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Food, Health, and Eco-news
Coffee Found Inflaming; Tea Seen as Smarter Caffeine Source

Greek study reveals inflammatory effects, giving Dr. Perricone's anti-coffee stance additional support

by Craig Weatherby

It pains the java junkies among us to admit it, but coffee may not be quite as benign as advertised, or as we'd like to think.

First, it must be said that the ubiquitous brew seems to offer some significant benefits:

  • Coffee is extraordinarily rich in beneficial polyphenol antioxidants.
  • Moderate caffeine intake enhances concentration and focus.
  • Coffee drinking is linked to reduced rates of diabetes, Parkinson's disease, liver cancers, and suicide.

As the authors of a recent evidence review put it, “For adults consuming moderate amounts of coffee (3-4 cups/day), there is little evidence of health risks and some evidence of health benefits” (Higdon JV, Frei B 2006).

But coffee hasn't got a spotless bill of health:

  • Coffee, once it is ground, develops substantial amounts of two cell-damaging pro-oxidant chemicals: hydrogen peroxide and hydroxyhydroquinone. And drinking coffee raises body levels of both of these bad actors. As a result, the beneficial antioxidant polyphenols abundant in coffee are kept busy neutralizing its own unhealthful constituents.
  • Tea, too, can contain substantial amounts of hydrogen peroxide. But unlike coffee, drinking tea does not raise body levels of hydrogen peroxide, for reasons that remain obscure (Akagawa M et al 2003, Halliwell B et al 2004).
  • Coffee raises blood levels of cholesterol and homocysteine slightly, and can raise blood pressure a bit.
  • Some studies suggest that certain organic acids in coffee (not its caffeine) cause the body to secrete cortisol: a stress hormone that damages brain cells in the memory center and promotes storage of calories as body fat. This is why Dr. Nicholas Perricone takes such a strong anti-coffee stance. However, the jury remains out on the cortisol question, since some studies suggest that coffee reduces cortisol secretion.

The same review cited above included some caffeine-related cautions for particular populations: “…some groups, including people with hypertension, children, adolescents, and the elderly, may be more vulnerable to the adverse effects of caffeine. In addition, currently available evidence suggests that it may be prudent for pregnant women to limit coffee consumption to 3 cups/d providing no more than 300 mg/d of caffeine to exclude any increased probability of spontaneous abortion or impaired fetal growth.”

Note: These cautions apply much more to coffee than tea, which typically has less than half as much caffeine and appears to ease the effects of stress (see “Black Tea May Confer Memory-Saving, Anti-Stress Benefits”).

And the results of one population study suggess that coffee may induce inflammation: a key engine of aging in the human body.

Greek study finds that coffee fuels internal flames

Findings gleaned from a Greek study indicate that consuming moderate-to-high amounts of coffee raises blood levels of several markers of inflammation (Zampelas A et al 2004).

This fits with coffee's tendency to increase body levels of hydrogen peroxide. And it could explain previous reports that linked the drink to a slight rise in the risk of heart disease (Chronic, low-level inflammation promotes cardiovascular problems).

The findings flowed from the ATTICA study, which involved about 3,000 men and women in the Athens areas with no history of cardiovascular disease.

Compared with subjects who did not drink coffee, those who consumed more than about one cup a day had significantly higher levels of all the inflammatory markers tested (The same ATTICA study showed that eating fish reduces body levels of inflammation: see “Fish Inhibits Heart-Attacking Inflammation”).

The results held true even after factoring in age, gender, smoking, body weight, physical activity, and other potential confounders.

The Greek study suggest that it may be wise to eliminate coffee-drinking, or at least balance it with regular enjoyment of tea, which lowers body levels of cell-damaging hydrogen peroxide and brain-bruising, fat-promoting cortisol.


  • Higdon JV, Frei B. Coffee and health: a review of recent human research. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2006;46(2):101-23. Review.
  • Halliwell B, Long LH, Yee TP, Lim S, Kelly R. Establishing biomarkers of oxidative stress: the measurement of hydrogen peroxide in human urine. Curr Med Chem. 2004 May;11(9):1085-92.
  • Stadler RH, Turesky RJ, Muller O, Markovic J, Leong-Morgenthaler PM. The inhibitory effects of coffee on radical-mediated oxidation and mutagenicity. Mutat Res. 1994 Jul 16;308(2):177-90.
  • Akagawa M, Shigemitsu T, Suyama K. Production of hydrogen peroxide by polyphenols and polyphenol-rich beverages under quasi-physiological conditions. Biosci Biotechnol Biochem. 2003 Dec;67(12):2632-40.
  • Zampelas A, Panagiotakos DB, Pitsavos C, Chrysohoou C, Stefanadis C. Associations between coffee consumption and inflammatory markers in healthy persons: the ATTICA study. Am J Clin Nutr. 2004 Oct;80(4):862-7.
  • Panagiotakos DB, Pitsavos C, Chrysohoou C, Kokkinos P, Toutouzas P, Stefanadis C. The J-shaped effect of coffee consumption on the risk of developing acute coronary syndromes: the CARDIO2000 case-control study. J Nutr. 2003 Oct;133(10):3228-32.
  • Steptoe A, Gibson EL, Vounonvirta R, Williams ED, Hamer M, Rycroft JA, Erusalimsky JD, Wardle J. The effects of tea on psychophysiological stress responsivity and post-stress recovery: a randomised double-blind trial. Accessed online October 12, 2006 at
  • Atanasov AG, Dzyakanchuk AA, Schweizer RA, Nashev LG, Maurer EM, Odermatt A. Coffee inhibits the reactivation of glucocorticoids by 11beta-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase type 1: a glucocorticoid connection in the anti-diabetic action of coffee? FEBS Lett. 2006 Jul 24;580(17):4081-5. Epub 2006 Jun 27.


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