom you ask, coffee will stunt your growth, cause heart attacks, and probably give you cancer. It also reduces your risk of cancer (other kinds!), lowers the risk of heart failure, and makes you smarter. But it might cause you to break all of your bones. Research on coffee flips between the benefits and drawbacks faster than the gymnast Simone Biles in a floor routine. Scientists flop back and forth on its healthfulness like football players looking for a whistle. And those of us just sitting at home trying to make sure we get to work with our shirts on right-side-out and our shoes on the right feet are left to sort it out for ourselves if we’re willing to risk urinary tract cancer for our morning beverage. If the experts can’t figure it out, how are us normals supposed to know if coffee is good or bad for us?
Despite my inherently unhealthy job as a food writer, I try to keep my body in good working order: I work out a few times a week, I eat my vegetables, I limit my hate-reads to just a few each week. Thanks to my doctor-dad's graphic descriptions of what he saw in the ER regularly, I don’t smoke cigarettes or ride motorcycles or any of the other things whose after-effects easily frightened a 10-year-old girl. Interestingly, despite the various fears floated about coffee’s health risks, my dad never came home with stories of people’s lives ruined by their daily cuppa jo, never warned his wife that her daily double-tall non-fat latte would leave her three children motherless.
Still, scientists over the years have warned us about the risks. As far back as the 16th century, coffee has been banned, forbidden, and avoided for various reasons — starting with accusations that it stimulated radical thinking. For me, it’s more that it stimulates any thinking at all — I no longer make the coffee in our house because I’m the kind of person that can’t quite think well enough to make the coffee…until I have coffee.
Since then, research has gone back and forth on coffee: it was considered a cure for alcoholism in 17th-century England, but it also was thought to cause impotence. By the 19th century, it caused blindness, in the early 20th, it stunted growth. Soon, the studies came faster and more often, glorifying the drink and then ripping it apart. These days, thankfully, we’re okay: coffee’s rep is on the upswing.
On the other hand, to get your greedy mitts on some of those lifesaving benefits of coffee, you might not even be drinking enough of it: a large meta-analysis last year decided that coffee does lower risk of heart disease, a bunch of cancers, and various neurological, metabolic, and liver disorders. Overall, it found that you’ll live longer if you drink coffee — but only with three to four cups of it each day.
I love coffee. Every morning, my engineer husband spends (too) many minutes carefully weighing, grinding, and pouring, in his daily quest to brew the world’s most perfect cup of coffee. I drink it from a fancy thermal mug that keeps it hot enough to burn my lips for many hours, letting the caffeine course through my body, waking up my brain enough that I can make words work together, form ideas, and understand what the internet is angry about that day. Sometimes, if I’m particularly tired or I have a late evening planned, I’ll have a second cup around mid-day. But if I have a third cup, or any cup after about 2 p.m., I’m likely to be staring at the ceiling at 2 a.m. stressing about if I talked to much at a party last month. Four cups in one day and there’s a decent chance I’m on the floor of my kids’ room all night wondering how many more blocks I need to break the world record for largest Lego rabbit ever built.
So, after just a single cup of coffee, as a food writer — the person on the receiving end of every possible health benefit press release known to humankind — it’s my job to help sort through these studies and figure out what we should believe and what should get thrown in the compost with the coffee grounds and that spaghetti squash you promised yourself you’d eat before it rotted. In doing this, I’ve learned there are a few signs that you shouldn’t listen to a study. First, take it with a grain of salt (or a bean of coffee) if it’s paid for by the industry. (“Lion bites don’t hurt, roars local lion.”) Will the person who paid for the study likely benefit from the result? They probably set out to prove just that — see the “Gatorade Sports Science Institute” research finding Gatorade is better than water for exercise — and science can find a way to prove almost anything. Second, there’s a lot of terrible methodology: for many years, coffee was linked to lung cancer, but it turns out that may have been a result of heavy coffee drinkers being more likely to smoke. Companies like when people are confused about health or nutrition of food, though: that’s how they can separate you from your money. The back and forth of health benefits, in many cases isn’t a bug, it’s a feature.
That said, when it comes to coffee, I think we’re all on the same side: let’s get it declared a superfood in any quantity, and then stop the studying and accept that as gospel, please.
Okay, that’s unlikely to happen, but regardless of the scientific research behind the health benefits and detriments of drinking coffee, there is one thing I know for sure: we all live in a safer world when I drink coffee. One where I use my turn signal, remember to shut off the stove, and move the sharp objects away from my small children.