Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Enjoy a cuppa joe -- it's more good than evil

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A glowing ad once stated: "A very wholesome and physical drink that helpeth indigestion, quickeneth the spirits, maketh the heart lightsome, is good against eye sores, coughs, headache, gout and the king's evil." It was the year 1657, when coffee was first introduced to London, England, from the Middle East. And what was the "king's evil?"

In recent years, people have considered coffee drinking a questionable habit, with some refusing coffee for health reasons. So what are the pros and cons of drinking a cup of java?

First, the good news. Coffee contains more than 1,000 naturally occurring chemicals. Caffeine is actually a natural pesticide that helps protect coffee plants from predators. Brewed coffee contains between 60 and 120 milligrams of caffeine that stimulates the nervous system, improving alertness and mood. It's therefore not surprising a British medical journal reports an Australian study showing caffeine decreased the risk of accidents for long-distance truck drivers.

More than 20 studies show coffee also helps reduce the risk of Type 2 diabetes caused by obesity. Coffee contains chlorogenic acid, which decreases the absorption of glucose from the bowel. The less glucose in the blood, the less strain on insulin production. But coffee is of no help for those who already have diabetes.

What about the risk of cardiovascular disease? Finnish researchers followed 20,000 coffee-loving Finns for 10 years. They concluded coffee and non-coffee drinkers shared the same risk of coronary attack or dying of heart disease. In 2012, a large German study reached the same conclusion. Later, a Norwegian study reported older women drinking one to three cups of coffee daily were 24 per cent less likely to die of cardiovascular disease than non-drinkers.

For years, people have worried about the effect of coffee on blood pressure, but there is no consensus on this issue. A Finnish study of 27,000 healthy men and women who took coffee revealed that after 13 years, there was a 14 per cent greater risk of hypertension. However, a Harvard study of 45,000 people failed to link coffee to increased blood pressure. In even better news, a Swedish study revealed a decreased risk of stroke.

A report in Experimental Neurobiology states coffee appears to have a protective effect against the development of Parkinson's disease. The Finns love their java, and those who consumed 10 or more cups daily had an astounding 84 per cent decreased risk of developing this disease. In addition, those who drank six or more cups daily had a 40 per cent decreased risk of gout.

The news about cancer is good and bad. Some studies show a link to pancreatic malignancy, an increase in leukemia, stomach and bladder cancer. But other research shows protection against colon, rectal and liver cancer.

Do you want to live longer? A report in the New England Journal of Medicine shows those who drank at least two cups of coffee (regular or decaf) were 10 to 15 per cent less likely to die over a 14-year period.

Now the bad news. Studies show only 35 per cent of people drink coffee black. Milk, cream and sugar add calories. Moreover, specialty shops have added significant calories to a cup of java. So it pays to be prudent about what you add. The best choice is skim milk or low-fat milk. Consider artificial sweeteners, cinnamon or spices that don't add calories or fat. But whatever way you like your java, you end up with a cup that contains either a low of 16 calories or a whopping 500.

It's prudent for pregnant women to limit their coffee intake. Some studies show excessive amounts of coffee increase the risk of miscarriage.

But could a cup of java cure the "king's evil?" Years ago, it was believed the king's touch could cure a tuberculosis swelling of lymph glands in the neck. This royal touch was first used by Edward the Confessor. Later folk lore has it that Charles II touched 90,000 victims. My bet is these people should have stayed home.

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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 13, 2013 A19

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