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Compounds in coffee

Coffee naturally contains a variety of compounds including caffeine, antioxidants and diterpenes. These contribute not only to the unique flavour but also to the well-researched physiological effects of coffee

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Caffeine is a major pharmacologically active compound in coffee and it is a mild central nervous system stimulant2,3. Caffeine is found in some 60 plant species of which cocoa-beans, kola nuts, tea leaves and coffee beans are the most well-known3. Caffeine is added to many popular carbonated drinks and is also a component of a number of pharmacological preparations and over-the-counter medicines. A typical cup of coffee provides approximately 75–100mg caffeine. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in its ‘Scientific Opinion on the Safety of Caffeine’ concluded that ‘habitual intakes of caffeine up to 400mg per day do not give rise to safety concerns for non-pregnant adults4. They also advised that intakes up to 200 mg per day do not give concern for those who are pregnant or breastfeeding4.

Extensive research has shown that there are several beneficial effects of caffeine in the diet, such as improved attention5, alertness5 and physical performance6. In some individuals, however, there can be adverse effects, such as disturbed sleep patterns7.

Further information on the role of caffeine in mental performance can be found here and in physical performance can be found here.


Coffee naturally contains a variety of compounds that display antioxidant properties. These include chlorogenic acids and melanoidins, which may help to deactivate oxidants8-16.

  • A number of studies have shown an increase in blood antioxidant levels after consumption of coffee12-16
  • Several factors (including level of roast, additives including milk or sugar, and the ratio of coffee to water) make it difficult to attribute these increases in blood antioxidant levels to specific compounds in coffee
  • Different antioxidant compounds found in coffee appear to show different effects in the body, but there is a need for further research on the bioactive and potential roles of these compounds before conclusions can be drawn


The diterpenes, cafestol and kahweol, are both naturally present in the oil contained in coffee. Research suggests that high consumption of these compounds can raise serum levels of total and LDL cholesterol17.

  • The impact is largely related to the method of brewing since these compounds are largely retained in the paper filter in filtered coffee, but pass into the brew in Scandinavian boiled coffee, cafètiere (plunger pot), Greek and Turkish coffee17,18
  • Soluble coffee contains virtually none of these cholesterol-raising compounds18. Moderate consumption of espresso (around 2-3 cups) also has negligible effects, as levels are lower than unfiltered coffee and serving sizes are smaller
  • Some studies suggest that diterpenes may also have a protective role against some cancers, although further research is required before any conclusions can be reached19.

For more information on coffee and cardiovascular health, click here.

For more information on coffee and cancer, click here.