Something’s perceived health benefits can vary considerably depending on time and place. One decade it’s amazing for you, the next it causes cancer. Think about cocaine: it was first used medically and even put in the first famous soft drink, Coca-Cola; then people started figuring out it was addictive and could kill you and now it’s an illegal drug that party-goers and businessmen use for its non-health “benefits.”
The same is true of coffee. No, it’s not an illegal drug, but, it is one of the most addictive and normalized drugs in our society. And, like cocaine, its perceived health benefits have altered, sometimes dramatically, throughout history.
As of 2015, coffee is being heralded as a health-risk reducer. 3-5 cups a day is supposed to minimize your chances of having melanoma, heart disease, multiple sclerosis, type 2 diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, liver disease, prostate cancer, Alzheimer’s and even computer-related back pain. Let me tell you, as a freelance writer, that last one is happy news for me indeed. I’m glad I had that third cup of coffee today after all. I can deal with the shakes; seems like a fair trade.
Coffee is, of course, only as healthy as you let it be. Having 3-5 20 ounces White Chocolate Mochas with whipped cream is probably going to counteract some of those reported benefits. Also, the studies that found these energizing findings utilized an actual 8-ounce cup; a typical medium is 16 ounces. Additionally, coffee brewed through a metal filter or in a way that allows the grinds and natural oils to remain in the finished product can result in an increase in your body’s bad cholesterol; though some studies insist this effect is ultimately negligible.
And, again of course, if you have sleep or anxiety problems, or even unregulated diabetes, caffeine can be a bad addition to your diet. Pregnant women are warned against caffeine as well. You also have to consider who you are as a person, as scientists are finding that our genetic makeup can affect how we react to caffeine; some people can even have mild-to-severe caffeine and/or coffee allergies.
That’s all this decade, though. What about back in the day?
Well, in the 16th Century, a goat herder reportedly observed one of his goats eating shiny green leaves and red berries and acting “frisky.” He tried it himself and thus change the course of history. The Arabs created the coffeehouse, and the early ones were actually more like what we see in Old Westerns’ depictions of saloons, though probably less PG: criminal and sexual activity in abundance. Coffeehouse was shut down in 1511 by the mayor of Mecca, who claimed medical and religious regions. He called coffee and intoxicant, and he wasn’t exactly wrong about that. (He was most likely reacting to people speaking out against his leadership more than anything to do with coffee).
Having nothing to do with health, one law in Turkey (where coffee became apparently super important) said that a woman had legal grounds to seek divorce if she had not been adequately supplied with coffee.
In the 17th Century, coffee was lauded for curing alcoholism. The disease was rampant in those days in England because water wasn’t always safe to drink. Coffee Shop owners also claimed that coffee was great for digestion, could prevent and even cure gout or scurvy, made coughs better, eased headaches and stomachaches and even prevented miscarriages (ironic because coffee’s link with miscarriages is the reason pregnant women are encouraged not to imbibe).
Despite all those miraculous features, women at the time claimed all that coffee was making their men impotent; in 1674 they started an official petition against coffee.
In the 18th Century, England switched to tea, probably in part because it didn’t have an effect on their sex lives. Then, in the “New World,” the colonists rejected tea as unpatriotic following the Boston Tea Party. Coffeehouses emerged once more, and coffee was lauded during this time as helping workers perform for longer hours (just what every worker wants to hear).
In the 19th Century, the reviews of coffee weren’t as happy. The Civil War caused coffee supplies to dwindle, and coffee-replacements emerged onto the market. Manufacturers were intent on replacing the popular hot beverage and made claims about its dangers; they likened coffee to morphine, cocaine, nicotine and even strychnine and some even went as far as to say coffee could cause blindness.
In 1916, the revelation that my mom always quoted to me when trying to discourage my teenage self from drinking the stuff: coffee stunts your growth. That year also saw ideas about coffee such as its increasing nervous people’s nervousness, contributing or exacerbating heart palpitations, indigestion, and insomnia. These are all issues we recognize today as well, though, as stated above, it depends on who you are and how coffee feels about your DNA–or rather how your DNA feels about coffee.
In 1927, 80,000 elementary and junior high aged children reported drinking at least one cup of coffee per day which is, frankly, terrifying. Not only do they not need that kind of energy boost at that hyperactive age, but they also don’t need to be putting an addictive, heart-elevating and esophagus eroding, potentially height-stunting drug in their little bodies.
In the 70s and 80s one magazine headline called coffee as serious as a heart attack, with a study showing that drinking one to five cups of coffee daily could increase the chance of a heart attack by 60% and drinking more than that could double that number (120%). Scientists recorded a momentary rise in blood pressure after three cups of coffee. Johns Hopkins Medical School performed a nearly 40-year study that showed that people drinking more than 5 cups per day nearly tripled their chances of developing heart problems. This study didn’t account for other lifestyle factors and only surveyed participants every five years–smoking and diet and other negative behaviors associated with coffee-drinking could be the culprit to those numbers.
In 2001 researchers reported that coffee could increase the chance of urinary tract cancer by around 20% and those findings have been duplicated since, in 2015.
Moving past that, however, it mostly looks good. Coffee is linked with decreasing risk of liver cancer–drink 2 cups per day lowered the risk 43%. Scientists found a seeming correlation between coffee drinking and lung cancer but their findings were not definitive as many people smoke with their coffee and they could not separate the two behaviors to determine a true link.
Coffee reduces the risk of stroke and prostate cancer, pretty definitively. In the case of prostate cancer, coffee consumption lowered the risk for the lethal type of prostate cancer. One study in 2012 stated that you would have to drink 10 cups per day to find a bad association between coffee drinking and heart disease, while four cups a day showed the lowest risk. And then in 2013 coffee consumption was shown to lower the risk of heart disease. One summary of 20 individual studies along with one covering 17 studies showed that coffee drinking could lower your total mortality risk a little bit. (Good enough for me).
And 2015 has many people spouting coffee as practically a health or super food. Drinking a moderate amount (400 mg of caffein max) without the fattening additions can benefit your health in almost innumerable ways.
I’m sure the women who were worried about their husband’s bedroom performance were certain they were correct, just as we are today. But it’s hard to argue with extensive studies, centuries of learning, and the literal addiction to the stuff that means I didn’t want to quit anyway and now I can say I’m doing it for my heart!