Tuesday, November 22, 2011


Coffee, by any yardstick, cannot be termed a food as it does not provide any calories or nutrients by itself and often consumed for its beverage properties. If so why is it that Coffee is the second most traded commodity behind petroleum, in the world market? Global production touching 7 million tons can vouchsafe for the popularity of coffee in many parts of the world. Top coffee producers in the world include Brazil, Vietnam, Colombia, Indonesia, Honduras, Ethiopia and India, accounting for almost 80% of global out put and this commodity happens to be major sustaining economic force for 12 countries who dominate the global trade. Interestingly most of the top coffee consuming countries do not figure in the list of top producers and the per capita consumption in these coffee producing countries is some what insignificant compared to that in many countries in Europe. Why is that coffee has become an important part of the life styles in many western countries?

It is generally agreed that Western countries are more affluent and also generally better informed about nutrition and health. If so is it possible that they have realized the health advantage in consuming coffee regularly? Or is it because of the addiction quality of coffee that has hooked the consumers in these countries to regular consumption of coffee? It may also be due to the stimulating aroma of coffee that is liked by people in the West. Otherwise how one can explain away the high consumption level of coffee in countries like Finland (12 kg per person per year), Norway (9.9 kg), Ireland ( 9 kg ), Denmark (8.7 kg), the Netherlands (8.4 kg), Sweden (8.2 kg) or Switzerland (7.9 kg)? Compare to this, consumption in India is less than 100 gm per year per person! Probably the most compelling factor could be the environment in these countries where cold climates persist most of the year and a cup of coffee is the best "friend" to keep company ( of course next to alcohol)!

Is consumption of coffee really beneficial to the human health? There is no unanimity on this issue with most scientists supporting its health value while a few believe it could be injurious. A random sampling of international opinions on effect of coffee on health would reveal that its consumption can reduce the risk of a plethora of diseases that include Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, CVD, Diabetes, Liver Cirrhosis and Gout. However coffee is implicated in acid influx, especially in old age people. Also coffee in implicated in increased LDL proteins and consequent heart problems, attributed to the diterpenes, Kahweol and Cafestol, present in coffee brew made without paper filter. It is universally accepted that roasted coffee can contain more than 1000 different chemical constituents including valuable lipophilic antioxidants which are effective in sweeping off the dangerous oxyradicals generated at the cellular level. Chlorogenic acid lactones, present in coffee, are reported to be effective in protecting neuronal cells.

A recent study, performed by a Harvard Medical School team, using a sample size of 50,000 women in the US over a span on of 10 years has brought out a startling fact that coffee consumption can be very effective in decreasing depression among them significantly. According to them those women not taking coffee regularly tended to have very high level of depression compared to others consuming the beverage regularly. Drinking two or more cups of coffee a day may reduce the risk of developing depression and the increase in coffee consumption correlated to a decrease depression risk. Those who drank 2 to 3 cups a day had a 15% decrease in depression risk; drinking 4 or more cups a day decreased the risk by 20%.  Drinking decaffeinated coffee did not have the same effect on depression prevention. This empirical correlation does not seem to have any scientific backing and only further studies can figure out the effects of caffeine on the brain. Scientifically it is established that caffeine, present in coffee does promote feelings of well-being and energy. The ability of Caffeine to block adenosine, a chemical produced by the brain that slows nerve cell activity in the brain and cause drowsiness, is well known. Similarly Caffeine also increases dopamine production which plays an important role in depression. It is also claimed that the tendency to commit suicide is very low among coffee drinkers and these findings can reinforce the basis for coffee's ability to counteract depression. 

Lack of unanimity that is eluding the researchers engaged in coffee related studies can be attributed to the confusion that prevails regarding the understanding of coffee and its processing. Coffee is roasted first before grinding into powders with varying particle size and variations can exist in roasting conditions depending on the type of product desired. The chemicals extracted into the brew can vary enormously depending on whether it is a light roast or medium, medium dark, dark or very dark roast. At 200C the process of caramelization is initiated when starch is broken down to sugars and Maillard reaction also begins giving the darker color. At 205C flavor chemicals like Caffeol start forming. As roasting proceeds many aromatic oils and acids are destroyed changing the composition dramatically. Added to this the powdering operation decides the efficiency of extraction whether by boiling with water or steeping or percolation or pressure extraction. This is borne out by the fact that a cup of coffee can have Caffeine in a wide range from 75 mg to 200 mg depending on how it is made! What role addition of whiteners like milk plays on the health front is not very clear. For comparison of any scientific study the basic material used must have uniformly defined characteristics and probably it may be time such studies are organized by the International Coffee Organization to dispel all doubts about the effect of coffee consumption on human beings. Till such times these studies are organized, consumers will have to go by impartial observers that coffee consumption has more beneficial value than any serious health risks.


No comments: