Graham Butler, BSc, CNPA, RH
Growing wild in Ethiopia, carried along ancient trade routes to Yemen and through Venice to Europe, coffee finally arrived on our shores in the 1700s.
Growing wild in Ethiopia, carried along ancient trade routes to Yemen and through Venice to Europe, coffee finally arrived on our shores in the 1700s. Since then, it has surpassed all beverages except water in popularity so much so that it's second only to oil in terms of worldwide commodity trade dollars.
Pretty good for a drink originally used as an aid to prayer by some monastic orders. Every year, the world consumes 400 billion cups of coffee and employs at least 20 million people to bring that tantalizing aroma to our lives. As many of us know, though, popularity can have a price; there is a dark side to this caffeine-rich preparation.
The principal active ingredient in coffee, caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant. In many individuals, it increases alertness and decreases a sense of fatigue handy on that late-night drive or while you're cramming for an exam. Too much caffeine, though, leads to restlessness, increased anxiety and difficulty concentrating. Chronic misuse can even lead to anxiety, insomnia or nervousness. As with many drugs, some people develop a tolerance (read: addiction) to caffeine. Withdrawal symptoms, which can last from one to several days, can include severe headache, fatigue, dizziness and nausea.
Related Health Disorders
Findings in the November 2001 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition confirm that post-menopausal women who consume more than 300 milligrams of caffeine daily roughly two to four eight-ounce cups of coffee are far more likely to have lower bone density, a significant risk factor for osteoporosis.
Numerous studies have examined the relationship between coffee and a variety of women's health problems such as difficulties in conception, premature births, fibrocystic breast disease, breast cancer, birth defects and low birth weights. Coffee marketing groups have tended to dismiss these findings or have redefined them by suggesting that coffee consumption is only one factor. Most researchers believe that moderate coffee consumption by itself is not a significant risk factor for these conditions, although some people may be more susceptible to the effects of caffeine.
High coffee consumption is a significant risk factor for those with thromboembolic stroke (blood clots in the brain) and high blood pressure, as well as being a factor in gastroesophageal reflux disease and gout. Recent Scandinavian studies found it can raise serum cholesterol levels, but did they not find a relationship with heart disease. Links to various types of cancer (colon, breast, pancreatic, bladder) have been examined, but at present there isn't enough research to support a conclusive relationship.
Organic Versus Conventional Coffee
Conventional coffee cultivation is an intensive agricultural enterprise that depletes the land and relies on large amounts of chemical pesticides and herbicides, many of which are banned in North America but still commonly used in emerging countries where coffee is normally grown. We import not just the beans, but also the residues and any potential health problems.
Organic coffee production, on the other hand, promotes land stewardship, minimizes negative impacts on people and the environment, and does not promote the use of chemicals. Many, but certainly not all, health risks associated with coffee drinking may, in fact, be related to chemical and pesticide residues rather than the coffee itself. In addition, many organic certification and marketing organizations promote fair trade practices, providing a better return for farmers. These practices, plus the fact that organic coffee producers generally use only the best quality beans, which are naturally low in acid and caffeine, can lead to a better night's sleep.
Alternatives to Coffee
Popular beverages that contain less caffeine are (in descending order) black tea, green tea, cocoa and certain types of herbal teas. Coffee substitutes made from roasted chicory, roasted barley, dandelion, beet root, malt and rye, as well as caffeine-free herbal teas contain no caffeine at all and are available in health food stores. Some contain components that promote additional health benefits, such as flavonoids in black and green teas. Other products are formulated to have health-promoting effects, such as Bambu, developed by naturopathic pioneer Dr. Alfred Vogel, which is meant to be a general tonic.
The most common coffee alternative is probably decaffeinated coffee. Decaffeination is accomplished through the use of a chemical (sometimes dangerous) solvent such as carbon tetrachloride or methylene chloride. Years ago, when I worked in a chemistry laboratory, most of my colleagues were well aware of the types of solvents used in decaffeinated coffee. If they drank decaf, it was either water processed, sometimes referred to as "Swiss process" decaffeinated coffee, or nothing at all a convincing endorsement. Note that organic decaf is produced by this method.
It's probably unrealistic to expect the world to stop drinking coffee. Wall Street, most stock exchanges and the cultures of several South American and Mediterranean countries would probably come to a complete halt if this were to happen. On the other hand, buying organic coffee can provide you with health benefits by reducing caffeine consumption and pesticide intake, and at the same time reduce environmental impacts and benefit those in need in other parts of the world. Of course, there is also nothing wrong with incorporating alternative beverages to coffee into your daily regimen.
PDF Table of Caffeine Content of Coffee and Tea