Coffee drinkers may doing more than jump-starting the day with a morning cup of joe — they may actually be preventing colon cancer.

For years, scientists have hypothesized that some cancer protection might come from coffee consumption. Scientists now say they have identified a highly-active anti-cancer compound in coffee. German researchers recently discovered the effective compound, methylpyridinium, a potent antioxidant, which seems to enhance the activity of phase two enzymes that protect against colon cancer.

“We have been looking for some time at coffee, and it appeared in the past that coffee was reducing cancer, but no one really understood why,” said Donna Weihofen, senior nutritionist with the University of Wisconsin Comprehensive Cancer Center.

In 1998, a detailed analysis of 17 studies on coffee drinking was executed at Harvard. The results showed a decreasing risk of colon cancer resulting from moderate coffee drinking. The explanation for this, though, had nothing to do with antioxidants. Instead, it said that drinking coffee helps to expel wastes easily, which in turn keeps the colon healthier, Weifhofen said.

Coffee is one of the sole providers of methylpyridinium. It is not actually contained in coffee beans, but contained in trigonellin, its chemical antecedent, and formed during the roasting process. The anticancer complex is found in any type of coffee, with or without caffeine and instant.

Compared to a regular, medium-roast blend, espressos are a better option because they hold two to three times the amount of the anti-cancer compound.

The study exposed specially prepared extracts of coffee to laboratory preparations of human intestinal cells for a period of three days. The result was a dose dependant increase in phase two enzymes. The consumption of more coffee produced more enzymes.

An identical study using 24 rats displayed the same results. Rats fed the methylpyridinium showed a 24 to 40 percent increase in phase two enzymes.

The American Cancer Society reports that, excluding skin cancers, colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in both men and women in the United States. The ACS expects 105,000 new cases of colorectal cancer by the end of 2003. About 57,100 people are expected to die from the cancer this year.

Factors shown to increase the risk of colon cancer are obesity, alcohol, burnt or blackened red meat and high sugar or high fat diets. Coffee has not been determined as a cause of any type of cancer, making this discovery one of great importance, Weihofen said.

“I like the versatility of coffee,” said Lindsay A. Mueller, a UW sophomore. “It’s excellent served steaming-hot, straight-black, and it’s good in [an] iced cappuccino. I often use it to wake up in the morning, but sometimes it’s nice on a cold day just to sip on.”

Mueller added it was comforting to know coffee may have added benefits.