As a person with RA (rheumatoid arthritis), a chronic, inflammatory, autoimmune disease that’s left me with disfigured feet and a lifetime of morning stiffness, I was excited to read this latest study on coffee. Coffee- my absolute favorite way to start my day! But if tea is your thing, keep reading.

The study from the University of Copenhagen found that the antioxidants found in coffee when paired with protein from milk may have anti-inflammatory effects. If bacteria, viruses, or other unknown compounds get into our bodies, our immune systems kick in and release white blood cells to protect us, causing inflammation.

Polyphenols, a type of antioxidant can be found in humans, plants, fruit, and vegetables. The food industry also uses antioxidants to reduce the oxidation and breakdown of food. This prevents rancidity and off-flavors in food. These chemicals also protect people by reducing oxidative stress that causes inflammation in the body.

Limited studies are available about polyphenols and how they might interact with proteins in foods that we eat.

Researchers at the Department of Food Science, along with researchers from the Department of Veterinary and Animal Sciences, at the University of Copenhagen studied how polyphenols behave when combined with amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. The results of this study are exciting!

According to Professor Marianne Nissen Lund from the Department of Food Science, who headed the study, “We show that as a polyphenol reacts with an amino acid, its inhibitory effect on inflammation in immune cells is enhanced. As such, it is clearly imaginable that this cocktail could also have a beneficial effect on inflammation in humans. We will now investigate further, initially in animals. After that, we hope to receive research funding which will allow us to study the effect in humans,”.

Fighting Inflammation with a Breakfast Beverage

The researchers studied the anti-inflammatory impact of polyphenols plus protein by applying artificial inflammation to immune cells. A control group received no treatment while some of the cells received different doses of polyphenols that reacted with an amino acid. Other cells received only polyphenols.

In the immune cells treated with polyphenols and amino acids, researchers noted there was a double impact on fighting inflammation compared to those that received only polyphenols. While this experiment was done on a cell line, the researcher’s next move is to study the impact on animals.

“It is interesting to have now observed the anti-inflammatory effect in cell experiments. And obviously, this has only made us more interested in understanding these health effects in greater detail. So, the next step will be to study the effects in animals,” says Associate Professor Andrew Williams of the Department of Veterinary and Animal Sciences at the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences, who is also a senior author of the study.

Discovered in Coffee and Milk

Prior research by this group showed that polyphenols bind to proteins in meat, milk, and beer. In another study, they tested to see if the molecules also bind to each other using coffee and milk. Coffee is a source of polyphenols and milk contains proteins.

The reaction occurs between polyphenols and protein in the coffee drinks containing milk that were evaluated, according to Marianne Nissen Lund, one of the researchers.

The researchers believe this reaction may also have anti-inflammatory effects when other foods containing polyphenols and proteins are combined, such as meat or fish with fruits and vegetables. This is promising research as inflammation drives diseases such as arthritis, cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.

“Because humans do not absorb that much polyphenol, many researchers are studying how to encapsulate polyphenols in protein structures which improve their absorption in the body. This strategy has the added advantage of enhancing the anti-inflammatory effects of polyphenols,” explains Marianne Nissen Lund.

While my picture shows dark roast coffee, lighter roast coffee is actually higher in polyphenols. Roasting coffee results in some losses of these plant chemicals. If you like the mug, find it here: Deja brew | Sound Bites Nutrition

Facts on Polyphenols

  • Polyphenols are a group of naturally occurring antioxidants needed by humans.
  • They protect organs from damage and destruction by preventing and delaying the oxidation of healthy chemical substances.
  • Fruits, vegetables, tea, coffee, red wine, and beer are sources of polyphenols.
  • Polyphenols are used in the food industry to reduce the oxidation of fats, protect food from deteriorating and avoid rancidity and off flavors.

Tips to combine polyphenols with proteins:

  • Enjoy Greek yogurt with your favorite fresh or frozen berries.
  • Add milk to coffee. Use skim or 1% to limit saturated fat.
  • Try pineapple, peaches, or berries in cottage cheese.
  • Include beans, lentils, tuna, or hard-boiled eggs to tossed salads.
  • Enjoy an apple with peanut butter.
  • Add chopped spinach, peppers, and tomatoes to meat sauces.
  • Top grilled fish, chicken or other meat with grilled zucchini, peppers, or asparagus
  • Include lots of vegetables in your stir-fried chicken, seafood, or tofu.

Journal Reference:

  1. Jingyuan Liu, Mahesha M. Poojary, Ling Zhu, Andrew R. Williams, Marianne N. Lund. Phenolic Acid–Amino Acid Adducts Exert Distinct Immunomodulatory Effects in Macrophages Compared to Parent Phenolic AcidsJournal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 2023; DOI: 10.1021/acs.jafc.2c06658

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