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Antioxidants in coffee: Worth the Buzz?

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Did you know coffee is packed with antioxidants? Does it matter?

If you look for our favorite drink positive effects, you will find a lot of people talking about antioxidants in coffee. I looked for answers to learn more about it because I believe in drinking coffee more healthily and consciously.

After some research, I learned that oxidative stress has become a top scientific topic because it’s linked with aging and chronic illnesses like cancer, for instance [1]. Naturally, most divulgation articles highlight the benefits of antioxidants, because they ‘fight’ free radicals, commonly associated with the set of chemical reactions known as oxidative stress.

As public awareness about such complex topics increased, we started looking for antioxidant sources. Surprisingly, one of the most interesting coffee beneficial properties, is that it’s an affordable, delicious, and easy to consume source of antioxidants.

Image depicting the coffee roasting process
The roasting process transforms the antioxidant composition of coffee beans

The antioxidants ‘media frenzy’ can make us think that free radicals are the bad guys, while antioxidants protect us from aging and cancer. However, free radicals play an important role within the immune system and not all antioxidants are beneficial, as we might easily believe [1].

I wrote this article to describe which are the most interesting and practical scientific findings related to antioxidants in coffee, although it’s quite a challenging topic.

Humans, like most living creatures, create a delicate and dynamic balance between antioxidants and free radicals. Such balance is critical for health and well-being, as recent research suggests [1,2].

Experts raised our attention about the importance of focusing on the balance between these compounds, instead of describing antioxidants as the good guys and free radicals as the bad guys [1,2,3,4,5].

Fortunately, although coffee chemistry and human physiology are puzzling, scientists have found evidence about simple ways to keep our bodies’ antioxidants and free radicals on point.

If you want to find a more precise account of coffee chemistry, I highly recommend checking the scientific studies I put at the end of the article.

For a lighter account, keep reading.

What antioxidants are found in coffee?

The chemistry packed inside a coffee bean is incredibly complex

Coffee chemistry is incredibly puzzling. It’s hard to believe how oversimplistic can be some accounts about coffee intake health effects.

According to researchers, there are more than ten bioactive compounds in coffee with antioxidant activity [3,6], like :

  • Chlorogenic acid
  • Ferulic acid
  • Caffeic acid
  • N-coumaric acid
  • Melanoidin
  • Caffeine
  • Trigonelline
  • Phenylalanine
  • Pyrrole
  • Furan
  • Thiophene
  • Thiazole

Measuring antioxidant activity in coffee is hard. Coffee beans’ chemistry differs depending on their origin, processing method, roasting levels, and even the brewing method [1, 2,3]. For instance, we found that scientists use more than five different ways to measure antioxidant activity in food. Moreover, the chemical activity of the samples is different inside our bodies [2].

For a start, green coffee beans are packed with chlorogenic acids (CGA), which are active antioxidant compounds. Yet, roasted coffee displays significantly different chemistry. While some studies claim that darker roasts show a higher antioxidant activity [6], others suggest the opposite [4,5].

One of the most interesting findings of the chemistry of coffee is that it offers different concentrations of antioxidants in all its forms, available for human consumption:

  • Coffee tree leaves, already commercialized
  • Cherries, traditionally used for ‘cáscara’ infusions and sold in big coffee chains and specialty roasteries
  • Green beans, quite unconventional
  • Roasted coffee beans, our beloved magical friends
  • The cup of coffee

Yet, as you might expect, the compounds in all of these are different. The most evident impact on public health would easily come from coffee consumption because it’s one of the most significant dietary sources of antioxidants we know so far [3,4,5,6,11].

Is coffee high in antioxidants?

The concept of a single antioxidant number is meaningless, especially in the context of the “healthiness” of a food product

Opitz et al. (2014) Antioxidant Generation during Coffee Roasting: A Comparison and Interpretation from Three Complementary Assays
Most powerful antioxidants drinks have espresso as their number 1, by far. It has six times more antioxidants than filter coffee and red wine, the closest followers.

In short, yes. It’s a significant source of antioxidants, and according to most studies, it offers the highest yields when compared with other beverages like tea and wine [2,6]. Actually, there is no other beverage with such a high antioxidant content than espresso, according to influential studies in the field [2,6]. However, it doesn’t mean you can use it as your single source of antioxidants and drink it excessively.

Some studies claim that coffee fulfills our required daily antioxidants intake [6], but there is a sort of consensus about the convenience of getting them from different sources like fresh fruits, and vegetables as well [2].

Fresh fruits, nuts, and vegetables are rich in antioxidants too.

Which coffee has the most antioxidants?

Perhaps this is the most burning question we have about antioxidants in coffee. Yet, all kinds of coffee offer a good deal of benefits.

Some quick facts about antioxidants in coffee [3,4,5,6,8,12]:

  • Espresso offers the highest antioxidant activity among tested brews
  • Robusta coffee beans have more antioxidants than arabica
  • Instant coffee can have higher concentrations of antioxidants than roasted coffee
  • Darker roasts display lower antioxidant activity than medium and light roasts
  • Freshly ground coffee has a higher antioxidant content than stored ground coffee

Is caffeine an antioxidant?

We all know caffeine is addictive. However, researchers recently found it has powerful antioxidant properties. Moreover, an extensive review suggests that caffeine can protect our brains from dementia and cognitive decline [8].

Additionally, caffeine offers other benefits like reducing the risk of Parkinson’s disease and even improve patients’ ability to control their body movement [9].

More than caffeine and its antioxidant power, scientists have uncovered many other beneficial aspects of coffee. For instance, a recent study found that cafestol – another coffee compound – can help prevent diabetes type 2, because it helps to process sugars better [10].

Is coffee healthy?

An active lifestyle takes the most out of good eating habits

The relationship between coffee and health is complicated. Scientists are cautious when answering if coffee is good or bad for our health because coffee is a short word that englobes almost infinite possibilities. Things like varietals, terroirs, roast types, and profiles, as well as brewing methods, have their influence on ‘coffee’ healthiness.

However, scientists have tried to answer the question, and they’ve found promising results in general, with some serious warnings to consider. Moreover, none of these results point to the beneficial use of sugar and milk to drink with coffee. On the opposite, the general consensus is that the most beneficial coffee drinks for health are plain black without sugar, nor milk.

Does decaf coffee have antioxidants?

Decaffeinated coffee has a slightly lower antioxidant activity than regular coffee, but still beats wine, green and black tea by far [6].

The reason behind this is that most antioxidants in coffee don’t depend on caffeine. Even after subtracting caffeine, a cup of coffee offers more than ten different bioactive compounds with antioxidant activity [3,6].

In short…

Antioxidants play a major role in preventing chronic illnesses and keeping our bodies healthy. Espresso, in this regard, is the drink with the highest antioxidant content, according to most studies.

Yet, it’s worth remembering that coffee can be highly addictive, and its abuse can lead to a wide array of health problems.

If you want to learn more about the health implications of drinking coffee, you should ask a dietitian or physician about it. Hopefully, this article ignited your curiosity and you’ll want to learn more about coffee.

if you want to learn how Specialty Coffee can improve your coffee drinking habits, I wrote an article about my personal experience and my favorite coffee hacks.

Acknowledgments

Thanks to Professor Chahan Yeretzian who shared valuable resources and relevant information about the most respectable studies in the field.

References

  1. Rahal A, Kumar A, Singh V, Yadav B, Tiwari R, Chakraborty S, Dhama K. Oxidative stress, prooxidants, and antioxidants: the interplay. Biomed Res Int. 2014; 2014:761264.
  2. Monica H Carlsen, Bente L Halvorsen, Kari Holte, Siv K Bøhn, Steinar Dragland, Laura Sampson, Carol Willey, Haruki Senoo, Yuko Umezono, Chiho Sanada, Ingrid Barikmo, Nega Berhe, Walter C Willett, Katherine M Phillips, David R Jacobs Jr, Rune Blomhoff. The total antioxidant content of more than 3100 foods, beverages, spices, herbs and supplements used worldwide. Nutrition Journal 2010 9:3.
  3. Goodman BA, Opitz SEW, Smrke S, Yeretzian C (2018) Engineering the Composition of Coffee to Potentially Improve its Health Benefits. J Nutr Diet 1: 101.
  4. Antioxidant Generation during Coffee Roasting: A Comparison and Interpretation from Three Complementary Assays. Sebastian E. W. Opitz, Samo Smrke, Bernard A. Goodman, Marco Keller, Stefan Schenker, and Chahan Yeretzian (2014) Foods 2014, 3, 586-604
  5. Understanding the Effects of Roasting on Antioxidant Components of Coffee Brews by Coupling On‐line ABTS Assay to High Performance Size Exclusion Chromatography. Sebastian E.W. Opitz, Bernard A. Goodman, Marco Keller, Samo Smrke, Marco Wellinger, Stefan Schenkerc and Chahan Yeretzian. Phytochemical Analysis, Volume: 28, Issue: 2, Pages: 106-114, First published: 23 December 2016
  6. Draženka Komes, Arijana Bušić (2014) Chapter 3 – Antioxidants in Coffee. Ed: Victor Preedy, Processing and Impact on Antioxidants in Beverages, Academic Press, Pages 25-32, https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-404738-9.00003-9.
  7. Yashin, A., Yashin, Y., Wang, J. Y., & Nemzer, B. (2013). Antioxidant and Antiradical Activity of Coffee. Antioxidants (Basel, Switzerland)2(4), 230–245.
  8. Chen, J., Scheltens, P., Groot, C., & Ossenkoppele, R. (2020). Associations Between Caffeine Consumption, Cognitive Decline, and Dementia: A Systematic Review. Journal of Alzheimer’s disease: JAD78(4), 1519–1546.
  9. Neuroprotection by caffeine and A(2A) adenosine receptor inactivation in a model of Parkinson’s disease. Chen JF, Xu K, Petzer JP, Staal R, Xu YH, Beilstein M, Sonsalla PK, Castagnoli K, Castagnoli N Jr, Schwarzschild MA. J Neurosci. 2001 May 15; 21(10): RC143.
  10. Mellbye FB, Jeppesen PB, Shokouh P, Laustsen C, Hermansen K, Gregersen S. Cafestol, a Bioactive Substance in Coffee, Has Antidiabetic Properties in KKAy Mice. J Nat Prod. 2017 Aug 25; 80 (8): 2353-2359.
  11. Xiu-Min Chen, Zhili Ma, David D. Kitts, Effects of processing method and age of leaves on phytochemical profiles and bioactivity of coffee leaves, Food Chemistry, Volume 249, 2018, Pages 143-153.
  12. Miłek M., Młodecki Ł., Dżugan M. (2021). Caffeine content and antioxidant activity of various brews of specialty grade coffee. Acta Sci.Pol. Technol. Aliment. 20 (2), 179-188 https://doi.org/10.17306/J.AFS.2021.0890

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