The natural chemical compounds help reduce cell damage.
WASHINGTON -- We may be slack in eating our veggies and fruits, but Americans still are consuming antioxidants by drinking coffee.
A new study finds that java is the leading source of antioxidants in the U.S. diet.
Antioxidants are a variety of natural chemical compounds found in plants that help reduce cell damage and aging, and generally have been shown to reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease.
"Americans get more of their antioxidants from coffee than any other dietary source," said Joe Vinson, a chemistry professor at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania and leader of the study. "Coffee wins the antioxidant race. Nothing else we eat or drink comes close."
Vinson, who reported the findings Sunday before the national meeting of the American Chemical Society here, said even for a two-cup-a-day guy like himself, "I had no clue that we as a country drank so much coffee -- more than 8 ounces a day for every man, woman and child." More than half of all Americans drink coffee every day.
The researchers analyzed the antioxidant content of more than 100 different food items, including vegetables, fruits, nuts, spices, oils and common beverages. Then they projected those scores to what the average American is actually consuming based on U.S. Department of Agriculture surveys of what we eat and drink.
"It's not that the antioxidant content of coffee is that high, but it's the one thing that so many of us do every day," said Vinson, whose work was mainly funded by the American Cocoa Research Institute.
At nearly 1,300 milligrams of antioxidants consumed a day, java easily topped other popular sources of antioxidants such as tea, milk, chocolate or cranberries. Actually, the team found that dates have the highest antioxidant punch based on serving size, but "Americans just don't eat that many dates," Vinson said.
In fact, between coffee, tea, wine and beer, Vinson's team figures Americans drink about 60 percent of the antioxidants we consume every day.
Tea was the second-most-consumed antioxidant source, followed by bananas, dry beans and corn, then wine and beer. Apples, tomatoes and potatoes rounded out the top 10 list of sources.
The researchers note that the antioxidant levels found in a food may not always translate to what actually is taken into the body, since not all food and drink are digested equally.
But Vinson said at least one human and several animal studies done by other scientists seem to indicate that the most important antioxidant compounds in coffee are captured fairly efficiently.
He emphasized that the study does not mean people should start drinking any more coffee. "One or two cups a day seems to be beneficial, but 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 fiber."
Even so, recent studies have linked greater coffee consumption to a number of potential health benefits, including some protection against liver and colon cancers, type 2 diabetes and Parkinson's disease.
"Let's face it, most people drink coffee for the caffeine, which helps improve cognitive function and psychomotor tasks. But caffeinated coffee and decaf have about the same levels of antioxidant.
"And too much caffeine can make you jittery, raise your lipid levels, even make your blood pressure jump, so as with everything else, drink it in moderation, and preferably don't gulp it all down in the morning, but spread it out a little through the day," Vinson said.