Beyond latte art: James Wong on coffee’s new health cred

Posted by James Wong October 30, 2017 | 3 min read

Is your body clock all out of whack? You’re not the only one. While that daylight savings snooze (if indeed you managed it) was wonderful, it does make for a rather sleepy afternoon as the 4pm darkness descends. What to do? Make yourself a nice strong coffee of course.

I couldn’t live without the stuff, but for years the drink has been considered an unhealthy vice by health-food warriors, who claim its ‘toxic’ caffeine is terrible for your heart and your mood, and even a potential cause of cancer. Thank goodness, the latest evidence I’ve unearthed for my new book, How to Eat Better, says quite the opposite.

Better than kale?
In reality, coffee turns out to be an incredibly rich source of heart-healthy polyphenols, containing much more than fruit and veg like blackberries and even (gasp!) kale per serving. Your daily Americano actually boasts more than double the polyphenol content of a purist’s green tea, plus a range of demonstrated health benefits.

Sharp minds, good moods
For starters, moderate doses of caffeine have been demonstrated to not only boost feelings of alertness, but also improve mood within minutes of consumption. This well-established effect appeared to be reflected in a study by the Harvard School of Public Health, which found that women who drank 2-3 cups of coffee a day were 15 per cent less likely to suffer from depression.

Robusta is richest
Aside from caffeine, one of the key compounds researchers believe to be behind coffee’s apparent health benefits is a group of compounds called chlorogenic acids. In fact, coffee is the richest of all foods and drinks in this class of antioxidants, which contribute to the acidic notes in the drink. But not all coffee beans were made equal. Those from the robusta species contain twice as much chlorogenic acid and bitter-tasting caffeine than the more expensive arabica types. They also have a bolder flavour as a result. Although I generally recommend filter robusta coffee, even everyday granules can be higher in this class of phytonutrients than fancy ground arabica.

What about decaf?
Love the taste but not feeling wired? There’s more good news for decaf drinkers. The decaffeination process apparently only destroys small amounts of chlorogenic acids (about 3-9 per cent) and has very little effect on coffee’s total antioxidant activity. This may explain why some studies find that decaf drinkers experience many of the same health benefits.

Filter all the way
According to the journal Food Chemistry, preparing coffee using the filter technique is by far the best way to extract the all-important polyphenols, containing 50 per cent more per serving than espresso, almost twice that of percolator and over three times that of instant.

Light roasting, heavy antioxidants
Sadly, the roasting process that gives coffee beans their characteristic caramel, nutty and smoky notes also destroys a large percentage of their heat-sensitive polyphenols. Shockingly, dark roasts can lose between 90 and 100 per cent of their precious chlorogenic acids as they tumble in the kiln! Pick a medium roast and this reduces to 70 per cent while a light roast results in around 50 per cent of the polyphenols remaining intact. The moral of the story? Choose a light roast to retain up to five times the polyphenol payload of a dark roast brew.

Too much of a good thing?
Of course, coffee consumption can also result in nervousness or disrupted sleep if drunk to excess late at night, so don’t go crazy. During pregnancy women are generally advised by public health bodies like the NHS to halve their caffeine intake to a maximum of 200mg a day, which is roughly equivalent to 2 cups of coffee.