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Coffee and Health: What’s in Your Cup?

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With six out of ten Americans drinking one cup of coffee each day on average, and more than one-third of that group getting their cup at coffee shops or fast food restaurants, it’s fair to wonder if coffee consumption in the Unites States is a public health issue. The answer is a resounding “perhaps.”

That’s because roughly 60% of coffee drinkers add sweeteners and creamers, or they drink some kind of coffee beverage to which sugars and fats are already added. In a nation where heart disease and diabetes are major public health issues, consuming extra sugar and fat is naturally a matter of concern.

What has followed from that concern is a large body of information about which additives and coffee beverages may or may not be healthy. That information, provided by various news outlets, health-oriented websites, and diet and nutrition experts, can be confusing and even misleading.

Too often, various studies, clinical trials, and related medical research are misrepresented by the media, either in the interest of creating headlines or as an attempt to simplify the science behind the studies. Consequently, health claims about the benefits or harm of certain beverages often are difficult to trust without looking directly and closely at the studies they are based on.

However, it’s still a good idea to pay attention to how many calories and fat grams you may be adding to your morning cup, especially if you have drink cups each day.

The following information may help you decide for yourself if your coffee habit is helping or harming your health.

Bold Headlines

In 2018, several newspapers and radio programs reported that a new study found that drinking coffee may increase your ability to exercise and boost your workout. In fact, the study suggested that consuming caffeine in coffee or tea could promote physical activity in middle-aged women by reducing some physical activity barriers, such as fatigue, perception of pain, and lack of energy.

The researchers further qualified their results in noting that the study was limited by the recall and bias of the subjects, who self-reported the effects that caffeine had on their physical activity. Also, participants consumed cups of coffee and tea of varied brands instead of measured amounts of caffeine, leading to unreliable estimations of consumption. Finally, the researchers warned that they could not conclude whether caffeine intake is a determinant of physical activity or if the reverse is true.

Avoiding too much caffeine is more straightforward. The U.S Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines recommend limiting caffeine to 400 mg per day. Depending on the beans used, how they are roasted, and the brewing process, a cup of coffee (depending on serving size) may have as little as 70 mg of caffeine or as much as 500 mg.

If you plan to monitor your consumption, you need to know how much caffeine is in your favorite brands. Many major retailers offer that information in the stores and on their websites, so you can learn that a “venti” (20 ounces) of Starbucks brewed coffee has more than 400 mg of caffeine, an 11-oz serving of some cold-brew coffees boasts just under 300 mg, and that a 24-oz Dunkin’ Donuts decaf iced coffee still delivers 27 mg of caffeine.

One Lump or Two?

Black coffee has almost no calories, but surveys in the last few years suggest that nearly seven out of ten coffee drinkers add some kind of sweetener and/or creamer. That’s when the calorie count starts. You can control how many lumps of raw, natural, or refined sugar go in your own cup, but not how much sugar is in the canned or bottled coffee beverages you purchase.

The nutrition label may offer some information, depending on the brand. Per FDA requirements, manufacturers will begin listing added sugars on nutrition facts labels in 2020. For now, if there is no “added sugars” line on the label, then the ingredients list for sources of sugar may provide clues about added sugars. For example, products that have no fruit juice, milk, cream, or half and half will have no sugar content unless it is added. Cane sugar, syrup, honey, and caramel are common added sugars.

Creamers are Calories

The expression “a kiss of cream” sounds like moderation, especially if you avoid sugar and add only cream to your coffee. However, depending on how “kiss” is defined, the coffee calorie count may leap from black coffee’s negligible five calories to over 100, once you start adding creamers.

Two tablespoons (1 ounce) of heavy cream adds roughly 103 calories to a single cup. The same amount of half and half, or two ounces of whole milk, adds about 40 calories, which can be significant if you’re having 2-3 cups of coffee per day. One-third of coffee drinkers report that they add about two ounces of cream and two teaspoons of sugar to each cup they consume. At that rate, a two-cup-per-day coffee habit racks up 290 calories and 24 fat grams.

Coffee or Dessert?

Considering the amount of sweet ingredients added to some of the most popular coffee drinks, it’s easy to grab a “cup of coffee” at the shop or drive-thru and wind up with what amounts to dessert. Most consumers recognize that they are getting more than just coffee, but you might be surprised by how much more. An iced caramel latte at some restaurants may have 400-700 calories and 16-90 grams of sugar.

It pays to read the nutrition information charts that most retailers offer either in the store or online. That’s the only way to know, for example, that Dunkin’ Donuts’ large pumpkin swirl frozen coffee delivers 1,160 calories, 21 grams of saturated fat, and 183 grams of sugar.