Many Americans can’t start their day without it. A cup of coffee, or two, is essential to feeling energized and sharp. Some even choose not to say a single word til they’ve had their first sip. This kind of addiction has long sparked talks of caffeine caps, but the U.S. government had steered clear of advising on the topic—until now.
When the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans were released by the Agriculture and Health and Human Services Departments in January, they mentioned “caffeine” 38 times and “coffee” 23 times. Finally, the java-colored elephant in the room was acknowledged, unlike in the 2010 guidelines where “caffeine” was completely ignored and “coffee” came up only in passing, a mere three times.
What led to this breakthrough? Members of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee decided to investigate caffeine and coffee and publish a report in February 2015—almost a year before the new guidelines were issused—with recommendations for the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
“Going in, we had the sense that regular coffee drinking could provide more caffeine than would be healthy,” says Tom Brenna, Ph.D., a professor of human nutrition and chemistry at Cornell University and a member of the advisory committee. “When we looked carefully, we found [this wasn’t] true, on average. The literature does not support any of that and, in fact, if anything the effects are toward healthfulness.”
While a cup of Joe might not be bad for you that doesn’t mean you should overdo it. With moderation in mind, scientists landed on a recommendation that the nutrition and science world has long backed: a cap of 400 milligrams caffeine per day. The caveat? You shouldn’t start a caffeine habit if you don’t already have one. The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee did a thorough review of the possible risks of caffeine consumption, concluding that moderate coffee intake isn’t linked with a heightened risk of chronic disease (such as heart disease, cancer, and type 2 diabetes), premature death in healthy adults, or neurodegenerative disease.
The Benefits of Coffee, Explained
Coffee offers a myriad of health benefits: The drink isn’t simply fuel to get you through your day. “I like to point out that even the water of coffee may be doing something good,” says Brenna.
A widely cited study in PLOS One suggests that up to four cups of coffee can count toward your daily water intake. “We only studied people with moderate intake, and in these people their coffee intake did appear to contribute to fluid balance in a positive way,” says Andrew Blannin, Ph.D., co-author of the study and a lecturer in the School of Sport, Exercise and Rehabilitation Services at the University of Birmingham in the UK. “Some of the literature suggests higher intake could be detrimental, but I think further research is required to establish this,” he adds.
Another benefit of coffee is its high antioxidant value: It surpasses tea and wine, providing up to 550 milligrams per cup. “We tend to think of these drinks as just water and caffeine, but there are many bioactive compounds in tea and coffee,” says Blannin. The antioxidants in coffee may help fight certain types of cancer, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes. Additionally, regular caffeine intake may also help prevent cognitive decline.
So if your daily coffee fix is moderate, you’re probably helping, not hurting, your health. Just make sure not to guzzle multiple extra-large cups. Speaking of, how many mugs a day is just right?
The Perfect Amount of Coffee to Consume Daily
Your daily coffee limit depends on how you brew your java and where you buy it. If you’re drinking a true 8-ounce cup of coffee, you can safely have three to five cups of coffee. But the typical coffee mug holds anywhere from 8 to 16 ounces, and caffeine content varies widely among brews.
An 8-ounce cup made using either a drip coffeemaker or a Keurig, for example, contains between 75 and 200 milligrams caffeine. On the other hand, a trip to Starbucks can land you at 410 milligrams when you order a 20-ounce Venti. If you’re not aiming to surpass your daily intake with one drink, you’re be better off ordering an Americano (espresso with hot water). Even with four shots of espresso, a Venti at Starbucks nets 300 milligrams caffeine.
Pregnant or trying? Cap your intake at 200 mg caffeine daily. This is “out of an abundance of caution,” notes Brenna. This recommendation is included in the report that advised the dietary guidelines, but not the actual guidelines. Brenna and his colleagues concluded that when consumed in moderation, caffeine use doesn’t cause preterm delivery.
By Amy Gorin