What's in Your Cup?

Photo by Julius Schorzman, via Wikimedia

So the past few months have seen an absolute bonanza of coffee-related health studies. In March, it was tied to a reduced stroke risk in women; in May, researchers linked it to reduced risk for breast cancer and lethal prostate cancer. This month, it’s already been associated with improvements in response to hep C treatment. And that’s all on top of the existing body of work that’s hooked the drink to reduced risks for diabetes, heart disease, Parkinson’s, liver disease and suicide (though on the flip side, it’s been positively correlated with elements of heart disease, osteoporosis, and mineral deficiencies).

More on this, but before I go any further, I want to point out one thing here: These are epidemiological studies, largely based on self-reported data gathered over long periods of time. Correlation does not equal causation; it just suggests a possible link. Repeated results observed through randomized, controlled experimental trials are really the only way to feel more confident declaring causation, but they’re rough to perform on humans, especially when it comes to behaviors and cancer risks).

Still, even with that caveat, I find all of this fascinating. I mean, think about it: How many of us take this drink for granted? And yet, it’s so much more than filtered water with a kick of caffeine: it has in the neighborhood of 2,000 chemical compounds, including fats, acids, and more aromatics than are found in wine, chocolate, and tea. Seriously: looking at the makeup of the drink, it’s not that much of a stretch to accept that it could be driving, or at least contributing to, some of these extraordinary health effects.

So in honor of my favorite drink — and given that this is the Dunkin’ state — I’ve rounded up a brief list of just a few of the fascinating elements that make up the daily brew:

1. Caffeine. Naturally this tops the list – it’s the drink’s most defining characteristic. Caffeine hits us primarily through our adenosine receptors, which ordinarily exert a calming, almost sedative effect. When blocked with caffeine, the result is the opposite: alertness, stimulation, and a general speeding up of the system. We absorb the chemical very quickly throughout our entire system (brain and body) – until our liver kicks in and starts to break it down into different, though still comparatively stimulating compounds like theophylline, paraxanthine and theobromine (which is also the stimulant compound in chocolate which causes dogs so much trouble).

2. Diterpenes. These are actually a type of hydrocarbon (other famous hydrocarbons: diesel fuel) found in the fatty oil of the coffee bean. The two most well-known types here are cafestol and kahweol, which have been alternately blackballed for their putative cholesterol-raising effects (which can actually be largely blocked by paper filter), and praised for their apparent anti-cancer effects in animals and cell cultures.

3. Chlorogenic Acid. This is an ester produced by a reaction between caffeic acid and quinic acid – two of the compounds, incidentally, that this acid reverts back to as it is processed in your system. Chlorogenic acid is a known antioxidant also found in berries and Echinacea; both this acid and its derivative, caffeic acid, have been shown to promote and battle cancer in animals and lab cultures, depending on the study and the cancer in question. Quinic acid, meanwhile, also contributes to the brisk, sour taste that you’ll find rounding out the body of the drink.

4. Vitamins. Familiar faces here if you’re a nutrition label reader: think magnesium, potassium, B vitamins and even a very little bit of vitamin E. Who knew?

5. Sugars (both simple and complex). Easy to forget this, but coffee is a fruit-bearing plant at heart – and where there’s fruit, there’s sugar and lignocellulose. What we call a bean to roast and grind is nothing more than the seed from the ripe, sweet, entirely edible coffee cherry. Green coffee is actually mostly carbohydrate; it’s during roasting that most of these sugars are broken down into all sorts of different compounds that contribute to the overall taste, aroma and color of the final drink (and the more you roast, incidentally, the more you burn them away – which is part of the reason a French roast is such a very different beast than a light roast).