Coffee Buzz: Drink Is Top Antioxidant Source in U.S.

Victoria Gilman
National Geographic News
August 31, 2005
Java drinkers will surely get a jolt from the news that coffee is the top source of disease-fighting antioxidants in the U.S. diet, according to a new study.

The popular beverage beat out black tea, bananas, dry beans, and corn—all common sources of antioxidants.

But don't get too juiced up about the health benefits of coffee just yet. Study authors and other experts warn that people get the most disease protection when they consume a wide variety of antioxidants, and coffee only carries a few specific types.

Also, health risks associated with caffeine, such as high blood pressure, mean the beverage should still be drunk in moderation, experts say.

Antioxidants are specialized chemicals that neutralize molecules called free radicals in the human body, explains Joe Vinson, a chemistry professor at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania.

When too many free radicals build up in the body, they start to damage cells and can cause cancer and heart disease. Numerous studies in recent years have touted the benefits of eating foods high in antioxidants to ward off such diseases.

"Antioxidants are compounds already in your body, but you need more than what the body produces," Vinson, the study's lead author, said.

Health Food

Vinson's team analyzed the amount of antioxidants in a variety of foods and compared those figures to how much of each food type, on average, people in the U.S. consume.

They found that the average person guzzles down more than a thousand milligrams of antioxidants a day from coffee. This rate far surpasses the next runner-up, black tea, which accounts for a few hundred milligrams a day on average.

Vinson presented the team's findings last Sunday at a chemistry conference in Washington, D.C.

But Vinson and his colleagues acknowledge that high consumption doesn't translate to better benefits. Less frequently consumed foods and drinks have higher antioxidant concentrations and contain a wider array of compounds.

"There are about 4,000 known [antioxidant] compounds that are in plants. Their purpose [for the plant] is to reduce free radicals from UV light [exposure]," Vinson said. "Coffee is a rather unique plant in that it doesn't have a lot of different chemicals in it."

Jeffrey B. Blumberg is the director of the Antioxidants Research Laboratory at Tufts University's Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging in Boston, Massachusetts. He cautions that the study data also don't account for how well chemicals in coffee are absorbed in the body.

"The antioxidants in coffee are primarily of a specific type … ," he said. "We know relatively little about its activity in humans and its biological role.

"To suggest its role is similar to other essential antioxidants is misleading," he added.

Blumberg and Vinson both recommend eating more foods that contain a host of vital minerals and nutrients in addition to a high concentration of antioxidants—such as vegetables, fruits, nuts, and whole grains.

"The idea is to get a variety of antioxidants. With just coffee you are not getting all the kinds there are," Vinson said.

But staying healthy by eating your broccoli might not be what people want to be told, Blumberg says.

"Wouldn't you like good news that something you already do is good for you?" he quipped. "The suggestion that coffee is the new health food is really unwarranted."

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