Your Brain on Food

How chemicals control your thoughts and feelings.

Why decaf coffee is just as healthy

Avoid the caffeine; it's still good for you

It's the end of the day and you've neglected to consume the recommended amount of coffee to prevent Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease, prostate cancer or Type II diabetes.  Maybe it's time to settle down with a cup of decaffeinated coffee.  However, does decaffeinated coffee offer the same health benefits as caffeinated coffee?  The answer is a qualified yes.  Fortunately, with or without the caffeine, coffee is rich in biologically active substances that contribute to its aroma, taste and color. Some of these have been investigated to determine which components of the drink are responsible for its well-documented health benefits.

Caffeic acid is found in coffee, as its name might suggest, however it is chemically unrelated to caffeine and shares none of its stimulant actions in the body.  It is a member of a large class of chemicals found in coffee called phenols.  Many of these phenols, such as caffeic acid, exhibit modest, dose-dependent anti-oxidant and anti-carcinogenic properties.  3,5 Dicaffeoylquinic acid also protects from free radicals and has weak anti-oxidant actions.  Some recent studies have suggested that 3,5 dicaffeoylquinic acid is a potent and selective inhibitor of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

Chlorogenic acid is an antioxidant as well; its actions may underlie the presumed ability of coffee to prevent type 2 diabetes mellitus. Chlorogenic acid can reduce the production of glucose by the liver and also lessen the hyperglycemic peak in the blood following the consumption of sugar. The plant is believed to use chlorogenic acid to defend itself from viruses, bacteria and fungi; it may provide the same benefits for humans.  Its presumed health benefits explain why Norwegians add it to their chewing gum where it is sold as Svetol.

Ferulic acid is also an antioxidant which neutralizes free radicals and may prevent oxidative damage to our bodies caused by exposure to ultraviolet light when we forget to use sunscreen.  Ferulic acid can also decrease blood glucose levels and reduce the level of cholesterol and triglycerides; these actions may underlie the potential benefits of coffee drinking, decaffeinated or not.  Finally, ferulic acid is also a potent anti-inflammatory that my own laboratory has shown is capable of significantly reducing brain inflammation that is thought to underlie the risk of Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease.

Quinides are fats that are produced when coffee beans are being roasted. Some studies suggest these fats may improve the body's ability to control blood sugar levels by enhancing the ability of insulin to remove sugar from the blood.  

Trigonelline may prevent dental caries by preventing the bacteria Streptococcus mutans from adhering to teeth but this does not suggest that you should use coffee as a mouth rinse. Trigonelline is unstable above 160 degrees and spontaneously converts itself into vitamin B3, i.e. niacin. Niacin is also formed in from trigonelline during the coffee-bean roasting process.  Thus a few cups of coffee each day can provide about half of the recommended daily requirement for this vitamin; its presence in coffee may be responsible for its ability to lower blood cholesterol levels. 

Caffeinated coffee can increase blood pressure and may pose a health threat to people with cardiovascular disease; fortunately, decaffeinated coffee does not pose this risk.  So drink up and enjoy a good night's sleep with the knowledge that your cup of decaf is effectively protecting your brain and body.   

© Gary L. Wenk, Ph.D. Author of Your Brain on Food (oxford, 2010)

Gary L. Wenk, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology & Neuroscience & Molecular Virology, Immunology and Medical Genetics at the Ohio State University.

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