Coffee talk - The good, the bad and the alternatives

For many, coffee is a must in the morning. For others, it serves as an energy boost throughout the day or a 3 p.m. pick-me-up. Depending on which articles you’ve skimmed lately, coffee is both a detrimental dietary habit and a superfood. So, what’s the truth?  Nicholas Patterson, Purdue Dietetic Intern, helps us brew up the facts. 

Is coffee beneficial to your health?
There has been ongoing debate on whether drinking coffee on a daily basis is a healthy habit or not. For regular coffee drinkers, the research is promising in terms of overall health benefits.  Many studies have shown that regular coffee consumption may possibly reduce the incidence of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and Parkinson’s disease. As little as 1 6-ounce cup of coffee has been shown to increase cognitive function by improving alertness, reaction time and attention span. 

It is important to note that if you are not currently a coffee drinker, adopting a regular habit of drinking coffee is not necessary. Even though coffee does contain beneficial antioxidants, having a diet rich in fruits and vegetables is a great way to capitalize on these health benefits from antioxidants as well.  Various teas also have high amounts of antioxidants and serve as great hot beverage options for non-coffee drinkers.

How much coffee is too much?
Even though coffee has been shown to have health benefits when consumed in moderate amounts, excessive coffee intake is not recommended. Consuming less than 400 mg of caffeine a day has been shown to be safe for most individuals. This is equal to 3-4 cups (6 ounces each) of coffee. Increased incidence of headaches, drowsiness, nausea, and anxiety is associated with consumption of caffeine over someone’s tolerable limit, which can vary greatly. 

While a moderate amount of caffeine has ben shown to be safe for most, the tolerable amount is highly dependent on the person’s bodyweight and sensitivity to caffeine.  People who do not regularly consume coffee are also at a greater risk of negative side effects as compared to habitual coffee drinkers.  It is important to keep in mind that habitual coffee consumption may cause some dependence, but research has shown that this effect is much more severe in coffee drinkers that drink over 4 cups of coffee a day. Keeping coffee consumption between 1-3 cups a day may help you avoid the potential negative side effects of caffeine.

Is coffee right for everyone?
While coffee is generally considered safe for the majority of the population, some individuals should be cautious. Coffee does not necessarily cause hypertension, but the caffeine in coffee does temporarily increase blood pressure.  It is important for individuals that may have hypertension, an existing heart condition, any neurological condition, and for the elderly to talk with their physician about consuming coffee.  Even if you are on hypertension medications, coffee has still been shown to raise blood pressure and may stay elevated for multiple hours.  

A dietitian can also help you determine the amount of coffee and total caffeine that is appropriate and safe for you. It has also been shown that some individuals may tolerate caffeine better than others.  As mentioned previously in this article, caffeine tolerance is largely dependent on genetics, so if you experience any adverse side effects, you may be more sensitive to the effects of caffeine. Also, caffeine has been shown to impact sleep patterns, so you should try and limit your caffeine intake at least 6 hours before going to bed. 

Pregnant and breast-feeding women should also be aware of their overall caffeine intake. Since coffee does contain a fair amount of caffeine, caution should be taken before drinking coffee while pregnant.  The current research indicates that 2 cups of coffee (approximately 200 mg of caffeine) is safe for most pregnant women, but it is important that these individuals speak with their physician before deciding to consume coffee. Children should also not consume coffee or other highly caffeinated drinks on a daily basis.  Even though small amounts have been shown to be safe in younger individuals, it isn’t considered beneficial.  

Green coffee beans and organic coffee … Are they worth it?
Green coffee beans are coffee beans that have not yet been roasted and are generally sold in supplement form. These coffee beans have been marketed as being an effective option for fat loss and some have claimed that these unique coffee beans may potentially have more health benefits than regular coffee beans, but are these claims true?  In multiple studies, the use of green coffee beans did not show a significant difference in terms of weight loss compared to regular coffee beans. As for the health benefits compared to regular coffee beans, there appears to be no significant additional benefits to supplementing with green coffee beans, but more research is needed.

As for choosing organic coffee varieties, this may come more down to personal preference, rather than purely a health decision. Organic coffee beans generally come from more sustainable coffee practices and are not treated with fertilizers or other chemicals.  This means that the methods for growing these beans are most likely better for the environment, the workers and the consumer.  These beans also generally boast higher antioxidant levels and have a richer taste.  The major downside for consumers is the increased price of the beans.

Smart alternatives to coffee.
Whether you simply don’t enjoy the taste of coffee or are seeking other options, teas are great substitutes that also offer a plentiful amount of antioxidants. Black and green teas both have been shown to be effective at preventing heart disease and stroke. A variety of different teas including green, black, and oolong have been shown to have protective effects against various types of cancer and may promote healthy blood pressure.

Another alternative to regular caffeinated coffee is decaffeinated brews. Decaffeinated coffee is also very comparable to regular coffee and has been shown to have similar health benefits, such as regulating glucose levels in diabetics. It’s important to note that the coffee beans generally used for decaffeinated coffee tend to be of lower quality. In addition to this, some of the methods to decaffeinate coffee beans use chemical solvents to extract the caffeine from the beans.  These methods typically use ethyl acetate or methylene chloride that may also strip the coffee beans of some of their valuable antioxidants. A less harsh method for decaffeinating coffee is the use of Swiss Water washing, so you may opt to look for decaffeinated coffee that uses this process.

Healthiest options for doctoring up your coffee.
One of the major perks of consuming coffee is that it is virtually calorie free, only providing approximately 2 calories per 8 ounces of black coffee. Only a small portion of coffee drinkers actually drink their coffee black, which means that for many, coffee can be a carrier for high-calorie additives like sugar and various high fat-high calorie creamers. But there are much healthier options available. 

Switching from a creamer such as heavy whipping cream to fat-free milk can make a significant difference in daily calorie intake. Also, using a small amount of Splenda® or a product containing stevia may be a better bet than using sugar, especially for diabetics.  Listed below are some of the most common coffee additives and their calorie content.  It may not seem like some of the common coffee additives have many calories for the servings listed, but these additional calories can add up over time, especially if you add more than one serving. 


Serving Size


Heavy Whipping Cream

1 Tbsp.

51 calories

Half and Half

1 Tbsp.

20 calories

Powdered Creamer

1 Tsp.

10 calories

Whole Milk

1 Tbsp.

9 calories

Fat-Free Milk

1 Tbsp.

5 calories


1 Tsp.

16 calories


1 Tsp.

2 calories


1 Tsp.

0 calories

Nutrition information retrieved from:

So, there you have it. The choice to sip or not to sip is yours. Whether you decide to fill your mug with coffee, tea or neither, be sure to consume a variety of fruits and vegetables to round out your antioxidant intake.


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