by OCI Culinary Management student Robert Lindner

First consumed as a beverage in Ethiopia in the 9th century, coffee has become one of the most widely consumed beverages in the world. The social impact of coffee over the centuries has been two-fold: on the one hand, coffee has been used as part of religious ceremonies and a sign of high esteem; on the other hand, it was banned in many societies due to its association with rebellious political activities. Historical and societal impacts aside, I will focus on the ongoing arguments surrounding the consumption of coffee and its positive or negative impacts on a healthy lifestyle.

It’s hard to dispute the popularity of coffee. Over 70 countries in the world, all along the equator, grow coffee, and more than 400 billion cups of coffee are drunk each year worldwide. Coffee is the second most traded commodity on earth, second to oil. With such an impact on us humans, various scientific studies have focused on what impact, if any; coffee consumption has had on human physiology. As with anything we consume, moderation is the key. I firmly believe that coffee’s contribution has had a positive influence on all that enjoy the beverage. I will show both sides of the argument and will support my belief by referencing scientific studies, magazine and newspaper articles.

The History of Coffee

Although the story of the of the goat herder, noticing that his goats were more lively after eating berries from a certain bush, is very popular, there is no hard evidence to show when the discovery of coffee actually happened. The coffee tree probably originated in what today is known as Ethiopia (www.cosic.com). Before it was discovered to have a stimulating effect as a beverage, the fruit of the coffee tree, or cherry, was consumed as a food. Around 1,000 years ago, some evidence has shown that cultivation of the coffee tree began in monastery gardens and commercial cultivation followed some time later in the 15th century.

Although the history of the coffee as a beverage is murky, sometime in the 9th Century Arabs began boiling the beans for make a stimulating drink called ‘qahwa’, which literally translates to “that which prevents sleep” (www.firstscience.com). This drink, offered at these early coffee houses, became known as Arabian Wine. The Muslim religion forbids the consumption of alcoholic drinks, so coffee became a very popular, stimulating alternative. It wasn’t until the 13th century that it was discovered that roasting the beans provided a much better taste and flavor, and thus the modern coffee drink was born.

In 1554, the first coffee houses opened in Istanbul, Turkey. (www.ico.org). These coffee houses were a far cry from the genteel, pleasant environments found in modern day coffee houses. The coffee houses of the Ottoman Empire were apparently dens of iniquity and offered much more than coffee to its patrons. Along with the newly popularized coffee beverage, one could also partake in gambling, drug use, prostitution, as well as watch plays and dance performances. Needless to say, these early coffee houses were controversial, especially since the orthodox Islamists considered these activities sinful. Despite the opposition from the religious conservatives, the coffee houses flourished, and by the 16th and 17th centuries, Ottomans from various social ranks converged to discuss, socialize, and enjoy coffee. It is believed that the growing coffee house culture contributed to the development to the early capitalist system and that growing consumerism was changing the face of the Ottoman Empire (feeds.bignewsnetwork.com).

Soon, the popularity of coffee eventually grew to those outside of the Muslim religion. Through various traders traveling to Europe, it wasn’t too long before coffee gained a foothold in England. By 1675, there were over 3,000 coffee houses in England, and shortly thereafter its popularity spread to the Americas. The Dutch were instrumental in the proliferation of the coffee in the western world. Although the Arabs attempted to prevent the cultivation of coffee elsewhere, the Dutch were able to smuggle a few plants in the early 1600’s to the Netherlands and successfully grow them in greenhouses. By the late 1600’s the Dutch were growing coffee in India and Indonesia, and with these plantations, Dutch traders became the main suppliers of coffee to Europe and the Americas.

Coffee Today

Today, coffee retail sales are estimated to be about $70 billion worldwide. Approximately $6 billion goes to the producing countries and $64 billion garnered by retailers. The coffee industry is unusual in that 70% of the world crop is grown on farms that are less than 25 acres large and are family-run, and provides a living for over 20 million people worldwide (www.firstscience.com). It is interesting to note the disparate conditions in profit between the growers and retailers. Coffee prices to consumers have continued to rise, however the small farmer producers are seeing very little of this growing market. More often than not, the small farmer is left in the dust while the large corporations continue to have record profits. To counter this, the Fair Trade movement was created to ensure the vast majority of the small growers receive a fair price for their harvests. Generally, the small farmers create collectives that, in turn, give them some guarantees at minimum price per pound regardless of market, credit, and establish long term relationships with retailers. These fair payments provide economic stability, health care, education, and independence for these cooperative farmers. Today, there are over 100 companies, such as Starbucks, Peet’s, and Tully’s that have developed relationships with Fair Trade Cooperatives (globalexchange.org).

Coffee is made in a number of ways and can be of varying degrees of concentration. But before one can make coffee though, the beans first need to be processed. The smell and flavor that you get from the coffee that you purchase is obtained through the roasting of the bean. Coffee beans, which are green when picked, are heated between 180 and 240 degrees Celsius for up to 15 minutes, depending on the intensity of the roast required. During the heating process, water evaporates from the beans and a chemical process called pyrolysis. This is where the starches in the bean are converted to sugar and the proteins are broken down, changing the chemical structure of the coffee bean. It is important to monitor the beans during the roasting process: too much heat and the beans will burn and the caffeol, the substance that makes coffee smell so good, will be diminished. If the bean is not roasted enough, then not enough of the caffeol is released, and the aromas are not as ideal as they can be. Roasting is an art, and usually done in small batches in order to control the process and create a consistent product (www.ico.org).

Brewing coffee can be done in a myriad of ways, and is usually dictated by personal preference. The most popular method today is probably the filter method in which finely-ground coffee is placed in a paper lined, cone shaped container with a hole in the bottom. Hot water is poured over the coffee enough to cover all the grounds and fill the cone. The water then passes through and the coffee flavor is extracted as the water empties into the receptacle. This process can be done either manually or automatically via electric coffee machines.

One of the best ways to extract flavor from coffee is through the Plunger or French Press method. Thought to have been invented in the 1930’s, the method is simple: coarsely ground coffee is placed into a pot, and hot water is added to the pot. After stirring the grounds in the water, it is allowed to steep for up five minutes, at which time a plunger with a finely meshed metal filter is pushed down through the liquid. This process separates the grounds from the freshly brewed coffee, leaving you with perfected brewed, intensely flavored coffee.

One of the fast growing popular methods of coffee making is the espresso method. A specially designed machine forces hot water through finely ground coffee into small glass cups. A very high level of pressure is required to make this type of coffee, and thus the equipment tends to be very expensive. The important thing to keep in mind when making espresso is to not over-extract the coffee. A perfect crema, the golden-brown liquid from a perfectly brewed espresso is what each barista or coffee jockey strives for.

One of the popular alternatives to brewed coffee is instant coffee. Instant coffee was developed by Satori Kato in Chicago in 1901 and marketed by Nescafe in 1938. Although flavor and aroma are sacrificed in its making, convenience is the main advantage that instant has over brewed coffee. Instant coffee is made from roasted, ground coffee beans which are then concentrated through water removal either by heating or freezing. The resulting products are tiny granules – the instant coffee (www.ico.org).

Coffee and Religion

Coffee and religion have had a tumultuous relationship. Although initially accepted by the Muslim religion, it ran afoul with the orthodox imams in Mecca in 1511 for its stimulating effect. Interestingly, although conservative Muslims condemned coffee, it was extremely popular with the general population and became an integral part of both their religious and secular lives (www.nationalgeographic.com). As coffee’s popularity spread throughout Europe, devout Catholics damned it as “the drink of infidels” (www.nationalgeographic.com) and, as a result, sinful. A movement by monks to ban the drink in the 1500’s was foiled by Pope Clement. Seeing that coffee enabled the monks to stay awake during Mass, instead of banning the drink, he blessed it.

Today, coffee is enjoyed by many people from diverse religious and socio-economic demographics. People from many different countries around the world drink coffee. Starbucks, the largest coffee chain house—16,000 outlets worldwide as of 2008—is at the forefront of the coffee culture throughout the world(www.msnbc.msn.com) The US, with the largest single market for coffee products in the world has a bottomless need for the dark brew. Germany comes in at number two, but with regards to the most coffee consumed per person, that honor belongs to Finland where the coffee drinkers there average about four cups of coffee per day (www.enotes.com). In the US, coffee drinking has become a very social event; a chance to meet with friends and catch up or to just sitting quietly while enjoy a cup. However, there is one country today that practices a very elaborate coffee ceremony. Ethiopia, the birthplace of coffee, takes drinking coffee very seriously. As described by Emily Doyle from Epicurious.com (www.brewed-coffee.com):

The ceremony is usually conducted by one young woman, dressed in the traditional Ethiopian costume of a white dress with coloured woven borders. The long involved process starts with the ceremonial apparatus being arranged upon a bed of long scented grasses. The roasting of the coffee beans is done in a flat pan over a tiny charcoal stove, the pungent smell mingling with the heady scent of incense that is always burned during the ceremony. The lady who is conducting the ceremony gently washes a handful of coffee beans on the heated pan, then stirs and shakes the husks away.


When the coffee beans have turned black and shining and the aromatic oil is coaxed out of them, they are ground by a pestle and a long handled mortar. The ground coffee is slowly stirred into the black clay coffee pot locally known as ‘jebena’, which is round at the bottom with a straw lid. Due to the archaic method used by Ethiopians, the ground result can be called anything but even, so the coffee is strained through a fine sieve several times.

The youngest child is then sent out to announce when it is to be served and stands ready to bring a cup of coffee first to the eldest in the room and then to the others, connecting all the generations. The lady finally serves the coffee in tiny china cups to her family, friends and neighbours who have waited and watched the procedure for the past half-hour.

Coffee and Health

The ritual and social observance of drinking coffee by the Ethiopian culture is as elaborate as any of those for tea, and is an integral part of the Ethiopian societal structure.

With its popularity, the benefits and hazards of coffee has come under greater scrutiny. From the beginning, coffee has been consumed due to its stimulating effects from caffeine; a chemical found in coffee that has shown to affect stamina, mental acuity, mood, and the digestive system. Caffeine, scientifically known as 1,3,7-trimethylxanthine, is the most widely used psychoactive drug in the world, and about 80% of the world’s population consumes it on a daily basis (www.medicinenet.com). Caffeine is found in coffee, tea, soda, cocoa, and chocolate.

Unfortunately, like all drugs, there are side effects. Caffeine increases blood pressure and heart rate and can cause palpitations, diarrhea, tremors, and insomnia. Compounding these maladies, coffee withdrawal can also lead to headaches, depression, and drowsiness. Too much caffeine may lead to sleep deprivation and may lead one to ignore the signs that the body needs rest. Two substances in coffee, kahweol and cafestol (www.health.harvard.edu), have led scientists to believe that the consumption of unfiltered coffee, as in made from a French Press or through an Espresso method, may lead to an increase in bad LDL cholesterol (http://seattletimes.nwsource.com). Scientific study has also looked into the connection between caffeine, heart disease, and osteoporosis, but has come to no definitive result.

Fortunately, there is compelling evidence that coffee’s positive effects greatly outweigh the negative. Studies have shown that although caffeine may be addictive, most that drink coffee do so out of the pleasure of its aroma and flavor (www.medicinenet.com). A Harvard Women’s Health Watch study (www.health.harvard.edu) has revealed that moderate drinking may offer some health benefits. Research has shown that moderate consumption may also reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes than those who do not drink coffee. Type 2 diabetes is the most common form of diabetes found today. Although millions have been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, many more are not aware that they have the disease. In type 2 diabetes, the body does not make enough insulin, or the cells ignore the insulin it produces. Insulin is important because it helps break down glucose, which is made from the sugars and starches we consume, and provide energy for the cells. When the glucose is not utilized by the body and continues to build up due to Type 2 diabetes, it can cause severe health issues. Coffee may contain chemicals that lower blood sugar as well as increase your resting metabolism rate, which may forestall the development of diabetes. Furthermore, coffee may also reduce the potential for gall stones, help prevent colon cancer, reduce the risk for liver and Parkinson’s disease (www.physorg.com).

One of the most interesting discoveries of coffee’s benefits is that it may be a buffer for the liver against alcohol. In a report first published in 1992 in the Archives of Internal Medicine (http://seattletimes.nwsource.com), from 125,500 Kaiser Permanente health plan members, heavy alcohol drinkers cut their chance for cirrhosis of the liver by 20% per cup of coffee. Cirrhosis is a condition in which the liver slowly deteriorates and malfunctions due to chronic injury. Scar tissue replaces healthy liver tissue, partially blocking the flow of blood through the liver. A healthy liver is able to regenerate most of its own cells when they become damaged. With end-stage cirrhosis, the liver can no longer effectively replace damaged cells. A healthy liver is necessary for survival. (www.medicinenet.com). The researchers surmise that when the liver metabolizes coffee, a side effect is the inhibition of inflammation of the liver when alcohol is present. Studies in the Harvard Health Letter further suggest that coffee may be able to fight liver cancer. In a recent study, coffee drinkers were 50% less likely to develop liver cancer than non drinkers (www.health.harvard.edu).

Caffeine has also shown to increase the production of dopamine in the brain; dopamine is a chemical integral to pleasure and stimulation. What is dopamine? Dopamine, as described by Phillip Newton, PhD, “ is a neurotransmitter, one of those chemicals that are responsible for transmitting signals in between the nerve cells (neurons) of the brain.” (www.psychologytoday.com) Very few neurons actually make dopamine. Some, in a part of the brain called the substantial nigra, are the cells that die during Parkinson’s disease. This is important because it’s been shown that coffee can help prevent Parkinson’s disease. Parkinson’s disease is a progressive nervous system disorder that affects movement. It starts gradually with a barely noticeable tremor, but can include the slowing or freezing of movement. Speech becomes jumbled or slurred and eventually all these symptoms become worse with time as the disease progresses. There is no cure for this disease. The cells that produce dopamine are also the same ones that cause Parkinson’s, and if the cells are busy making dopamine, they are not working on the disease. It is important to note that this benefit against Parkinson’s is evident only in males. One theory suggests that the hormone estrogen in women prevents this beneficial effect of coffee (www.health.harvard.edu).

Coffee is also rich in antioxidants – vitamins, minerals, and enzymes long known to fight against ageing and disease. In a study conducted at University of Scranton, in Pennsylvania, it was discovered that, of 100 popular food items generally consumed by people in the US on a daily basis, coffee offered the most antioxidants at 1,299 milligrams daily; the second highest was tea at 294 (www.psychologytoday.com). Generally, antioxidants are found most in fruits, vegetables, and herbs. However, because few people eat the necessary amounts of fruits in vegetables, but drink large amounts of coffee, which has become the dominant source of antioxidants in the American diet.

So the question remains: Is coffee a poison or a panacea? It’s hard to refute the impact that coffee has had on the world’s history. It has spurred religious fervor in both the Muslim and Catholic Church, not without controversy mind you. Coffee fueled the growth of economies and exploration during its early expansion. The Dutch traders not only were instrumental in the hooking the Western World onto the coffee craze, but they also helped develop and expand the reach of the western world into the undiscovered new world. From the planting, growing, distribution, and sale, coffee today holds pride of place as one of the top commodities traded in the world. This impact has, in some way, changed in the way people treat with their fellow man. The Fair Trade act, which began with the coffee trade but now, includes many other industries that affect third world countries, has allowed the profits from this economic juggernaut to be spread more evenly to the farmers who provide this vital bean to the world. Grassroots movements led by the coffee consumer have brought the recognition that, if we do not help small grower succeed, then the coffee industry will fail. With regards to the medical impact of coffee, it’s hard to refute the benefits that coffee potentially has on humans. The studies have shown that coffee can have a positive impact on some of the most prevalent diseases that afflict mankind today. Studies continue to discover further the value that coffee could bring and it all looks good. The important thing to remember, as with anything, is that moderation is the key. When one takes in too much of anything, regardless of whether it is considered “good for you”, it will have detrimental consequences. Instead, I suggest that you take pleasure in your cup, or cups, of coffee. Enjoy the aroma and the flavor and remember that coffee is your friend.