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Health effects of coffee, chocolate and red wine still debatable

Red wine, coffee and dark chocolate: some say they are a vice, others say they are healthy when used in moderation. Finns tend to gorge on all three during the Christmas holidays. Studies on addictive stimulants still provide contradictory results, as some experts conclude they are harmful, while others say they are beneficial.

Image: YLE

Alcohol use has long been known to reduce the risk of heart disease. Moderate imbibing can lessen the chance of contracting a heart problem by a quarter, according to some sources.

The health effects of red wine in particular make headlines from time to time, but in reality, the positive effects from red wine are no greater than any other alcoholic beverage, says Jaakko Mursu, associate professor of nutrition studies in eastern Finland.

“I’m not convinced that there would be any great variety between types of alcohol when it comes to their health effects. Research evidence shows that with moderate consumption, they can all protect against heart diseases,” Mursu says.  

Moderate consumption in this scenario means one or two servings per day for men and one serving a day for women.

Drinking more than this does not increase the health effects of alcohol, but it certainly increases the disadvantages. Alcohol is linked to dozens of illnesses, with cancer as the first example. Studies confirm that the risk of cancer grows as alcohol use increases. There is no known ‘safe dose’ in this relationship, as breast, liver and digestive tract cancers pose the greatest danger.  

A persistent myth holds that alcohol use also destroys the nerve cells, but Mursu says the process is not so straightforward.

“Alcohol inhibits brain cell activity temporarily, but it does not destroy the cells. Long-term heavy alcohol use can of course can brain damage, however,” he says.

Utility of red wine flavonoids unclear

Animal studies have led some researchers to conclude that the flavonoids contained in red wines also have health benefits.

Flavonoids and other phenolic content increase the amount of ‘good’ HDL cholesterol levels in the body and expand the blood vessels, which lowers blood pressure. They also reduce platelet clumping, which could prevent blood clots and strokes.

Phenolic compounds can have a positive effect on blood sugar metabolism. They also act as antioxidants, although the benefits of antioxidants on life expectancy are also questionable.

Mursu is not convinced that red wine affects humans in the same way as test animals.

“It is too early to say where there is promising evidence. Large amounts of flavonoids have been observed to operate like antioxidants in cellular and animal experiments, with a positive impact on blood vessel walls, for example. In this way, they could be of benefit, but few tests have been conducted on humans. Moderate consumption of alcohol has been proven to be of benefit in reducing heart disease, but the effects of the flavonoids in red wine are still unclear,” he says.

Besides, the same flavonoids found in red wine can also be found in many fruit and dark berries that do not include the negative effects of alcohol.

Can coffee prevent diabetes?

Nordic country residents receive half of their antioxidants via the coffee they drink.

Studies have found that the antioxidant chlorogenic acids in coffee could prevent type 2 diabetes and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's. Although caffeine adversely affects blood sugar metabolism, the chlorogenic acid cancels the effect of the caffeine.

“On the whole it seems that coffee can protect against diabetes and a range of other memory disorders,” says Mursu.

The diabetes deterrent in coffee is in direct proportion to how much one drinks. The more coffee you drink, the greater the effect.

Caffeine is a subject that has been well-researched. Many consider its stimulating effect to be positive. Caffeine improves physical and mental performance and reduces the sensation of pain. This can be very useful in the practice of physical exercise.

Caffeine doesn’t suit everyone, however. Some may exhibit restlessness, anxiety and abdominal pain. Caffeine tolerance is highly individualistic, but nutrition specialist Mursu says four cups a day is an appropriate amount for most.

Caffeine wrongly persecuted

Decades ago coffee was still considered harmful because it contained the stimulant caffeine. It was thought that drinking coffee could lead to central nervous system fatigue and high blood pressure, and increase the risk of stroke.

“Apparently this is not the case. Coffee has been studied for over fifty years now and no one has been able to prove a connection to heart disease or stroke. The effects of coffee are quite neutral. Even if coffee raises your blood pressure, your body adapts to it if you drink coffee regularly. The only people that notice a significant change in their blood pressure are those who drink coffee rarely,” says Mursu.

Both coffee and cocoa are made from beans that are rich in nutrients. Dark chocolate and coffee contain minerals like magnesium and potassium, as well as antioxidant phenolic compounds.

“The darker the chocolate, the better it is for you. Treating the chocolate with heat weakens the phenolic compounds in the cocoa beans, so raw chocolate is probably the best option,” says Mursu.

Chocolate just can't be bad

Most research on dark chocolate has focused on its effect on vascular function. The flavonoids in chocolate have been found to expand the blood vessels and increase their flexibility, a beneficial feature in light of heart disease. Cocoa and chocolate have also been proven to lower blood pressure.

“Sure, you can eat a few pieces of dark chocolate every day, but there are no guarantees that it will give you any health benefits,” says Mursu.

Like coffee, many people still believed chocolate was bad for you a few decades ago because of all the hard fat. It was later found that even in large quantities, chocolate did not raise harmful LDL cholesterol levels. The only problem is that the calories in chocolate can easily gather around the waistline, adding weight.

Mursu says no other food product brings as much pleasurable consequences as chocolate. Some say this is attributable to the small caffeine and hash-like compounds that cocoa beans contain. Mursu suspects a more likely reason is the great taste.

“Chocolate as a taste experience is so unique it causes us pleasure and keeps us coming back for more. Chocolate smells delicious and its melting point is ideal for lingering enjoyment in your mouth. We have learned over time to associate chocolate with certain life situations, like consolation or celebration. Simply put, it’s just so good.”

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