Coffee may reduce risk of heart disease, certain cancers and even dementia

Some frothy coffee confections can have as many calories as a meal, but health experts say little can beat a fragrant, fresh cup of Joe, writes Helen O’Callaghan.

“IT’S not real,” I was told in my local Starbucks when I looked for a Unicorn Frappuccino. Not real? The much-hyped, colour-changing, flavour-changing concoction that had social media in a frenzy?

Starbucks’ own description of the drink sounds like a potion straight out of a fairytale — ‘made with sweet dusting of pink powder, blended into crème Frappuccino with mango syrup and layered with pleasantly sour blue drizzle’. 

Then ‘finished with vanilla whipped cream and sprinkle of sweet pink and sour blue powder topping’. The calorie-laden beverage starts out purple with swirls of blue and first tastes sweet and fruity. 

‘But give it a stir and its colour changes to pink,’ promises Starbucks, ‘the flavour evolves to tangy and tart’.

“It was a lot of hassle for a few days, a number of people we had in looking for it. It’s over now, thank God. We don’t have the ingredients — if we did, we could make it,” my Starbucks server told me.

The Unicorn Frappuccino, it turns out, is so very last month — it was available for just five days during April in the US, Canada and Mexico. It’s as elusive as the mythical creature after which it is named and so too it appears are its progeny — the Dragon and Mermaid Frappuccinos. 

A Starbucks spokesperson confirms these latter drinks “are not official Starbucks menu items”. 

They were “created by baristas only in the US who were inspired by Unicorn Frappuccino, the beverages were only available at their stores and the recipes based on the ingredients they had available”.

Coffee may reduce risk of heart disease, certain cancers and even dementia

Maureen Gahan, foodservice specialist with Bord Bia, believes the launch by big coffee chains of new menu items — like the limited-edition Unicorn Frappuccino — is just “an opportunity to make some noise”, a way of hooking in younger consumers.

“They’re lured by the sweet beverages, the milk shakes. For generation Z, these over-the-top indulgent drinks loaded with extras are on-trend — very much in keeping with Instagram and social media.”

It’s all a far cry from the cup of Joe, the basic cup of black with maybe a dash of milk, from how Chester in US TV Western Gunsmoke described the making of good coffee: ‘Any fool knows you gotta put the coffee in the cold water and bring them both to a boil together. 

That way you get all the flavour. You got to keep them old [coffee] grounds and you add a little fresh coffee every morning and let her boil. You don’t really get a good pot until you’ve been usin’ it about a week. Then it’s coffee!’

It’s reassuring to hear from industry watchers and from those who have a stake in the black brew that real honest-to-God black coffee isn’t about to lose out to the frothier, creamier, swirlier concoctions — the Mocha Cookie Crumble Frappuccinos and Iced Skinny Flavoured Lattes. 

“The reality is most consumers are habit-driven. Specialty drinks only account for a small amount of sales,” says Gahan.

Coffee may reduce risk of heart disease, certain cancers and even dementia

It’s an observation echoed by Peter Butterly, who runs O’Brien’s Sandwich Bar on Dublin’s Lower Abbey Street, where customer demographic is professionals aged 25-50. 

“They don’t seem to be susceptible to trends. They have their coffee and stick to what they know — you could start making their order as they walk in the door,” says Butterly. He makes about 1,000 coffees a week — the top three are the basic black coffee (Americano), latte and cappuccino.

“There’s been a trend lately towards the flat white, a small latte with less milk, like a double macchiato. It’s popular because it has fewer calories than cappuccino.”

Bord Bia’s Irish Foodservice Channel Insights (November 2016) report found coffee chains like Starbucks and Insomnia still hold the majority of the market but that the number of specialty independent cafés and coffee shops is rising. 

There is, in fact, a ‘third wave’ of coffee that’s driving demand for independent shops, catering to consumers who consider coffee an artisan product, like wine, and expect premium quality — and don’t necessarily want the flavour smothered by cream and flavourings. 

Increasingly, the Bord Bia report states, consumers are “searching out education and café experiences that allow them to indulge their interest in premium products”.

Colin Harmon, founder of independent coffee shop in Dublin, 3fe.
Colin Harmon, founder of independent coffee shop in Dublin, 3fe.

One such third wave independent coffee shop — where it’s all about sourcing, where connoisseurs choose coffee based on the farm from which the bean came — is 3fe (Third Floor Espresso), set up in Dublin in 2009 by four-time Irish Barista Champion Colin Harmon. 

“There’s definitely a more discerning coffee consumer out there today,” says Harmon.

“When I opened in 2009, it was difficult to explain that coffee could have different taste profiles and values. There was a presumption it was all the same. It’s much easier to explain today — you don’t need to be an expert to understand this shop has good coffee and this one doesn’t.”

Harmon says the second wave of coffee, represented by chains like Starbucks, add value by adding, for example, a shot of vanilla sugar syrup and then some sprinkles and offering sizes from small through medium to large.

“We add value by having a better quality of bean. At the higher end, we might have a one-bag lot from a very small farm in South America, which has a particular variety or processing method.”

At 3fe, customers pay anything from €3 to €7.50 for a cup of coffee. The coffee, being seasonal, is fresh all year round. 

Coffee may reduce risk of heart disease, certain cancers and even dementia

“We’re just waiting for our Kenyan coffee to come in — it’s very distinct and can be wine-like with a lot of blackcurrant flavours and it’s really clean and crisp.”

When he started out, people said he’d never get away with changing his coffee all the time. 

“Now, they complain if I don’t.”

Orla Walsh, dietician and founder of Orla Walsh Nutrition, also sees a continuing trend among Irish consumers, where they’re more precise about blend, number of espresso shots and even about the type of milk they’re getting (coconut, almond, Soya). 

While she sees the milk in the basic latte and cappuccino as having definite nutritional merit because it delivers calcium and protein, she says the more decadent beverages are akin to calorie-laden fast foods. She cites US research that examined how many calories we naturally add to coffee as opposed to tea.

“The study found those who drank coffee black consumed about 69 fewer calories a day. And more than 60% of the calories added to the drinks come from sugar, with fat accounting for most of the remaining calories.”

At Starbucks, a Latte Grande contains 223 calories if using whole milk, 131 with skimmed and 148 with soya milk. 

A Caramel Macchiato Grande has 269 calories (whole milk), 193 (skimmed) and 250 (coconut milk). 

Meanwhile, a Caramel Frappuccino Grande with whipped cream contains 379 calories (whole milk), 358 (skimmed) and 380 (almond milk).

Dr Marian O’Reilly, chief specialist in nutrition at Safefood, considers a latte a snack if it contains anywhere around 150 calories. 

“Then there are the concoctions with added chocolate, syrups and whipped cream. When you’re getting near 400 calories, you’re getting into meal territory,” she says, adding that she doubts if people are fully aware of calorie numbers in the fancier beverages.

Coffee may reduce risk of heart disease, certain cancers and even dementia

While Walsh recommends limiting coffee intake if you suffer from irritable bowel syndrome, anxiety or sleep problems, recent studies suggest the cup of black is pretty good for you.

“The quick answer is coffee doesn’t appear to be bad for us. There’s plenty of research to say it’s good for us — it may reduce risk of heart disease, liver cirrhosis, gallstones and metabolic syndrome, as well as Type 2 diabetes, certain cancers and maybe even dementia.”

But the good news comes with an everything-in-moderation caveat. 

“Drink less than two to three cups a day and have it before 3pm — later and there’s a good chance it’ll negatively affect sleep,” advises Walsh.

While the biggest per-capita coffee-consuming countries are in Scandinavia — as well as The Netherlands — Ireland is emerging as a major player in the global coffee market. 

The World of Coffee conference took place in Dublin in 2016 with thousands from over 100 countries attending. Coffee shops are projected to grow by 7.5% year on year between now and 2020. Coffee is an attractive business proposition.

“There’s definitely a big margin on coffee — there’s generally a 70% mark-up, though [outlets] say they have to factor in cost of machines and of servicing them, as well as cost of staff training,” says Gahan.

Business appeal aside, coffee has a very definite allure for the ordinary punter. 

“Coffee is still an affordable luxury. It never out-prices itself. People might cut back on the number of coffees but they don’t cut it out,” says Gahan.

“People associate it with indulgence — time out for the busy mum, a social experience around meeting friends or a third space besides home/office where you can work.

For O’Reilly, it’s a pick-me-up; Walsh sees its appeal as an energiser and cognitive aid for people “who want to get the best out of themselves Monday to Friday”; while for Harmon, it’s a catalyst for getting deals done and making friends.

And I will confess that I wasn’t too upset at not getting hold of the Unicorn Frappuccino. For me, the plain cup of black is a magical elixir all on its own.

Why a cup or two of java is good for you

Coffee may reduce risk of heart disease, certain cancers and even dementia

1. It’s high in natural polyphenols — micronutrients linked with preventing cancer, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. 

“This is why we think those who drink two to three cups a day show lower rates of diabetes than those who don’t drink any,” wrote Eric Rimm, professor in Departments of Epidemiology and Nutrition at Harvard T H Chan School of Public Health, in a 2015 Wall Street Journal article.

2. Women who consume higher quantities of caffeine may have a lower risk of developing tinnitus — steady ringing in the ear — than women who consume less, according to a Harvard School of Health study. 

Most of the 65,000 women in the 18-year study got their caffeine from coffee. 

Those who consumed the amount found in about one-and-a-half cups of coffee daily were 15% more likely to develop tinnitus than women who drank about four to six cups a day.

3. Drinking several cups of daily coffee appears to reduce suicide risk by about 50%, according to Harvard School of Public Health researchers. 

They explain caffeine stimulates the central nervous system and may also act as a mild antidepressant by boosting production of serotonin, dopamine, and noradrenaline in the brain.

Nevertheless, they urge moderation, citing little extra benefit from consuming more than two to three cups daily (400 mg of caffeine a day).

4. Men who drink coffee on a regular basis seem to have less risk of developing a lethal form of prostate cancer, according to Harvard School of Public Health researchers. 

The reduced risk was apparent among men who drank either regular or decaffeinated coffee. Even drinking one to three cups a day was associated with 30% lower risk of lethal prostate cancer.

5. A study published in 2012 in Cancer Research journal found people who drink at least three cups of coffee daily had 20% lower risk of developing basal cell carcinoma (a skin cancer) than non-coffee drinkers.


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