Although coffee first appeared in human culture as a medicine, the kind we now patronize as „herbal,” the modern medical establishment has viewed coffee over the years with suspicion. So much so that coffee has become one of the most intensely scrutinized of modern foods and beverages.
Why has the medical establishment chosen to focus so much attention on coffee in particular? Why not on scores of other foods, from white mushrooms to black pepper to spinach, all of which have been accused of promoting various diseases? Perhaps because coffee is such an appealing dietary scapegoat. Since it has no nutritive value and makes us feel good for no reason, coffee may end up higher on the medical hit list than other foods or beverages that may offer equal or greater grounds for suspicion, but are more nourishing and less fun.
For now, however, the coffee lover can rest easy, or at least sip easy. Despite over twenty-five years of intensive study, medical science has yet to prove any definite connection between moderate caffeine or coffee consumption and disease or birth defects. For every study that tentatively suggests a relationship between moderate coffee drinking and some disease, or between moderate coffee drinking during pregnancy and a pattern of birth defects, other studies–usually involving larger test populations or more stringent controls–are published that contradict the earlier, critical studies. It is safe to say that the medical profession is far away from slapping coffee with the kind of warning labels that decorate wine and beer bottles.
To be cautious, if you are pregnant or have certain health conditions, you should bring your coffee consumption to the attention of your physician, even if it is a moderate habit. Aside from pregnancy, health conditions that merit examining your coffee drinking include benign breast lumps, high cholesterol, heart disease, osteoporosis, and some digestive complaints. Again, nothing has been proven against moderate coffee consumption in any of these situations, but overall results are ambiguous, some physicians may disagree with certain studies that exonerate caffeine, and new studies may have appeared that complicate the matter.
The average cup of American-style coffee contains about 100 to 150 milligrams of caffeine; a properly prepared demitasse or single serving of espresso 80 to 120 milligrams. The average cup of tea delivers about 40 milligrams; the average chocolate bar about 20 to 60. A 12-ounce bottle of cola drink contains 40 to 60 milligrams, about as half as much as a cup of coffee.
The short-term effects of caffeine are well agreed upon and widely documented. A good summary appears in The Pharmacological Basis of Therapeutics by Dr. J. Murdoch Ritchie. On the positive side, caffeine produces „a more rapid and clearer flow of thought,” and allays „drowsiness and fatigue. After taking caffeine one is capable of greater sustained intellectual effort and a more perfect association of ideas. There is also a keener appreciation of sensory stimuli, and motor activity is increased; typists, for example, work faster and with fewer errors.”
Such effects are produced by caffeine equivalent to the amount contained in one to two cups of coffee. According to Dr. Ritchie the same dosage stimulates the body in a variety of other ways: heart rate increases, blood vessels dilate; movement of fluid and solid wastes through the body is promoted. All this adds up to the beloved „lift.”
On the negative side are the medical descriptions of the familiar „coffee nerves.” The heavy coffee drinker may suffer from chronic anxiety, a sort of „coffee come-down,” and may be restless and irritable. Insomnia and even twitching muscles and diarrhea may be among the effects. Very large doses of caffeine, the equivalent of about ten cups of strong coffee drunk in a row, produce toxic effects: vomiting, fever, chills, and mental confusion. In enormous doses caffeine is, quite literally, deadly. The lethal dose of caffeine in humans is estimated at about ten grams, or the equivalent of consuming 100 cups of coffee in one sitting.
It would seem that the resolution to the caffeine debate, at least in terms of short-term effects, is simple moderation. Drunk to excess, coffee literally verges on poison; drunk in moderation, it is still the beloved tonic of tradition, a gentle aid to thought, labor, and conversation.
But just how much is enough and how much is too much? No study will commit itself. One can estimate based on inference. Few, if any, studies report negative effects from doses of caffeine under 300 milligrams a day. Since the average cup of coffee (or single serving of espresso) contains about 100 milligrams of caffeine, one could infer from this evidence that anyone should be able to drink about three cups of coffee a day and enjoy the benefits of caffeine with none of the drawbacks. Such a figure assumes, of course, that you do not also consume quantities of cola drinks, chocolate bars, and headache pills. This is a conservative estimate, however. One could infer from other studies that five cups a day is safe for most people. Furthermore, reaction to caffeine varies greatly from individual to individual; some people cannot consume any amount comfortably.
So much for the short-term effects. Researchers in the last 30 years or so have tried to implicate coffee, specifically the caffeine in coffee, in heart disease, birth defects, pancreatic cancer, and a half-dozen other less publicized health problems. So far, the evidence is, at most, inconclusive. Clinical reports and studies continue to generate far more questions than answers, and for every report tentatively claiming a link between caffeine and disease, there are several others contradicting it.
If anything, the medical evidence currently is running in favor of exonerating caffeine rather than further implicating it in disease. Some evidence even points to modest long-term health benefits for coffee drinkers.
One example of the way medical establishment has tended to see-saw on caffeine, condemning on partial evidence then backing off on further evidence, is the purported connection between heavy caffeine intake by pregnant women and birth defects. In the mid-1970s, experiments indicated that the equivalent of 12 to 24 cups of coffee (or equivalent bottles of cola) per day may cause birth defects – in rats. Although human beings metabolize caffeine differently from rats (and other researchers had questioned some of the conditions of the experiments), the United States Food and Drug Administration issued a widely publicized warning about the possible ill effects of caffeine on the fetus. Subsequently, an analysis by Harvard researchers of coffee drinking among 12,000 women early in their pregnancies failed to find a significant link between coffee intake and birth defects. The upshot of the debate? The official position, if there is one, came from a committee of the National Academy of Sciences, which recommended what common sense dictates, what this book recommends, and what coffee lovers through the ages have argued: Pregnant women, according to the NAS committee, should exercise „moderation” in their intake of caffeine.
Reducing Caffeine Intake
Of course, if you simply want to cut down on your caffeine intake, rather than eliminating caffeine from your diet completely, there are alternatives other than decaffeinated coffees.
One is to drink less coffee while focusing on enjoying it more. This is a good tactic for people who consume too much coffee at work out of habit or reflex. Rather than drinking the coffee from the automatic coffee maker or urn, for example, make your own coffee carefully in a small plunger pot, focusing your attention on the act of brewing and drinking.
You can also buy coffees that are naturally low in caffeine. Specialty coffees contain considerably less caffeine than cheaper commercial coffees. Most inexpensive commercial blends are based on robusta coffees, which contain almost double the amount of caffeine as arabica. So if you drink a specialty coffee, you are probably consuming considerably less caffeine per cup than if you were drinking a cheap canned coffee.
Lastly, you can amuse yourself making low-caffeine blends by combining decaffeinated coffees with varying amounts of distinctive, full-bodied untreated coffees. Kenyas, Yemens, the best Ethiopias, and Guatemalas, for example, all pack enough flavor and body to spruce up even the drabbest of decaffeinated beans.
Another Suspect: Acid
Caffeine is only one of the villains in the coffee controversy. Another is certain chemicals often lumped together under the term acid. Some people do not like the acid or sour note in coffee and claim it upsets their stomachs. Others say it causes jitters. I suggest that you experiment. Does that sourness in coffee make your tongue or stomach feel uncomfortable? Then you have three alternatives:
- Try to find a coffee with the acid reduced through a process much like the ethyl acetate solvent decaffeination process. These coffees, treated in Germany, are marketed under the name special mild coffees. They are hard to find, do not offer much choice, and suffer from the same potential for flavor-diminution as decaffeinated beans.
- Buy a moderately-dark- to dark-roasted coffee. Dark roasting reduces the acid sensation in coffee.
- Buy a lower-altitude, naturally low-acid coffee brought to a moderately dark roast (full-city, Viennese, light espresso). To me, this is by far the best solution for acid-shy coffee drinkers. Naturally low-acid coffees include Brazils, most India and Pacific (Sumatra, Timor, Hawaii) coffees, and most Caribbean coffees.
It also helps to buy very good coffee, because the best coffee has been processed from ripe coffee fruit, and coffee from ripe fruit is naturally sweet and lacks the sharp, astringent sensation of cheaper coffee processed from less-than-ripe fruit.
Pesticides and Chemicals
The concerns raised by those apprehensive about the use of pesticides and agricultural chemicals in coffee growing are twofold. First is the health issue for the consumer: whether harmful chemical residues may reach our systems when we drink coffee. Second are the related environmental and social issues: whether buying coffees that may be grown with the help of potentially harmful chemicals contributes to the destruction of the environment and threatens the health of the rural poor who raise coffee.
Agricultural Chemicals and Consumer Health. The consumer health issue is simplest to address. Coffee is not eaten raw like lettuce or apples. The bean is the seed of a fruit. The flesh of this fruit is discarded. Along the way the seed is soaked, fermented, and subject to a thorough drying process. Later it is roasted at temperatures exceeding 400°F, and finally broken apart and soaked in near boiling water. This savage history concludes when we consume only the water in which the previously soaked, fermented, dried, roasted, and infused seed was immersed. Given this history of relentless attrition, it hardly seems possible that much if any of the small amounts of pesticide/fungicide residue permitted by law in green coffee ever make it into the cup.
Chemical Free Alternatives. In brief, coffee drinkers concerned about the impact of agricultural chemicals on environment and society or those unwilling to accept my reassurances on the consumer health issue have essentially three alternatives:
- Buy a traditional coffee, grown as coffee was grown from its inception, before agricultural chemicals were invented. All Yemen, almost all Ethiopia, and most Sumatra Mandheling coffees are grown in such a state of innocence, and all are among the world’s finest.
- Buy a certified organic coffee. Certified organic coffees are coffees whose growing conditions and processing have been thoroughly monitored by independent agencies and found to be free of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, chemical fertilizers, and other potentially harmful chemicals. The monitoring agencies visit the farm and verify that no chemicals have been used on the farm for several years, and then follow every step of the processing, preparing, transporting, storage, and roasting. Such careful monitoring is of course expensive, which is one reason certified organic coffees cost more than similar uncertified coffees. Many such certified organic coffees are the product of socially and environmentally progressive cooperatives. See pages PPP-PPP for more on organically grown coffees.
- Buy a coffee labeled „sustainable.” At this writing sustainable is a rather loose term meaning that, in the view of the importer or roaster, designated farmers are doing everything within reason to avoid the use of agricultural chemicals and to pursue enlightened environmental and socially progressive practices in the growing and processing of their coffees.
Health Benefits of Coffee
Coffee has been a medical whipping boy for so long that it may come as a surprise that recent research suggests that drinking moderate amounts of coffee (two to four cups per day) provides a wide range of health benefits. Most of these benefits have been identified through statistical studies that track a large group of subjects over the course of years and match incidence of various diseases with individual habits, like drinking coffee, meanwhile controlling for other variables that may influence that relationship. According to a spate of such recent studies moderate coffee drinking may lower the risk of colon cancer by about 25%, gallstones by 45%, cirrhosis of the liver by 80%, and Parkinson’s disease by 50% to as much as 80%. Other benefits include 25% reduction in onset of attacks among asthma sufferers and, at least among a large group of female nurses tracked over many years, fewer suicides.
In addition, some studies have indicated that coffee contains four times the amount of cancer-fighting anti-oxidants as green tea.
Of course, most of these studies do not take into account how the coffee is brewed, how fresh the beans, and so on. Perhaps as these studies are refined we may discover, for example, that drinking coffee that has been freshly roasted and brewed is more beneficial than downing coffee that is terminally stale or badly brewed. Certainly there is considerably more going on chemically in fresh coffee than in stale. And we may learn how much beneficial effects of coffee drinking are provoked by caffeine and how much by other, less understood, chemical components of coffee. But one thing is certain, if I were a nurse taking part in the study noted earlier, and if I were drinking cheap office service coffee, I would be much, much more prone to suicide than if I were drinking, say, a freshly roasted and brewed Ethiopia Yirgacheffe.