A study has found that coffee contributes more antioxidants - which have been linked with fighting heart disease and cancer - to the diet than cranberries, apples or tomatoes.
Fruit and vegetables have long been known to be a good source of antioxidants, but the new findings are surprising because it is the first time that coffee has been shown to be such a rich source of the agents.
Professor Joe Vinson of the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania warned, however, that the study did not prove that coffee was good for you because high levels of antioxidants in food did not necessarily translate into higher levels absorbed by the body.
Nevertheless, the research - which was funded by the American Cocoa Research Institute - indicates that at least where coffee is consumed in high amounts, the beverage could be responsible for relatively high levels of antioxidants in the diet.
"Americans get more of their antioxidants from coffee than any other dietary source. Nothing else comes close," said Professor Vinson, whose study was described at the weekend to the American Chemical Society in Washington.
The study found that both caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee appeared to provide similar levels of antioxidants.
The American findings are probably reflected in Britain, where people drink about 70 million cups of coffee each day despite the country's reputation as a tea-drinking nation. More than half of the American population are daily coffee drinkers. Although coffee consumption may be lower in the United Kingdom, nearly half of the British population regularly drinks instant or ground coffee, the market analysts Mintel say.
Antioxidants help to rid the body of harmful free radicals, destructive molecules that damage cells and DNA. They have been linked to a number of health benefits, including protection against heart disease and cancer. Studies have associated coffee drinking with a reduced risk of liver and colon cancer, type two diabetes, and Parkinson's disease.
But Professor Vinson urged moderation, recommending that people should drink only one or two cups of coffee per day. He added that it was important not to ignore the benefits offered by fresh fruit and vegetables. "Unfortunately, consumers are still not eating enough fruits and vegetables, which are better for you from an overall nutritional point of view to their higher content of vitamins, minerals and fibre," he said.
The research showed that, compared with other foods, dates were the richest source of antioxidants. But since so few dates are eaten by Americans, they only contributed a small amount of antioxidants to the average person's diet. Cranberries and red grapes also contain high levels of antioxidants.
A spokesman for the British Coffee Association said: "This study reconfirms the fact that moderate coffee consumption of four to five cups a day not only is perfectly safe but may confer health benefits."
The pros and cons of coffee
Can increase alertness and improve short-term recall.
May reduce the risk of cirrhosis of the liver among heavy drinkers.
May postpone muscle fatigue.
Contains caffeine-related compounds (theophylline) that can alleviate the symptoms of asthma in some cases.
Increases blood pressure among people who already suffer from high blood pressure.
Causes insomnia, anxiety, and irritability.
May worsen symptoms of PMS in some women.
Can reduce fertility in women trying to conceive.
Can cause heartburn and indigestion.Reuse content