x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Coffee is subject to a rising number of conflicting health studies

We cannot get enough coffee, it seems, but what is it doing for - or to - our health? Well, for a start it'll drive you crazy if you try to make sense of the plethora of contradictory studies out there.

Coffee with or without milk and sugar can help to keep you alert as well as provide a convivial form of social interaction.
Coffee with or without milk and sugar can help to keep you alert as well as provide a convivial form of social interaction.

Residents of the UAE drink more coffee than people in any other part of the Middle East. That was the conclusion of a report by the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) looking into how people in the Emirates consume an average of 3.5kg of coffee per person per year.

The figure is almost double that of other states and comparable to the coffee craze that has swept through Britain since the Seattle-based Starbucks bought the UK chain the Seattle Coffee Company in 1998, rebranded the stores and helped spawn a whole new caffeine culture.

There's nothing new about coffee in this part of the world, of course; for centuries it has played a significant part in Arabian social and cultural life. What is - relatively - new is its function in a modern, consumer lifestyle, something attributed by those who commissioned the report to the influence of non-native workers.

"The coffee consumption is more like the rate seen in western Europe, probably because of the high number of expats and a big move to import western-style brand consumption," said Ric Rhinehart, the SCAA executive director.

For most coffee drinkers, it's the combination of the fresh-brewed flavour coupled with the invigorating "hit" that makes us go back for more. Certainly the profusion of choice these days - lattes, cappuccinos and frappuccinos among many others - has helped coffee climb above tea in many parts of the world as the most popular hot drink.

And as the intake has increased, so has the interest in its side-effects among nutrition scientists, university laboratories and even sports performance analysts. Barely a week goes by without a new study singing its praises or warning of dire coffee consequences.

"Like many foods, there are conflicting health stories attached to coffee," says Elisabeth Weichselbaum, a scientist with the British Nutrition Foundation. "It can be very confusing as to whether coffee is good or bad for you."

For example, in just one month this year researchers from Bristol University, England, found that coffee boosts the performance of women in stressful situations, Sweden's Karolinska Institute reported that coffee drinkers cut their risk of stroke by 25 per cent and a study from Ulleval University Hospital, Norway, concluded that coffee compounds raise the risk of heart disease.

Weichselbaum points out that some of the confusion stems from the reporting of studies. "It's often the case in laboratory conditions that a highly concentrated caffeine is used. These tests aren't directly linked to coffee drinking - the substances used are very different to what people drink - but the reporting fails to highlight this."

Christian Jessen, a UK GP and presenter of the Channel 4 television show Embarrassing Bodies, agrees: "Coffee is one of the most widely researched products in the world and the media tend to, rather unfairly, focus on negative research. All too often, studies looking at a very small patient population or that have been conducted in animals will be taken out of context to form a headline."

In the past, health concerns about coffee consumption were often skewed by other factors associated with it, such as smoking. Today the drink receives much more prominent coverage because of our dependence as a society upon it. Coffee mornings, coffee breaks and the fact that so many of us seemingly struggle to function until we've had that first hit of the day, have helped the brew become popular the world over.

So, how much coffee should we be drinking?

"There's no recommended daily limit as such," says Weichselbaum. "What tends to happen is that as coffee drinkers we find our own 'pace' and tolerance levels. Some people, me included, can't really have more than one caffeinated coffee a day without feeling some ill side-effects." Caffeine sensitivity can trigger sleeplessness, anxiety, nausea or gastroesophageal reflux disease, which features such symptoms as heartburn.

"Others, however, can drink it all day long and feel no serious reactions," says Weichselbaum.

Perhaps not in the short term, but caffeine is an addictive substance and while many people may think it doesn't hurt them to drink it, going without it may trigger withdrawal symptoms such as irritability, headaches and even panic attacks.

From an independent viewpoint, recent research does at least confirm that coffee-drinking contributes to a person's daily fluid intake. In the UK, it is recognised by the Food Standards Agency and the British Dietetic Association (BDA) as a source of fluid in the diet.

Its ability to oil the cogs of social interaction makes coffee a useful workplace tool as well. "Almost 70 per cent of us use coffee as a means to provide a break in our day," says Dr Sarah Schenker, a BDA dietician.

Jessen insists: "The truth is that you don't need to cut out your beloved cups of coffee. There is plenty of evidence that moderate coffee consumption - that's around four or five cups per day - is perfectly safe for the general population and may confer certain health benefits."

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