The Goodness of Coffee

A Kona coffee from Lion's Gate Farms in Hawaii, ready for roasting at local coffee wholesale and retail store, Redding Roasters in Bethel, Connecticut. Photo by Kaitlyn Heisler.


Maybe it’s the whole what-I-like-must-be-bad-for-me mindset, but the way some people talk about coffee you’d think it was another chemical concoction dreamed up in the lab of a large food corporation. Fact is, researchers are just starting to grind through this brew’s rich collection of beneficial antioxidants—and the availability of organic coffee just might make the country’s favorite morning pick-me-up healthier than ever.


Although enthusiastically consumed for centuries around the globe, coffee often gets a bad rap. Cutting down on coffee is a familiar resolution for many Americans, and the model unhealthy diet of “coffee and cigarettes” taints its reputation like second-hand smoke. In recent years, however, coffee’s standing has been significantly elevated, not only by the proliferation of cafes, both chain and local, but also by studies revealing that drinking a cup of joe may have a surprising number of health benefits.


One of coffee’s key traits, of course, is its ability to increase alertness. Various legends surround its discovery as a stimulant. An oft-cited tale refers to a wanderer in ancient Ethiopia who noticed unusually lively goats in the countryside and tried berries from the coffee bush that they had been nibbling on, only to feel the same rush of energy. Subsequently, monks and other religious devotees began to chew coffee beans to stay awake during long bouts of prayer, and coffee came into prominence as an eye-opening brewed beverage during the 15th century.



More Than Just Caffeine


As modern society is keenly aware, coffee’s invigorating quality comes primarily from a substance called caffeine. Joe Vinson, PhD, a professor at the University of Scranton’s Department of Chemistry in Pennsylvania and a leading researcher in studies on chocolate and coffee, notes, “Caffeine, short-term, will boost your brain function. It will make complex tasks easier. I always tell my students to have some caffeine in their system when they take a test, especially in the morning.” On the other hand, Vinson adds, the effects of caffeine—raising blood pressure and heart rate, albeit temporarily—are somewhat muted when coffee is present. “So there’s something in coffee that opposes caffeine” when it comes to the blood pressure and heart rate increases, Vinson concludes.



Brewing Global Goodwill


That cup of coffee you’re sipping may be helping farmers earn a decent wage.


Though it extends to a staggering variety of goods, the concept of fair trade is most readily associated with coffee. Based on the principle of appropriate compensation for international producers, fair trade began its java association in the late 1980s, first with the Massachusetts-based Equal Exchange, which began importing coffee from Nicaragua, and then with the Netherlands’ Max Havelaar label, which formed the first major initiative for fair trade certification. While Europe initially warmed to fair trade coffee quicker than America, the US has become much more involved in the market during recent years.


“Since around 2000, awareness of and interest in fair trade coffee in the US has taken off,” notes Carmen K. Iezzi, executive director of Washington DC’s Fair Trade Federation. “American consumers are beginning to recognize that they can find great products that create tremendous positive change in communities through fair trade.” Such change includes the increasing presence of fairly traded brews that are also organically grown.


While fair trade coffee farmers receive invaluable global market recognition and greater compensation, they benefit in other ways. Anthony Marek, a spokesperson for TransFair USA in Oakland, California, explains that some of the proceeds “are reinvested in the community in terms of healthcare, cleaner water and education—things that we [in the United States] take for granted.”


Says Iezzi, “We value direct and long-term relationships that seek to address the imbalances in the system, and cultivate personal connections, which not only provide a fair return to the farmer, but also to the end consumer.” In turn, the rise of fair trade coffee has helped spur greater concern about the conditions under which the beans are produced. “Coffee, the most commonly traded commodity in the world after oil, is a regular part of American life,” she says. “Many people have discovered fair trade through their coffee cup.”


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This “something” appears to be an army of antioxidants, many of which are plant-based polyphenols, the compounds that are also present in green tea, red wine and dark chocolate, as well as fruits and vegetables. “Coffee gives us more antioxidants than anything else that we eat or drink in the US.


While research into the links between coffee consumption and the prevention of colon and liver cancer and of heart disease remains fairly speculative, a number of recent studies have shown a strong connection between drinking coffee and the prevention of type 2 diabetes.


That’s what I found out when I did my statistics and measurements,” says Vinson. “These antioxidants are the things that may be doing everything that’s good for you, and counter some of the things that are bad for you.”


Other studies have shown that coffee may be responsible for reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s disease (AD), Parkinson’s disease (PD), liver and colon cancer, heart disease and type 2 diabetes.


In regards to Alzheimer’s disease, a Portuguese study published in the July 2002 issue of European Journal of Neurology found that “caffeine intake was associated with a significantly lower risk for AD.” Similar results were found for Parkinson’s disease. According to the April 2002 issue of Neurology, a Massachusetts study linked “the consumption of coffee and other caffeinated beverages to a reduced risk of subsequently developing PD.” These scientific findings seem to reinforce both coffee’s health-promoting antioxidant properties and the concept that regular java consumption keeps the mind more alert and therefore less prone to debilitating neurological diseases.


While research into the links between coffee consumption and the prevention of colon and liver cancer and of heart disease remains fairly speculative, a number of recent studies have shown a strong connection between drinking coffee and the prevention of type 2 diabetes. Rob van Dam, PhD, assistant professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, says, “In 2002, we published the first study on coffee consumption and risk of type 2 diabetes using a cohort study in the Netherlands.


Persons with high coffee consumption had a markedly reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, and this link could not be explained by other characteristics of coffee consumers. This result has been confirmed in multiple studies in the US, Europe and Japan. Interestingly, we found that decaffeinated coffee consumption was similarly associated with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes, suggesting that components in coffee other than caffeine may be responsible.”



Doing Decaf


These findings raise a common but crucial question: “Regular or decaf?” Vinson recommends the latter. Not only does excessive caffeine intake increase blood pressure and heart rate, it can disrupt healthy sleep patterns and result in a mild addiction, though one that can be broken. Intriguingly, Vinson points out that few studies have been conducted on decaf coffee. One reason may be that America is one of the few societies, except perhaps Canada, that drinks decaf coffee en masse.


“Decaf has all of what I call ‘the good guys,’ but the consumption of decaf elsewhere is so low that you can’t include decaf-coffee [drinkers] in statistics,” Vinson says.


One caveat with decaf coffee, however, is that no coffee is truly decaffeinated. A test conducted by the staff of Consumer Reports and published in November 2007 found that caffeine content in small servings of decaf coffee from major chains ranged from 5 mg to more than 30 mg, with the comparable cup of regular coffee containing 100 mg. Vinson concurs, saying, “There’s a little bit,” but adds that there is “surely not enough to do anything to your heart rate.”


Several different decaffeination methods are used, all of which use a solvent to draw the caffeine out of the beans. There are three natural solvents:


*Ethyl acetate—A substance found in apples and bananas.
*Carbon dioxide—A common gas that acts as a solvent under high pressure and temperature conditions.
*Water—Carbon filters remove the caffeine; the water is then returned to the beans for reabsorption of flavor-bearing oils. The patented Swiss method uses a starter lot of beans to create a “flavor-charged” soaking solution.



Java, Organic Style


While drinking decaf seems to be the healthiest choice for those consuming more than a few cups of joe a day, Vinson also has good news for organic-coffee drinkers. In research that has yet to be published, Vinson found that “organic coffees have more antioxidants than the non-organic ones.”


This isn’t the only benefit of drinking organic java. Emily Sheehan, spokesperson for the Massachusetts-based company Jim’s Organic Coffee, points out that certified organic coffee is grown without any pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. This means that no harmful chemicals are used on the plants, which helps the quality of the soil as well as its surrounding environment. Organic coffee is grown under the shade of banana trees and other larger plants, both protecting the coffee bushes and creating much-needed biodiversity.


“Organic coffee farmers produce deep mulch out of coffee cherries [the fruit that contains the coffee bean] and other nitrogen-rich elements,” Sheehan explains. “This mix turns for a full year before being added to the coffee plants’ topsoil, allowing for stronger, longer root structure” and, in the resulting beans, “a deep, clean taste.” The fact that shade-grown coffee helps preserve vitally needed bird habitats is a charming plus.


Though drinkers of organic, decaf coffee can apparently rest easy, coffee’s previously tarnished record has not been completely erased. A study published in the January 2008 issue of the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology found that large regular doses of caffeine—from either regular coffee or other caffeinated beverages—increased the risk of miscarriage. Multiple studies have also found that coffee consumption hinders the body’s ability to absorb iron from food.


Vinson agrees: “These big-molecule antioxidants in coffee and a lot of other things can tie up the iron,” leaving the body less able to absorb it. He qualifies that, however, by pointing out that “unless you are anemic, [you] shouldn’t have to worry about that, because it’s not a big effect, and we are not [typically] low in iron anyway.”



Mysterious Brew


Even with all these studies, consumers and scientists alike are still somewhat in the dark about coffee’s effects on the body. “Coffee is in its infancy with respect to investigation. I think the fear of the negative study has kept coffee science moving slower,” Vinson explains, noting that research is made even more difficult by coffee’s chemically complex makeup. “People ask, ‘Well, what’s the active ingredient?’ and I say, ‘Everything.’ We don’t know. It’s not a single-compound kind of story.”


The safe bet, according to Vinson, is moderation in your coffee consumption. He advises that coffee drinking be spread out over the course of the day. “I think coffee is good for you, but I don’t think large doses are, because I think you’re going to stress your heart,” Vinson says. And since the compounds in coffee are not very stable, the taste and the aroma decline considerably as coffee sits. Though making a batch of iced coffee and drinking it later in the week might be convenient, it’s not going to be nearly as enjoyable or beneficial to your body. To have the ideal coffee experience, both in terms of the senses and the health benefits, nothing beats a just-brewed cup. As Vinson states, “Freshly made coffee tastes better, smells better and has more antioxidants, too.”



This article was originally published in Energy Times.


Copyright Energy Times. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

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