Coffee: Does a Body Good?

Cup of coffee. (Image credit:

That morning cup of coffee may do more than just perk you up. A new study shows that coffee is the primary source of antioxidants for Americans.

This finding may come as a surprise to some since scientists and nutrition experts usually tout fruits and vegetables as the best source of antioxidants - chemicals that prevent cellular damage. But, this study shows for the first time that Americans get most of their antioxidants from their daily fix of java.

"Americans get more of their antioxidants from coffee than any other dietary source," said study leader Joe Vinson of the University of Scranton. "Nothing else comes close."

And don't worry if you can't handle the full strength stuff - this study suggests that decaf provides similar antioxidant levels. This comes as good news for the nearly half of all Americans that depend on coffee for that morning pick-me-up.

No need to go out and start chugging coffee, though. "One to two cups a day appear to be beneficial," Vinson said.

Or, if you don't like coffee, try black tea, the second most consumed antioxidant source. Bananas, dry beans, and corn wrap up the top five.

Oxidation, a normal biological process that breaks down chemicals in our bodies, also creates highly reactive free radicals which can attack our cells. Exposure to tobacco smoke and radiation can also create free radicals.

If allowed to do their thing, free radicals can cause permanent damage to the body. Antioxidants, which have been linked to protection against heart disease and cancer, work like a sheriff in the Wild West by rounding up and neutralizing damaging radicals in the system.

However, Vinson cautions that high antioxidant levels in foods and beverages don't always translate into high levels in the body. It all depends on how the body absorbs and uses the antioxidants, says Vinson. The finer points of this process still stump scientists, but they know that antioxidants from different sources get used differently.

Vinson and his colleagues analyzed the antioxidant content of more than 100 common food items, including fruits, vegetables, nuts, spices, oils, and common beverages. Next, they compared this data to an existing U.S. Department of Agriculture database detailing the contribution of each food item to the average estimated American's consumption.

While some of the other foods contained more antioxidants, none could match coffee's frequency of consumption. Dates, cranberries, and red grapes are tops for antioxidant concentration per serving.

"Unfortunately, consumers are still not eating enough fruits and vegetables, which are better for you from an overall nutritional point of view due to their higher content of vitamins, minerals, and fibers," Vinson said.

This study, which was funded by the American Cocoa Research Institute, was presented this week at the 230th national meeting of the American Chemical Society.

Bjorn Carey is the science information officer at Stanford University. He has written and edited for various news outlets, including Live Science's Life's Little Mysteries, and Popular Science. When it comes to reporting on and explaining wacky science and weird news, Bjorn is your guy. He currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his beautiful son and wife.