Coffee drinking and genetics: Is there a correlation?

To your dismay, you’ve been drinking four cups of coffee a day for 20 years. Energy boost, taste, habit – who knows? But one thing you do know, your parents are heavy coffee drinkers. “Wait a minute, is this about genetics?” Could be.

’Look at the genetics of anxiety, for instance, or bipolar and depression: In the 23andMe data set, they tend to be positively genetically correlated with coffee intake genetics.’

Coffee is a big deal – big business – worldwide. How ‘bout you? Does it loom large in your life?

I can take it or leave it.

Hey, before we get down to business, let’s take a look at some fun coffee facts…

  • Coffee was discovered in Ethiopia in the 14th century. Names along the way include qahwah (Arabic), kahve (Ottoman Turkish), and koffie (Dutch)
  • Worldwide annual coffee revenue is $100 billion
  • The average U.S. coffee drinker consumes 3.1 cups a day
  • 66% of Americans are daily coffee drinkers
  • Finland leads the world in per capita coffee consumption at 26.45 pounds per person per year
  • 42.9% of Americans report that they drink coffee because they like the taste, not for the energy boost
  • The top supplier of coffee to the U.S. is Colombia. Worldwide? Brazil

Any surprises?


In a search for recent and relevant emotional and mental health research, I bumped into an interesting piece I knew I had to share.

The publication of a study was announced on “UC San Diego Today” this past June 18. “Is Coffee Good for You or Bad?,” written by Joseph McClain, summarized work conducted by an international research group. The study was published in the journal, Neuropsychopharmacology.

The study leads are Hayley H. A. Thorpe, PhD, of the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology, Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry at Western University, Ontario and Abraham Palmer, PhD, professor in the UC San Diego School of Medicine, Department of Psychiatry,

The team compared coffee consumption characteristics from a 23andMe database with an even larger set of records in the United Kingdom.

Let’s see what’s up…

“Is coffee good for you or bad for you?”

We’ll kick things off with a bang from team member Sandra Sanchez-Roige, PhD……

”Coffee drinking is a heritable habit, and one that carries a certain amount of genetic baggage. Caffeinated coffee is a psychoactive substance.”

You knew that, right?

The team’s mission

In explaining their mission, Dr. Thorpe began by stating the team collected genetic data as well as self-reported coffee consumption numbers to assemble a genome-wide association study (GWAS).

The idea was to make connections between the genes known to be associated with coffee consumption and the traits of health-related conditions

Dr. Thorpe…

We used this data to identify regions on the genome associated with whether somebody is more or less likely to consume coffee. And then identify the genes and biology that could underlie coffee intake.

Let’s get into it…

Coffee drinking and genetics

DNA sequence, electrophoresis photo, restriction map

Dr. Palmer revealed that the team suspected from earlier papers that there were genes that influence how much coffee someone consumes. That being the case, the team wasn’t surprised to find that in both cohorts there was statistical evidence that this is a heritable trait.

Simply, the gene variants we inherit from our parents influence how much coffee we’re likely to consume.

Palmer observed that most people are surprised to learn there’s a genetic influence on coffee consumption.

Kind of like our friend in the opening paragraph.

What coffee lovers want to know

So the team addressed the first order of business, genetics. Now it was on to the second..

Sanchez-Roige stated, “The second is something that coffee lovers are really keen on learning, Is drinking coffee good or bad? Is it associated with positive health outcomes or not?”

And the answer is? It’s not definitive.

Genetic associations

Let’s handle several definitions before we proceed…

A genotype is the chemical composition of an individual’s DNA. It gives rise to a phenotype, which is an individual’s observable traits.

A positive genetic association is a connection between a specific gene variant (the genotype) and a specific condition (the phenotype). Conversely, a negative genetic association is an apparent protective quality discouraging the development of a condition.

The group’s genome-wide associated study of 130,153 U.S.-based 23andMe research participants was compared with a similar UK Biobank database of 334,649 Britons.

The team found a consistent positive genetic association between coffee and harmful health outcomes such as obesity and substance use.

Emotional and mental illnesses

The findings got dicey when it came to emotional and mental illnesses.

Thorpe observes…

Look at the genetics of anxiety, for instance, or bipolar and depression: In the 23andMe data set, they tend to be positively genetically correlated with coffee intake genetics. But then, in the UK Biobank, you see the opposite pattern, where they’re negatively genetically correlated. This is not what we expected.

She went on to say there were other instances in which the 23andMe set didn’t align with the UK Biobank, but the greatest disagreement was in emotional and mental illnesses.

Explaining the differences

Some of the differences were attributed to comparison inaccuracies, poor accommodation for the various ways coffee is served, and the reality that many U.S. coffee drinkers load up their coffee with sugary additives.

Dr. Palmer…

Genetics influences lots of things. For instance, it influences how tall you might be. And those kinds of things probably would play out very similarly, whether you lived in the U.S. or the U.K. But coffee is a decision that people make.

Sanchez-Roige pointed out that coffee comes in a variety of forms, from instant to frappuccino, and is consumed amid cultural norms that differ from place to place.

A person with a given genotype might end up having quite a different phenotype living in the U.K. versus the U.S.


Let’s take it home with this from Dr. Sanchez-Rouge…

And that’s really what the data are telling us, Because unlike height, where your behavior doesn’t really have much to do with it, your behavior and the choices you’re making in your environment play out in various ways. So the interaction between genotype and environment complicates the picture.

The team emphasized the need for more investigation to unravel the relationships between genetics and the environment in other substance use issues.

Research is crucial

So what do you think? I thought the results of the study were interesting well beyond the genetics/coffee drinking correlation.

Research is crucial and brings hope to those of us who emotionally, mentally, or physically suffer. And I’m grateful for that.

However, given my age, I’m more grateful and excited for what research will bring my children and grandchildren.

Be sure to take a look at the UC San Diego Today piece: Is Coffee Good for You or Bad for You?

Human genome image licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license. Author Ryan L. Collins, no changes made

Coffee statistics were provided by Coffee Affection, Statista, WorldAtlas, National Coffee Association

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