Coffee: It's a beverage with lore and legend as rich as a double caramel latte.
An advertisement from the first coffeehouse in England promoted coffee as "good against sore eyes" and "excellent to prevent and cure the dropsy, gout, and scurvy." In the early 1700s, Germans believed the beverage made women sterile. An old wives' tale states that if bubbles appear in your java, you're due to come into money — not a bad thing considering the price of a cuppa these days.
In more recent times, another idea took hold of the public's imagination regarding coffee — that it had the power to stunt a child's growth. But just as a pot of coffee boiling over doesn't mean it's going to rain (again from those old wives), the assertion that the drink makes for a nation of hobbits has been proven false.
How coffee got associated with this myth is cloaked in the espresso-colored steam of history, but most experts agree that it has something to do with an early study linking caffeine to reduced bone mass and osteoporosis. Those studies, however, were conducted on elderly people whose diets were lacking in calcium, which could easily have explained the loss of bone mass.
Subsequent studies showed that women aged 65 to 77 who drank about 18 ounces of caffeine daily did have greater bone loss over a three-year period than those who didn't. But the effects occurred only in women with unusual variations in their vitamin D cell receptors — and were completely mitigated if the women ingested the recommended daily allowance of 1,200 mg of calcium a day [source: Collins].
Focusing exclusively on children, a more recent study tracked 81 teenagers for six years. The result? There was no difference in bone density between the biggest buzz catchers and those who drank the least amount of caffeine [source: O'Connor]. But just because a cup of joe doesn't keep little Joe pint-sized all his life doesn't mean there isn't cause to be concerned about children and coffee, as we'll see in the next section.
The Dark Side of Coffee
Coffee has come a long way from the time when Turks retreating from Austria left behind beans so bitter that the Viennese felt compelled to add copious amounts of milk and sugar — making what's regarded as the world's first cappuccino. (The drink is so named, it's believed, because a friar who helped rebuff the Turks belonged to the Capuchin order of monks.)
These days, coffee creations can seem more like dessert than a simple pick-me-up in a cup. The Starbucks menu includes such treats as a mint mocha chip frappuccino blended with chocolate whipped cream, while Dunkin Donuts offers up vanilla bean coolattas that list corn syrup not once but twice on their ingredients list — along with sugar and sweetened condensed skim milk.
So, although it's been proven that there are relatively minor health issues associated with caffeine — jitteriness, anxiety, heartburn, insomnia — it's actually the other ingredients added to coffee, especially sugar, that have nutritionists worried.
It's no secret that America has a burgeoning problem with childhood obesity and diabetes, and 860-calorie-packed drinks like the large coolatta aren't helping. This is particularly troubling when, according to the National Coffee Association, 18- to 24-year-olds represent the fastest growing segment of people who turn to coffee each year.
In addition to expanding young waistlines, coffee can cause the mouth to dry out, which contributes to tooth decay. The problem is compounded by the fact that the tannic acid in coffee can stain teeth enamel, giving some grins an unwanted café au lait tinge.
And coffee doesn't just affect the health of 20-somethings — pregnant women are also warned to consume no more than two cups a day. Researchers in England found that pregnant women who drank more than 200 mg of caffeine a day (the amount in two average-sized cups of coffee) were more likely to give birth to underweight babies [source: Elliott]. Lower birth weights can also lead to spontaneous miscarriages — another health concern with which caffeine has previously been associated.
But if you're not pregnant, drink enough water, get enough calcium and don't add shovelfuls of sugar to your java, the health benefits of coffee far outweigh its negatives, as we'll see next.
Far from being the "devil's drink," as coffee was once called by Christians in the 1500s, study upon study has proven that coffee can have health benefits.
At one time, coffee was thought to have negative cardiovascular effects, including heart attack and abnormal heart rhythms. Although it does cause minor and temporary increases in blood pressure, according to an Iowa Women's Health study that tracked 27,000 women for 15 years, those who consumed one to three daily cups of coffee reduced their overall risk of cardiovascular disease by 24 percent [source: Brody]. It was also once thought that coffee could be a major contributing factor in pancreatic cancer due to a 1981 Harvard study. However, coffee's role as a carcinogen has since been disproved and current research has shown it can help ward off breast and uterine cancer in women [sources: Science Daily, Reuters].
Coffee and alcohol drinking are often related in one way or another — and it seems to be a beneficial relationship. A study of 125,500 members of the Kaiser Permanente health plan showed that heavy alcohol drinkers cut their risk of cirrhosis by 20 percent per cup of coffee per day [source: McCullough]. And even among non-tipplers, coffee has been shown to slash liver cancer risk [source: Science Daily].
Heading to your corner coffee shop instead of the pharmacy might be a good idea if you're at risk from type II diabetes. Two global studies have shown that it reduces the risk of the disease — sometimes up to 50 percent [source: Foreman]. This is especially good news for those who get jittery from too much caffeine, because the beneficial effects are related to chlorogenic acid, which is found in both decaf and regular brews.
That caffeine boost is obviously a boon to athletes, though — so much so that it was once considered a controlled substance by the International Olympic Committee. Previous thinking was that caffeine induced the release of sugars in muscles, but new research indicates that it is calcium that actually gets released, which allows more forceful muscular contractions.
Doctors are always quick to point out that excess consumption of caffeine is never a good idea and the magic number for coffee's benefits seems to be between one and four cups a day. So while the old wives' tale about coffee stunting your growth isn't really true, another piece of traditional wisdom certainly is — all things in moderation.
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