The association of habitual coffee consumption with a lower risk of diseases, like type 2 diabetes mellitus, chronic liver disease, certain cancer types, or with reduced all-cause mortality, has been confirmed in prospective cohort studies in many regions of the world. The molecular mechanism is still unresolved. The radical-scavenging and anti-inflammatory activity of coffee constituents is too weak to account for such effects. We argue here that coffee as a plant food has similar beneficial properties to many vegetables and fruits. Recent studies have identified a health promoting mechanism common to coffee, vegetables and fruits, i.e., the activation of an adaptive cellular response characterized by the upregulation of proteins involved in cell protection, notably antioxidant, detoxifying and repair enzymes. Key to this response is the activation of the Nrf2 (Nuclear factor erythroid 2-related factor-2) system by phenolic phytochemicals, which induces the expression of cell defense genes. Coffee plays a dominant role in that regard because it is the major dietary source of phenolic acids and polyphenols in the developed world. A possible supportive action may be the modulation of the gut microbiota by non-digested prebiotic constituents of coffee, but the available data are still scarce. We conclude that coffee employs similar pathways of promoting health as assumed for other vegetables and fruits. Coffee beans may be viewed as healthy vegetable food and a main supplier of dietary phenolic phytochemicals.
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