Coffee is (Mostly) Healthy Again

The indicators are pointing in the direction of caffeine being good for most people.

Longtime NYT personal health columnist Jane E. Brody extols “The Health Benefits of Coffee.” They’re rather impressive.

The latest assessments of the health effects of coffee and caffeine, its main active ingredient, are reassuring indeed. Their consumption has been linked to a reduced risk of all kinds of ailments, including Parkinson’s disease, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, gallstones, depression, suicide, cirrhosis, liver cancer, melanoma and prostate cancer.

In fact, in numerous studies conducted throughout the world, consuming four or five eight-ounce cups of coffee (or about 400 milligrams of caffeine) a day has been associated with reduced death rates. In a study of more than 200,000 participants followed for up to 30 years, those who drank three to five cups of coffee a day, with or without caffeine, were 15 percent less likely to die early from all causes than were people who shunned coffee. Perhaps most dramatic was a 50 percent reduction in the risk of suicide among both men and women who were moderate coffee drinkers, perhaps by boosting production of brain chemicals that have antidepressant effects.

As a report published last summer by a research team at the Harvard School of Public Health concluded, although current evidence may not warrant recommending coffee or caffeine to prevent disease, for most people drinking coffee in moderation “can be part of a healthy lifestyle.”

It wasn’t always thus. I’ve lived through decades of sporadic warnings that coffee could be a health hazard. Over the years, coffee’s been deemed a cause of conditions such as heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes, pancreatic cancer, anxiety disorder, nutrient deficiencies, gastric reflux disease, migraine, insomnia, and premature death. As recently as 1991, the World Health Organization listed coffee as a possible carcinogen. In some of the now-discredited studies, smoking, not coffee drinking (the two often went hand-in-hand) was responsible for the purported hazard.

There are numerous caveats—notably that paper-filtered preparation is better, that additives like cream and syrup aren’t great, and that drinking during pregnancy isn’t recommended—but the current state of research is encouraging for those of us who partake. I’m still waiting for similar studies on whiskey and other spirits.

Of course, the fact that health science—and especially media reporting on its findings—continue to go back and forth on so many things is less than ideal. It encourages public skepticism. But long-term studies of such things are incredibly difficult to parse, simply because there are so many competing variables. If people who drink several cups of coffee a day are also more likely to smoke a pack of cigarettes and have three heavy pours of bourbon, isolating the effects of the coffee is challenging. The sample size would have to be really large to account for all of that. And that’s to say nothing of the problems of relying on self-reporting of consumption habits.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Michael Reynolds says:

    Answer: Penile cancer.
    Question: What health effect could get me to give up coffee?

  2. charon says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    It may or may not be linked to osteoporosis, some studies indicate, others not.

    I already have that condition, which enough to make me limit my indicate, especially now that I have a recent broken bone.

  3. CSK says:

    This debate–coffee okay, coffee not okay–has been going on my entire adult life. At this point, most people will probably roll their eyes.

    Same with eggs. One day they’re deadly poison, the next nature’s miracle food.

    Everything in moderation, as Julia Child used to say.

  4. Mu Yixiao says:

    Tomorrow in health news: Oat Bran: The Silent Killer!

  5. SKI says:
  6. steve says:

    There are two rules that apply to diet studies as far as I am concerned. 1) Diet studies are always wrong. Ignore them. 2) Sometimes the diet study looks pretty good. Go read rule #1 if that is the case.

    We dont really need studies to know that too much of anything probably isn’t good for you, fresh foods are better than processed as a rule and if the food is really, really good it is probably bad for you. Still eat the bad foods just eat less of them.


  7. dazedandconfused says:

    Somebody needs to check to see if the researchers have the same feelings about coffee Mr Reynolds and I share..

    Starbucks handed me a couple of their instant coffee packets the other day. I took them simply to be polite, but am quite surprised at how much better it is than any other instant coffee I’ve ever tried. Spendy but not too shabby. The verdict from this guinea pig: “Could be useful in a pinch”.

    Caveat: The only other instant I’ve ever had was what I think was “Folgers”, an abomination.

  8. Gustopher says:

    The latest assessments of the health effects of coffee and caffeine, its main active ingredient, are reassuring indeed. Their consumption has been linked to a reduced risk of all kinds of ailments, including […] suicide,

    I like coffee well enough, but I’m not going to kill myself if I can’t have it.

  9. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @CSK: How unAmerican! (And how appropriate to cite a French person to make the point. πŸ˜‰ ) Anything worth doing is worth doing in excess. That the American way. Case in point: DDT kills mosquitos? Great! Spray it everywhere with wild abandon. No mosquitos? No problem; it’ll keep ’em from showing up!

    Fructose shows some promise of helping diabetics? Great! Diabetics should switch ALL of the sugar they use from glucose to fructose. We can help all of us even more by refining corn syrup to increase its fructose to the highest available levels. Maybe we can find a fat-like substance that the body doesn’t metabolize and use it to make low-fat potato chips, too. Progress! The key to having it all!

  10. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @dazedandconfused: Maxim–a brand no longer in the US, IIRC–was what virtually everyone drank in Korea if they drank coffee at home. It came in little tubes with cream and sugar premixed or black. 60 one cup tubes went for about $10 or $12. But people mostly go out for coffee there. Dunkin’s coffee was pretty good. Also Starbucks and a Korean chain called Sleepless in Seattle. If you lived near a university, there was a coffee shop in the neighborhood. Coffee, WiFi, students. They all congregate in the same places.

  11. CSK says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:
    Well, I’d agree, but Julia Child wasn’t actually French. She was born in Pasadena, attended Smith College, and spent most of her post-European life in Cambridge, Mass. She died in California. πŸ˜€

  12. CSK says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:
    Nescafe had an instant coffee called Continental Roast (or Blend) available in the U.K. that was actually potable.

  13. Mu Yixiao says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    It came in little tubes with cream and sugar premixed or black.

    Ah yes. The little tubes of coffee powder.

    I’m not a massive coffee fan. I drink it, but wouldn’t be disappointed if it vanished. But… damn I was glad to get an actual coffee maker instead of those powder tubes.

  14. de stijl says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Even then. I’m 58. My catting around days are done. These days that appendage is more bother than its worth.

    Seriously, I think I’d choose the coffee.

    Last week I stepped on my glasses and I bumbled about like Mr. Magoo for half the day. Anything over four feet away was fine; anything closer might’ve been anything. Is that my phone or a low powered flashlight?

    Thankfully, I just need readers so Walgreens could sort me out. I held up an old pair with a broken off bow to my eyes so I could discern well enough to choose a pair of +275’s that weren’t butt ugly.

    That was a brutally challenging day.

    If the choice were coffee or penis, I’d probably vote coffee. Coffee does its job consistently and daily.

  15. Michael Reynolds says:

    @de stijl:
    I think of my body the way I used to think about the junkers we’d drive in the old days: well, OK, that doesn’t work any more. We’ll make do with no radio and only one window that can be rolled down. And really, do we need all the gears?

  16. de stijl says:

    When I quit smoking my caffeine intake went up. A lot. Like 10x.

    I drank coffee all day every day. Normally, I would have one press pot in the morning and then switch over to tea, but newly nicotine free me wanted hot coffee all day long.

    I contemplated just snorting the grounds at one point.

  17. de stijl says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    My first car was a 76 Olds Omega. Parts routinely fell off. From the era where US cars were basically barely drivable junk.

    I saw one yesterday. Functioning. Either that, or I believe there was Chevy clone. Actually driving on a road. Functioning. Shook my head to make sure I wasn’t having a hallucination.

    Who would maintain *that* car for that long?

    I was flabbergasted.

    That’s bull-headed determination for you, right there.

    Omg, that car was crap. I would bring a bucket with me everywhere so I could refill the radiator. Made for interesting date conversation, speaking of days when my penis served a purpose.

    I just peeled off all the trim one day because no stylish bits were better than barely affixed, saggy and lame ones.

    Pardon me sir or madam bartender, could you please fill up this bucket? My Meg runs hot. Thank you, and I’m sorry to be a bother.

    The Omega instance I saw yesterday had no trim. It likely fell off about 4 years after it left the plant.

  18. flat earth luddite says:

    @de stijl:
    My routine coffee making reflects my OCD. X grams Turkish ground coffee, Y ml filtered cold water = Nirvana (or at least restarts my heart in the morning). If the water isn’t potable, I can just lay a line of Turkish and use a straw. SNORT! Well, it’s a little hard on the sinuses, but it sure does the trick.

    And does anyone else remember Postum? Imitation instant coffee made from grain? Ugh!

    @de stijl:
    IIRC, Omega = Vega. Saw one where they’d shoehorned in a small block V8. WA!

  19. de stijl says:

    @flat earth luddite:

    My grinder threw a gear and just made a noise. Instead of grinding up beans it just grinded up its own gears.

    I was totally stymied. No AM coffee. Not acceptable, dude!

    I put some beans into a freezer bag and smushed it with my cast iron pan on the countertop for five minutes.

    It worked. Kinda. Not well. But it worked. I needed the fix. Don’t judge, man.

    Btw, a perfectly acceptable coffee shop is a five minute walk from my house. Maybe four. I panicked.

    Who would put a V8 on that frame? Madness!

  20. de stijl says:

    @flat earth luddite:

    What exactly is chicory? It is a real thing in NOLA and thereabouts. What is it?

    A smart person would just Google it, and be done. But I am an idiot.

    No foolin’. I stuck “Idiot” in as a user name so everytime I comment I have to choose between “de stijl” and “Idiot”. Keeps me on track.

  21. flat earth luddite says:

    @de stijl: actually, that was a popular fix in Seattle area late 70’s-80’s. 307, 327 (I’ve seen one with a 300 hp crate motor). Hey, I’m not judging, but I suspect it STILL won’t make the jump to FTL, let alone beat Han’s time on the Kessel Run.

    I’m feeling your pain on the dead grinder; been there, done that, own the hat and cozy. I’ve used a rolling pin. Frustration relieved!

  22. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Mu Yixiao: Yeah. I bought a coffee maker while I was in Daegu. Sold it to the teacher who was replacing me for what I paid for it, too. In Daejeon, I lived next door to a coffee place. Having a coffee maker seemed redundant. But I liked Maxim just fine. It was available. It was easy to do. Two tubes made a Western size mug of coffee that tasted fine.

    And (establishing that I AM A HERETIC πŸ˜‰ ) it was the only coffee consistently available as decaf. [exploding head emoji goes here]

  23. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @de stijl: It might have been a clone of some sort. The Chevy No Va, the Citation, and the Pontiac Ventura were all built on the same platform as the Omega according to the interwebs. The platform designation was “X.” Prophetic or ironic? I’m not sure.

  24. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @de stijl: As I understand it, chicory is a relative of endive. But there might be more than one plant with that name. Not unusual.

  25. JohnMcC says:

    @flat earth luddite: Blender worked for me.

  26. dazedandconfused says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    Yes, that was the sort of situation I was thinking of. But also for much of the Europe, where they serve coffee so strong it’s a syrup. A few packets of good instant could be of great use for a traveler

  27. Michael Reynolds says:

    @de stijl:
    My first car was a VW bug that I drove into the front tire of a cement mixer on Independence Avenue in DC. I refused to submit to the tyranny of right turn only lanes!

    Had an ancient Mercedes S class with fins that I drove head-on into a curb.

    Had a 72 Plymouth Valiant (or maybe a Dart, like there’s a difference) with a clutch so worn I had to crawl under it with a wrench and turn a screw before we could take a hill.

    Had another Dodge or Plymouth that threw a rod so K and I left it by the side of the highway in Vermont and caught a bus.

    Had a VW van that threw a rod on the autobahn – abandoned.

  28. Ken_L says:

    If people who drink several cups of coffee a day are also more likely to smoke a pack of cigarettes and have three heavy pours of bourbon, isolating the effects of the coffee is challenging.

    Not really. Positive effects are obviously down to the bourbon.