Folks who take their coffee with a little cream and sugar have reason to rejoice, health-wise.
A new study shows that coffee’s potential health benefits persist, even if you add a bit of sugar to your java.
People who drink any amount of unsweetened coffee are 16% to 21% less likely to die early than those who don’t imbibe, based on data drawn from more than 171,000 British participants without known heart disease or cancer.
Coffee with sugar?
And even folks who take their coffee with sugar saw some health benefits, researchers found.
Sweetened coffee drinkers who downed an average 1.5 to 3.5 cups a day were 29% to 31% less likely to die during an average seven-year follow-up than non-coffee drinkers, according to findings published May 31 in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
“On average, even when your coffee is a little bit sweetened, it still seems to be potentially beneficial and at least not harmful,” says Dr. Christina Wee, the journal’s deputy editor, who wrote an editorial that accompanied the study.
Don’t rush out to order that caramel macchiato just yet, though — people in the study tended to add modest amounts of sugar to their brew, experts note.
On average, people put about 1 teaspoon of sugar in each cup of coffee, says Wee and Anthony DiMarino, a registered dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Human Nutrition.
“This is roughly only 16 extra calories, which is not significant,” says DiMarino, who wasn’t involved with the study. “In contrast, most specialty coffees run hundreds of calories from sugars and fats.”
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How coffee benefits your health
For this study, a team led by Dr. Chen Mao of Southern Medical University in Guangzhou, China, analyzed dietary data provided by participants in the UK Biobank, a database with health information from a half-million people in the United Kingdom.
Participants were tracked for an average of seven years to see whether coffee drinking affected their overall risk of death, as well as their risk of death from cancer or heart disease.
Researchers found that unsweetened coffee reduced participants’ risk of death regardless of how much they drank, with a “sweet spot” of maximum benefit around 2.5 to 3.5 cups a day.
Sweetened coffee also had health benefits, as long as the person drank fewer than 4 cups a day. Folks who drank more than 4.5 cups of sugary coffee a day had a slight increase in their risk of early death.
Sweetened or unsweetened, coffee also appeared to consistently reduce the risk of death from specific causes such as cancer or heart disease, the researchers found.
There are lots of theories about why coffee might be good for you, according to experts.
“Coffee contains nearly 1,000 botanical compounds, most of which have not been studied yet,” DiMarino shares. “Coffee does provide nutrients such as B vitamins, potassium and riboflavin, which are essential to health. Moreover, coffee provides different anti-inflammatory compounds, which help reduce our risk of cancer.”
Finally, he adds, coffee has been shown to improve alertness, memory, and mental function. “These effects would certainly help us be more aware and make less mistakes,” DiMarino adds.
Wee notes that coffee also contains chlorogenic acids, which have an anti-clotting effect in the blood. That could potentially prevent heart attacks or strokes caused by clots.
Whatsmore, coffee protects against liver cirrhosis in people at risk of developing liver disease, such as those with alcohol use disorder or fatty liver disease.
Other research teams are looking at ways in which coffee might help people by improving gut health, enhancing efficient fat storage, and protecting the liver, says Dr. Alan Rozanski, a cardiologist with Mount Sinai Morningside in New York City.
Coffee may also be a pick-me-up. Several studies have found that the more coffee a person drinks, the lower their risk of depression.
“These are pathways that are being elucidated and we need more work to define them, but the interactions are there and there are good solid reasons to understand why this drink is OK for your health,” says Rozanski, who wasn’t part of the study.
Drink with caution
Still, Wee notes, doctors remain somewhat concerned about the caffeine in coffee, which can increase your heart rate and alter your metabolism in other worrying ways.
“But we have studies that show if you’re a regular caffeinated coffee drinker, your body sort of develops a tolerance to it,” she says. “When you first start to drink coffee or other caffeinated beverages, you may have a more pronounced physiologic response. But after a while, like with all things your body sort of acclimates, so it doesn’t seem like the harm of moderate amounts of coffee drinking persists.”
At the same time, a study like this shouldn’t prompt people who don’t like coffee to start drinking the stuff, Wee adds.
“We can cautiously conclude there doesn’t seem to be harm, and so if you’re already a coffee drinker, no need to change,” Wee says. “Now whether or not you should start drinking coffee to get its benefits, that’s less certain.”
If you do plan to add coffee to your daily routine, remember to not go overboard. According to experts, you should stick to less than 400 milligrams of caffeine per day, which amounts to about four 8 oz cups of coffee a day. While it is safe to drink coffee if you are expecting, you should cut back, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. They recommend pregnant women drink no more than 200 mg of caffeine per day (about two cups). You should also avoid coffee late in the day or stick to decaf to avoid tossing and turning at night and be mindful of unhealthy add-ins.
“Coffee may be healthy, but what you add to it often isn’t,” says registered dietitian Andrea Dunn, RD.