By Emma Sage, Coffee Science Manager, Specialty Coffee Association of America
We have been hearing a lot of chatter lately in the popular media about the health effects of coffee. Generally, it is great to have some media coverage, especially when the stories are favorable towards coffee. But why do we drink specialty coffee? We have recently had much discussion in the specialty coffee industry about coffee as an experience. We drink it because it tastes great, we respect where it comes from, it is a comforting ritual, or it gives us an individual yet social experience. Most people certainly do not consume specialty coffee as a health elixir or because they think that someday it may improve their mental acuity or physical health. However, as thoughtful specialty coffee purveyors, it is important that we educate ourselves thoroughly on the complicated issues surrounding the topic of coffee and health. Many of our customers seem confused about what is going on with research on this topic, and how it relates to them. Is it bad for us or not? How does this health science relate to specialty coffee? Is it appropriate to educate our customers on the topic? Is this a theme that the specialty industry should focus on? These are important questions. As a scientist who did not go to medical school, I hope I can help shed some light on the subject so that you can make your own educated decisions.
A word of caution.
Personally, when there is an explosion of coffee-health news in the popular media I am usually skeptical, as this sort of media is not often able to communicate the complicated limitations of scientific studies. Yes, the studies are peer-reviewed, which means that they have been checked by reputable academics in subject-specific fields. However, the peer-review process does not make scientific studies infallible. This is why popular-media coverage of a particular study gets folks like me a little uncomfortable. Scientific knowledge is based on a body of literature, and naturally progresses over time. No single study can tell the whole story, and our understanding is likely to evolve with improved methods, technology, and research. What is dangerous is a customer hearing about a specific study in the popular press and thinking it is the ‘end-all’ answer on the subject. This leaves the possibility of that customer feeling mistrustful of science when another study comes out, perhaps by the same authors, with additional or conflicting results. Some would consider this ‘flip-flopping’. Of course, this is not what we want the public to think about the state of coffee research, but it is inevitably the result of sensationalizing specific studies.
Where did the bad rep come from?
People everywhere still hold the belief that coffee is a substance that should be consumed in moderation. When we go to the doctor for our physical, coffee consumption is questioned in the same category as alcohol and drugs. There are still plenty of hold-overs from the days that coffee was unable to be separated from its’ associated ‘habits’, such as cigarette smoking.
In science-speak, we call these muddling associations ‘confounding factors’, and historically they have been a big problem in coffee studies. They have led to many studies associating coffee with illnesses like cancer and heart disease because of other lifestyle factors that are common among coffee drinkers. Smoking and caffeine are strongly associated, and heavy smokers consume more caffeine than non-smokers (Zavela and others 1990; Schreiber and others 1988b). Also, everyone knows that smoking (as well as lack of exercise, eating fast food, heavy drinking, etc…) is bad for you, and because of this there is a stigma against this behavior. Therefore, in research involving humans, people lie about their lifestyles. In the literature they call this a ‘self-reporting’ error, and it is a big problem with other confounding factors, especially with behaviors which are known to be related to health, like alcohol consumption, exercising, and diet.
What should we drink/Is coffee bad for us?
The preponderance of current evidence is that a moderate level (approximately around 3-4 cups/day) of coffee consumption is not bad for the majority of people (Higdon and Frei 2006). So rejoice! Coffee is not bad for us! We should have no worries of overdosing on caffeine (or getting cancer, having strokes, becoming dehydrated, etc.) via our morning brew, and there is no risk of us developing what clinicians define as an ‘addiction’. In fact, after doing extensive research on this topic, I have personally decided to drink more coffee. I plan to aim for 6 or more cups per day to up my chances of an eventual health benefit. Perhaps I will also invest in toothpaste with advanced whitening capabilities. However, I suffer from none of the medical conditions where caffeine intake should be limited. Generally, you will know if you fall into this category. My research has surfaced some caution to women who are pregnant (Peck and others 2010) and people who have certain blood pressure or heart conditions (Brent and others 2011; Zhang and others 2011).
What should we tell our customers?
The majority of scientific studies conclude that moderate coffee consumption is not linked to cancer or other diseases. We can rest assured that the days of coffee being compared to alcohol and cigarettes are numbered as there is a growing body of evidence that concludes that coffee may be a complementary addition to a healthy lifestyle. In addition, numerous studies have found that coffee consumption can be significantly linked to less risk of developing diabetes (Natella and Scaccini 2012; Bidel and others 2008), certain cancers (Nkondjock 2009; Yu and others 2011), progressive neurodegenerative disorders (Santos and others 2010), and some heart diseases (Wu and others 2009).
However, what we really need to consider is if we want to make a point of coffee’s health benefits to customers. All the recent research by the SCAA leads us to think that our customers are looking for an experience. Coffee connects us with one another in unique and important ways. Keeping that in mind, we may be doing a disservice to the specialty coffee experience to focus on coffee in such a utilitarian manner.
If customers come to you with concerns about how healthy coffee is, tell them that for most people, a reasonable amount of coffee has been shown to have no relationship with bad health effects. If they wonder why the science seems to be so back-and-forth on the issue, remind them that coffee is not just a vehicle for caffeine but a complex brew made up of perhaps thousands of botanically-derived compounds. It has taken scientists a long time to separate coffee from its confounding factors and we are still unsure of how exactly these compounds interact with our bodies.
That being said, everyone does process caffeine differently in their body, and this is somewhat dictated by genetics. So, if customers feel that decaf is the way to go, why not let them indulge? After all, they are likely looking to hold that warm mug in their hands while engaging in conversation, taking a quiet moment for themselves, or meeting a friend. Let them have that experience and know deep inside your heart that not all of the health benefits of coffee can be attributed to caffeine (Huxley and others 2009), so you have just done them a solid.
What about specialty coffee?
A common problem in many studies on this topic is the difficulty in measuring coffee or caffeine ‘exposure’. This problem may really be at the root of the inconclusive results reported by some researchers. A cup of coffee is often assumed to provide 85-100 mg of caffeine (Higdon and Frei 2006). However, we know that this amount can vary significantly depending on the mug size (Bracken and others 2002; Schreiber and others 1988a), coffee species, and cultivar consumed (McCusker and others 2003), and brewing method. Also, we have learned that individuals metabolize coffee at different rates, which stems from genetics, and undoubtedly also makes study results messy (Carrillo and Benitez 2000; Yang and others 2010). All this variation combined with self-reporting errors has made estimating coffee consumption very difficult for scientists. It is likely that any further specification as to coffee additives or type of coffee consumed has seemed to researchers to be of secondary importance.
What is perhaps most important is that none of the research that has been done on the health effects of coffee has discriminated as to ‘specialty’ or any other categories of coffee. We would like to think that specialty coffee is more ‘healthful’ than other categories of coffee, but there is no evidence to this point. Why? Due to the varying nature of coffee’s chemical composition, it is very difficult for scientists to accurately measure and keep track of the caffeine content and approximate coffee consumption of study participants (the public); very often this takes up so much time on its own there is no room to even investigate where participants got their coffee, what sort of drink it was, if they added milk, and other similar information. To top it all off, many medical researchers may not even be aware of the existence of specialty coffee.
We could be disappointed by this lack of information, but we don’t have to be. Perhaps instead we should focus on what we have going for us, the specialty coffee experience. We can put to rest concerns about ‘moderating’ coffee intake, and let the issue lie. Focusing on coffee for health reasons ultimately has nothing to do with specialty coffee. As simple as it is, my own coffee rituals are an important part of my daily routine and I fully support each and every one of us utilizing our coffee experience for the betterment of the specialty industry. Rather than focusing on health metrics, I suggest when it comes to coffee and health, we focus on our social perspectives and embrace coffee for the experience it provides us.
Emma Sage is the SCAA Coffee Science Manager. Before moving into the coffee industry, she completed degrees in ecology and botany, and dabbled in the wine industry. She enjoys learning all there is to know about the science of coffee (and more importantly, sharing it with you).
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