Nutrition scientists aren't ready to recommend coffee as a dietary supplement, but they say something in it is definitely beneficial to controlling the course and perhaps the onset of type 2 diabetes — a mostly diet-based, self-induced metabolism disorder linked to dozens of serious illnesses.

Type 2 diabetes is a largely preventable condition that has reached epidemic proportions in the United States as people have become more sedentary and obesity-prone. Diabetes has been treatable in all forms since the 1920s.

"Coffee has surfaced as a beverage with a lot of up side and very little down side with respect to diabetes," said Michael Lefevre, a professor at Utah State University's Center for Advanced Nutrition who is among researchers worldwide trying to get to the bottom of the coffee/diabetes connection.

Benefits from coffee would appear to defy both logic and the findings of nearly every recent study on caffeine, the bean's natural stimulant that is concentrated in the brewing process. Caffeine makes controlling blood sugar more difficult, and diabetics who continue to drink sugar-free caffeinated drinks are shown time and again to have much more difficulty controlling blood sugar than those who stick to staying decaffeinated.

Some research is showing that whatever the positive effects of coffee, they are negated and possibly outweighed by the health-risk factors of caffeine. Decaffeinated coffee removes that negative factor, but the process to remove the caffeine seems to also remove some of its beneficial effects on blood glucose levels, according to some studies.

"It's a complex set of interactions within the body, and aspects of that are clearly too beneficial not to study further," Lefevre said.

The nature of both type 2 diabetes, which occurs usually around 40 years of age, and type 1, commonly called "juvenile diabetes" is deficiency in the production of or the normal response insulin, the blood glucose-controlling hormone produced in the pancreas. A whole host of health problems can result from uncontrolled blood sugar, from cuts that won't heal, constant hunger or thirst to heart disease and kidney failure.

According to the American Diabetes Association of Utah, in the developed world, diabetes is the most significant cause of adult blindness in the nonelderly and the leading cause of nontraumatic amputation in adults, and diabetic nephropathy is the number one illness requiring renal dialysis.

In Utah where about 63 percent of men and 58 percent of women are overweight or obese and therefore very prone to developing the illness, health insurance companies are allowed to turn people down for individual insurance coverage because the illness is considered an "uninsurable" condition. Employer-based medical insurance plans may not turn diabetics down, but area underwriters say the cost of treating health problems resulting from obesity and diabetes is a key reason behind the annual double digit increases in the cost of health care the price of premiums to pay for it.

"Yes, there are many reasons to be motivated to finding ways to help control diabetes," said Lefevre, a Utah Science Technology and Research initiative professor who came to USU a year ago from the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Louisiana where he served as chief of the Division of Functional Foods Research, as well as professor in the Division of Nutrition and Chronic Diseases. He is a fellow of the American Heart Association and advises various national councils on disease prevention.

The impact of a variety of dietary impacts on health is the general focus of his research, which currently has been pointing toward anthocyanins, the ubiquitous molecule that provides the rusty red or purple pigment in plants and berries.

"They have kind of popped out as offering potential," Lefevre said, noting that there are 20 population-based studies on the protective effects of coffee consumption that have indicated a risk or complication reduction of 20 to 60 percent among diabetics who drink just one or two cups a day.

Indications are and if initial data is correct, coffee is shown to help stop the liver from producing excess glucose, he said. "Coffee has a lot of antioxidants and that may protect the beta cells involved in diabetes from being damaged."

Following the research necessary to get to what works, scientists must also test for what doesn't, and what follow-up research recently has countered previous conclusions. For example, research concluding that coffee had a direct link to cancers and high blood pressure has been countered or at least mitigated in follow-up studies.

Lefevre is not unaware of the the unique dichotomy posed by where he is conducting his research: He has an abundant supply of diabetic subjects but a majority of whom consider drinking coffee against their religion.

"Of course, it's not promoting the drink but isolating what appears to be in coffee that we're trying to isolate," Lefevre said. Similar research at USU led to isolating conjugated linoleic acid, a compound found in soy that is now sold in pill form because of its clinically substantiated effect on the immune system and reducing cancer risks.

Recent research is revealing that diseases are complex combinations of multiple conditions — colon cancer is now thought to be the result of five different diseases working simultaneously.

"Research into exactly what prevents diseases is also becoming more sophisticated, in a way easier and harder at the same time," Lefevre said. "We're now able to look at much tinier pieces of the puzzle that are likely going to have enormous effects on our scientific understanding and our general good health."


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