Although we often enjoy coffee for its flavour and stimulating effects, caffeine and its catabolic products also act as an antioxidant in the body, defending against free radicals and cancerous cells.
Free radicals are a natural but toxic byproduct of oxygen metabolism, but can also be generated through other substances that can increase the oxidative stress on the body; behaviours like smoking, eating fried food or charred meats, and any environmental pollution, including air pollution and pesticides. These free radicals can go on to steal electrons from important parts of the cell, such as the cell membranes themselves, proteins, or even a cell’s DNA, creating cascading damaging effects which may potentially lead to degenerative diseases and chronic health problems. Antioxidants donate electrons to these unstable free radicals and terminate these chain reactions, thereby preventing cell and DNA damage.
Coffee has been shown to have greater antioxidant properties than green tea, red wine, and cocoa. Through the roasting process, some antioxidant compounds may be lost, but other antioxidant compounds have the potential to be formed, resulting in a lesser net loss of antioxidant compounds than expected, and sometimes even a net gain.
While there is not a specific way to measure antioxidant capacity, the use of a consistent measure has shown this capacity to vary by bean species. If all else was equal, green beans with a higher caffeine content would have more antioxidant potential, as caffeine is an antioxidant in and of itself. However, each species will have varying levels of phenolic compounds, which can be roasted away, but their breakdown may allow melanoidins to form, which are another type of radical fighting compounds. The level of roasting will also typically affect a bean’s antioxidant potential; the general rule of thumb is that the darker the roast, the lesser it’s antioxidant capacity.
Even with the variability in coffee species, we can be certain that coffee offers some level of protection against free radicals in the environment. While it may not completely negate the effects of free radical generating substances, drinking coffee in moderation could contribute to living a healthy life, free of chronic or degenerative disease.
WRITTEN BY: Victoria Etheridge