Antioxidants are important because research has suggested that they can help to protect human cells from free radical damage caused by oxidative stress, a result of exposure to factors such as ultra-violet light, pollution or cigarette smoke. Effectively, antioxidants neutralise these harmful free radicals that may otherwise damage cells.
Nestlé estimates that, of an estimated 9m people within the UK currently on a post-Christmas healthy eating plan, 75% have given up foods such as chocolate, red wine, tea and coffee. However, the firm cites Ovaskainen et al. (2008) and two other studies in asserting that 'moderate coffee drinkers' in Europe get 60% of their antioxidant intake from the drink.
Antioxidant content of coffee
UK-based dietician Dr. Sarah Schenker said that although these foods featured on the most popular list of items to give up, yet when consumed in moderation are excellent sources of antioxidants, which as naturally occuring substances in plants include polyphenols, vitamins C and E and carotenoids.
Quoting Pérez-Jiménez J et al (2010), Identification of the 100 richest dietary sources of polyphenols, Schenker said coffee was one of the richest sources of antioxidants, but she warned that Nestlé’s research showed that consumers have limited awareness of its benefits as an antioxidant source (387mg per 200ml serving of soluble coffee compared with 269mg per 125ml serving of red wine).
Asked about food and drinks that are antioxidant rich, over half of the 2,027 adults questioned by polling organisation YouGov last December on Nestlé's behalf (59%) named blackcurrants as important sources of antioxidants, while just under half (46%) named red wine and carrots (49%). Dark chocolate (40%) and tea (35%) were both relatively well-known, but only 8% of respondents were aware of coffee’s antioxidant benefits.
Lifespan essential food?
Said Schenker: “Healthy eating plans should be about balance, making informed choices and taking a sensible long-term approach. For instance, whilst the vast majority of British people believe giving up coffee will benefit their long-term health, the reality is coffee can be good for you when drunk in moderation.”
Polyphenol expert Gary Williamson, professor of functional food, at the School of Food Science and Nutrition at the University of Leeds agreed, describing coffee as one of his “top 20 lifespan essential” foods.
In addition to coffee, Schenker advises increasing one’s antioxidant intake by eating cocoa beans, pulses and whole grains, alongside plant-based drinks such as tea and coffee.
Schenker also recommended eating dark chocolate with at least 70% cocoa solids content for high antioxidant levels, and even advises drinking coffee as a pre-exercise drink, where she said its caffeine contant can stimulate athletic performance.