In context: Latest coffee study links java — even decaf — to healthy liver

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Americans consume more than 500 million cups of coffee a day — so new coffee studies often brew up a lot of attention.

Many previous studies have focused on caffeine-derived health benefits, but now decaf drinkers might have reason to rejoice: A new National Cancer Institute report published in the journal Hepatology links drinking either regular or decaf coffee with protective benefits for the liver.

"Perhaps the most important piece of information to be gleaned from this study is that the protective effects are unrelated to caffeine, but in fact related to some intrinsic component of coffee itself," Dr. David Bernstein, chief of the division of hepatology at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, N.Y., told Health Day.

Exactly which component is not known — more study is needed, lead researcher Dr. Qian Xiao from the National Cancer Institute said in a press release.

Researchers in the study used data from the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES, 1999-2010), studying about 28,000 U.S. adults, and examining how much coffee each person drank, and what levels of key enzymes associated with liver health were present in each person's blood.

Their finding: Participants who drank three or more cups of coffee per day — regular or decaf — had lower levels of four enzymes that are markers of negative liver health.

But here is the important caveat about the whole report: "While these studies are interesting, the concept that coffee is protective to the liver is a difficult one to prove," researcher Bernstein said. "It would be important for future studies to attempt to isolate the ingredient of coffee which gives this effect in the hopes that the protective factor could be manufactured and used in patients with liver disease."

So, should I drink coffee?

There has been so much coffee research in recent years that it can leave java lovers jittery: Is coffee good for us or not?

Unfortunately, it's not that simple. Many studies have found an association between drinking coffee and good health — but many studies have found the opposite as well. Coffee, most experts agree, has a number of pros and cons when it comes to health.

"The best answer may be that for most people the health benefits outweigh the risks," one Mayo Clinic doctor notes.

But, say many experts, it really comes down to the individual. "It's all about you," AARP reported. "People have different reactions to caffeine. Some can drink six cups of coffee a day and feel fine, others need to switch to decaf or herbal tea by noon or they'll be up all night."

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