Coffee vs. Smoothie: Which is Healthier?

Two of the world’s most popular drinks are head-to-head in the battle for which is healthiest. As the BBC reports, the conclusion may surprise you, and perhaps be met with much skepticism and discord.

Let’s start with coffee, which has long been regarded as unhealthy except in the most moderate amounts. As the articles notes, the widespread misconception that coffee leads to many health problems stems from methodological flaws in past studies on coffee drinkers:

These claims have been largely based on case control studies, where you take a group of people who drink coffee and compare them with another matched group who don’t.

The problem with this approach is that coffee drinkers are more likely than non-coffee drinkers to have other “bad” habits, like drinking alcohol or smoking, so it is hard to tease apart what is really doing the harm.

A more reliable way to get at the truth is to do what is called a prospective cohort study. You take a group of disease-free individuals, collect data about them, then follow them for a large number of years to see what happens.

So what did those more reliable studies reveal?

When scientists collected data on the coffee drinking habits of 130,000 men and women and then followed them for over 20 years they found that coffee is rather a good thing (The Relationship of Coffee Consumption with Mortality, Annals of Internal Medicine, June 2008).

They crunched the numbers and concluded that “regular coffee consumption was not associated with an increased mortality rate in either men or women”.

In fact, data from this study suggests that moderate coffee consumption is mildly protective, leading to slightly lower all-cause mortality in coffee drinkers than non-coffee drinkers. Based on this and other studies the most effective “dose” is two to five cups a day. More than that and any benefits drop off. There are hundreds of different substances in coffee, including many different flavonoids (compounds widely found in plants that have antioxidant effects). Which of these ingredients is beneficial, we simply don’t know.

But wait, there’s more! Coffee even confers some psychological benefits, if you could believe it:

In research recently published in the World Journal of Biological Psychiatry (July 2013) they found that people who drank two to four cups of caffeinated coffee a day were half as likely to commit suicide as those who either drank decaff or fewer than two cups a day. This research pulled together data from three studies that had followed more than 200,000 people for more than 14 years, so it’s pretty reliable. It is also supported by a number of other studies, which makes this claim even more plausible.

One reason why caffeine may be a mild anti-depressant is that as well as making you more alert, it increases levels of neurotransmitters in the brain, like dopamine and serotonin, that are known to improve mood.

As anyone who’s ever needed to get through a rough workday can attest, coffee does indeed do wonders to one’s mood. As a recent nine-to-fiver myself, I’ve been won over by coffee out of sheer necessity. Few other things help get me going, except tea (and even then, coffee is the secret weapon for when even tea won’t suffice).

Of course, like any good study (or like most things in life in general for that matter), there are important caveats to keep in mind:

The researchers don’t recommend going overboard, noting that “there is little further benefit for consumption above two to three cups”.

One note of caution is that these trials began many years ago so the sort of coffee consumption being tested is almost certainly good, old-fashioned coffee.

A simple mug of coffee delivers somewhere between zero and 60 calories, depending on whether it is black, white or white with one sugar. Cappuccinos, lattes and mochas contain coffee but they also contain a lot of calories — anything between 100 and 600 — so when it comes to fancy coffees I limit myself to the occasional tall, skinny cappuccino (70 calories).

In short, like most dietary guidelines, stay in moderation and be wary of what kind of coffee you’re drinking. It seems simple enough, especially when the benefits are vast.

So what about that other popular trend, smoothies?

In a study published in August 2013 in the British Medical Journal (Fruit Consumption and risk of type 2 diabetes) they found that while eating fruit cuts your risk of developing diabetes, drinking it appears to increase the risk.

This was another big study involving lots of people followed for many years. An interesting finding was that different fruits gave different levels of benefit. Three servings of blueberries, for example, cut the risk of diabetes by 26%, while eating apples, pears, bananas and grapefruits also had a positive, albeit much smaller, effect.

Overall those who ate fruit cut their risk of developing diabetes by 2%, while those who drank it (more than three glasses of fruit juice a week) increased their risk by 8%.

More bad news for fruit juice drinkers comes from a case-controlled study done in Western Australia that examined the daily diets of more than 2,000 people. They found that eating some types of fruit and vegetables (cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and apples) cuts your risk of colorectal cancer, while drinking fruit juice was associated with an increased risk of rectal cancer. Sugary drinks lead to raised levels of the hormone insulin and persistently high levels of insulin are associated with increased risk of some cancers. The researchers point out that many things that protect against bowel cancer, such as antioxidants and fibre, are lost or diminished during the juicing process.

In other words, not only do juices and smoothies diminish the palpable health benefits of fruits and veggies, but they may worsen your health due to additives such as sugar. But again, here’s the caveat:

None of these studies specifically looked at the health benefits or otherwise of fruit smoothies, which are a relatively recent phenomenon, nor did they look at the impact of different types of juice – for instance, whether it was freshly squeezed or from concentrate, homemade or shop-bought. I would assume, for example, that drinking a homemade vegetable smoothie is going to be a lot better for you than a commercial fruit smoothie.

And I very much doubt that the occasional fruit juice or fruit smoothie is going to do any harm.

There you have it folks. Just watch your intake and source. Coffee, fruits, and veggies are fine so long as you’re not adding too much sugar, milk, processing, and the like. It seems like a reasonable enough result. What say you all?


One comment on “Coffee vs. Smoothie: Which is Healthier?

  1. I am a coffee drinker. Okay, admittedly I don’t drink small amounts of it. I consume large amounts, pots sometimes. I have consumed coffee since I was a child. I don’t drink anything really but coffee or water. Now and then I drink black tea (no sugar), iced. Once in a very large while I make fresh fruit / vegtable juice. But mostly, coffee. It is good to know, I am not doing terrible harm to myself.

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