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Ann de Wees Allen, D.N.
The great debate over the issue of coffee as a health-benefit or health-hazard has led researchers to seek definitive answers. The simple question of whether to drink coffee or not to drink coffee is no longer the issue. The real issue, as presented in recent studies, is choosing the type of coffee to be ingested.

Researchers have discovered that drinking decaffeinated coffee raises cholesterol, drinking brewed coffee can cause cancer, and that drinking non-decaffeinated coffee can lower the risk of cancer. This sounds totally contradictory, but this dichotomy can be explained by taking a closer look at the research. Doctors at Boston University School of Medicine reported in the American Journal of Epidemiology that they found a 40 percent lowered risk of colon or rectal cancer among those drinking five or more cups of coffee a day. The American Cancer Society estimates that about 61,300 people will die of colon and rectal cancer this year, despite aggressive treat-ment. The researchers did not establish a "biologic rational" for the lowered rate of colon cancer among coffee drinkers. They theorize that coffee reduces the excretion of bile acids and cholesterol and "cholesterol and bile acids may be promoters of colon carcinogens".

Dr. Rosenberg, chief investigator of the study at Boston University's Slone Epidemiology Unit said "The reduction in cancer risk associated with heavy consumption (of coffee) was evident in both men and women". Authors of a previous study conducted in 1981 suggested a link between coffee and pancreatic cancer. Publicity following this study caused a reduction in coffee consumption. In 1986, the same authors reversed their findings after they conducted a second study which disproved findings of the first study. The public had received incorrect information via "news reports" which was never publicly corrected. A twelve year research project of 16,000 men and women found no correlation between coffee drinking and cancer at any body site, including pancreas, breast, and bladder.

The study follows a report presented at the American Heart Association conference showing that ingestion of regular caffeinated coffee is not associated with any increased cardiovascular risk. Stanford University researchers reported that while decaffeinated coffee raises blood cholesterol levels, regular coffee does not raise blood cholesterol levels.

Though decaffeinated coffee appears to carry significant health risks, researchers believe that brewed coffee may actually be worse. Bleached coffee filters contain the toxic chemical dioxine. Agent Orange is one-half dioxine. Dioxine is so toxic that it only takes a minuscule amount to cause cancer, liver damage, immune-system disorders and birth defects. Vietnam veterans are still suffering the effects of Agent Orange poisoning. Dioxine was also responsible for the evacuation of Times Beach, Missouri due to potential public contamination of the deadly toxin.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warns that there is increased risk of cancer for the average coffee drinker who drinks brewed coffee. The dioxin compounds and related substances called furans are formed in the filter bleaching process. These toxic substances are leached into the coffee as it brews.

The paper industry has promised to reduce dioxine and furan levels as listed in Government risk assessments, but since they are not currently legally obligated to do so, it may be some time before coffee filters are 100% safe to use. Since dioxine acts as a tumor promoter rather than as a direct carcinogen, current dioxin guide-lines may not be strict enough.

Companies marketing brewed coffee and coffee-brewing machines have attempted to negate the poor public image generated by these studies. Their methods include promoting filters as "oxygen-cleansed" or "oxygen-whitened" or "chlorine free" even though they still process their filters with chlorine dioxide, methylene chloride and/or chlorine gas. They have not been able to explain how using chlorinated compounds results in a "chlorine-free" product and instead count on clever marketing to obfuscate the issue.

For coffee drinkers who can't face giving up brewed coffee for instant coffee, the alternative is using filters which do not contain dioxine. Unbleached filters (brown filters) which passed the health-friendly test are available from Natural Brew and Melita. Companies whose filters didn't pass the health-friendly test include Mr. Coffee's "chlorine-free" filter and Green Mountain Filters. If you drink brewed coffee, insist on knowing where the filters came from and how they are made. If you don't wish to conduct the coffee-filter research, simply use instant coffee that hasn't been decaffeinated.

Since decaffeinated coffee raises cholesterol levels, and brewed coffee contains dioxine, but coffee itself provides benefits, the logical option is to consume instant coffee. Instant coffee does not appear to carry any negative side effects and does provide all the benefits associated with drinking coffee (see box).

After analyzing the research on coffee, the University of California at Berkeley said, "If you're a healthy adult who enjoys coffee or tea, there's no evidence that caffeine will do you any harm. If it gives you a lift or a reason to relax in the mid-afternoon, there's no reason to deprive yourself of caffeine's benefits". They went on to state "One of the documented effects of caffeine is that it shortens reaction time. Precisely how it affects intellectual activity is hard to define, but German researchers have found that caffeine improves reading speed without increasing errors".

Doctors studying additional benefits of caffeine report that caffeine:

  1. University Of California, Berkeley Wellness Encyclopedia, 1991
  2. American Journal of Epidemiology, Nov. 1993
  3. American Cancer Society, 1993-4
  4. Consumer Reports, Vol 56, No. 1
  5. Ergogenic Aids in Sports, Handel, 1983
  6. Med. Science Sports Exercise, 1987;19, 1979;11:6, 1978;10
  7. Brn. Adip. Tissue and Diet-Induced Thermogenesis, "Brn. Adip. Tissue", Trayhurn & Nicholls

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