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Adding this ingredient to your cup of coffee may provide anti-inflammatory benefits

January 30, 2023, 8:29 PM UTC
Iced coffee with milk being poured in.
Go ahead and add that milk to your morning coffee.
Burak Karademir—Getty Images

Next time the barista asks if you’d like milk in your coffee, you may want to say yes. According to a new study from the University of Copenhagen, adding milk to your coffee can have an anti-inflammatory effect. The combination of proteins and antioxidants, in particular polyphenols, is believed to double the anti-inflammatory properties in immune cells.

Polyphenols are a group of naturally occurring antioxidants that are beneficial to humans. They also prevent and delay the “oxidation of healthy chemical substances and organs in our bodies, thereby protecting them from damage or destruction,” according to a press release about the study.

As part of the study, researchers at the Department of Food Science, in collaboration with researchers from the Department of Veterinary and Animal Sciences, at University of Copenhagen looked into how polyphenols react when combined with amino acids, the molecules that form proteins.

“In 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,” says Department of Food Science professor Marianne Nissen Lund, who headed the study, in a press release. “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.”

While polyphenols have been proven to bind to proteins in meat products, milk, and beer, in another study the researchers experimented with whether the molecules also bind to each other in a coffee drink with milk. They found that coffee beans contain polyphenols and milk is rich in proteins.

“Our result demonstrates that the reaction between polyphenols and proteins also happens in some of the coffee drinks with milk that we studied. In fact, the reaction happens so quickly that it has been difficult to avoid in any of the foods that we’ve studied so far,” says Lund. “I can imagine that something similar happens in, for example, a meat dish with vegetables or a smoothie, if you make sure to add some protein like milk or yogurt.”

Researchers are currently investigating how to add the right amount of polyphenols in food to achieve the best quality.

“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,” explains Lund. “This strategy has the added advantage of enhancing the anti-inflammatory effects of polyphenols.”

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