Reduce your consumption of the addictive brew with tasty herbal alternatives to coffee.
What would you do for a cup of coffee? According to food historian Martin Elkort, author of The Secret Life of Food (Putnam, 1991), “Sultan Selim I of Persia had his doctors hanged when they had the temerity to suggest he give up his daily cup.” You probably wouldn’t go so far, though you may feel like Joseph Cotten—-from the Hitchcock movie Shadow of a Doubt—-whose famous line was, “I can’t face the world in the morning. I must have coffee before I can speak.” If so, you’re not alone.
Half of all American adults start their mornings with at least one cup of coffee, down from 74.7 percent in 1962. How many people does this amount to? “Today, nearly 100 million American adults drink three or more cups of coffee each day,” says researcher and clinical nutritionist Stephen Cherniske, author of Caffeine Blues (Warner, 1998), a look at America’s number-one addiction.
Cherniske catalogs evidence linking the cumulative adverse effects of caffeine (particularly coffee) consumption to a host of health problems: asthma, anxiety, panic attacks, depression, anemia, calcium loss, osteoporosis, PMS, fibrocystic breast disease, fertility and conception disorders, complications of pregnancy and childbirth, diabetes, glaucoma, digestive disorders, ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, tension headaches, migraines, high blood pressure, heart disease, and certain cancers.
Do you suffer from caffeine dependence syndrome? If you experience three out of the four following symptoms, then it’s likely that the answer is yes, say researchers at John’s Hopkins University in Baltimore:
• Withdrawal symptoms, such as headaches, depression, and fatigue
• Continued consumption of caffeine despite physical problems
• Unsuccessful attempts to cut back on or eliminate caffeine consumption
• Tolerance (you need or can tolerate increasingly large intakes)
What can you do? Well, you have a few choices. You can keep doing what you’re doing, or you can taper down, dilute your coffee, switch to decaf or banish the beany brew altogether.
Consider substituting half of your ground coffee with a brewable coffee alternative, such as roasted dandelion or chicory root. Chicory (Cichorium spp.) is native to Europe—-particularly popular in France, Belgium, and Holland, where its leaves are used as a salad vegetable—-and was naturalized in North America. Chicory bears heads of large, bright-blue flowers with dandelion-like roots. When roasted, the roots make a wonderful caffeine-free coffee extender or solo substitute. Chicory root contains lactucin and lactucopicrin, compounds with a mildly sedating effect on the central nervous system. In the Deep South, roasted chicory has been blended with coffee for decades to make the popular French Market Coffee.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is second only to chicory as a coffee substitute. Most folks regard dandelion as an invading weed of golden flowers, jagged toothed leaves, and finger-thick roots that delve deeply into lawns. Unfortunately, the common yard variety of dandelion yields roots that are difficult to harvest and are too small to be economical for use as root “coffee.” For this reason, larger-rooted varieties of dandelion are usually grown for medicinal and culinary uses.
Both chicory and dandelion root have been used throughout history (dating back to the time of Egyptian pharaohs) as a liver detoxifier and a natural remedy for arthritis, diabetes, elevated cholesterol levels, constipation, and more. Researchers have identified substances in these bitter roots that increase the flow of bile, necessary for proper liver function and metabolism of fat and cholesterol. Herbalists have used them to aid in reducing PMS symptoms. By improving liver function, the roots help the liver eliminate excess estrogens that would otherwise build up in the body, causing hormone imbalances.
Coffee can inhibit iron absorption by as much as 50 percent. Decaffeinated coffee has less caffeine, but it still contains polyphenols, a family of substances that bind with iron and excrete the mineral along with the urine. If you use decaf, select a product made by the Swiss Water Method, rather than with methylene chloride, a chemical solvent that causes liver cancer in laboratory mice.
For several decades, consumers have had access to “instant grain beverages” made from roasted wheat, rye, barley, and chicory root powder, with the optional addition of acorns, figs, or beetroot. The instant crystals dissolve readily in hot or cold water and often taste similar, but not identical to, coffee—-if you use two or three rather than one teaspoon per cup of water. Be open to experimentation. You may take a liking to these beverages within a few days or weeks.
Instant grain products include Caffix, Pero, Caf-Lib, Lima’s Yannoh, Bioforce’s Bambu, Natural Touch’s Kaffree Roma, Post’s Postum, Oskri’s Barley Coffee, and Dr. Christopher’s Express Aroma. If these don’t do the trick, consider tea alternatives such as Celestial Seasonings’ Roastaroma (which includes roasted barley, roasted chicory, roasted carob, and cinnamon) or Maharishi Ayurveda’s Raja’s Cup, an antioxidant-rich coffee substitute made from Ayurvedic herbs. Vary the steeping time and add-ins (milk, milk substitute, or sweeteners) as you like.
If you value the deep, rich flavor and enticing aroma of coffee as much as the ritual of brewing, “herbal coffees” are well worth trying. They look, taste, and are brewed like coffee—-in an automatic drip coffeemaker, electric or stovetop percolator, French press, or espresso maker. Common ingredients include roasted chicory and/or dandelion root, with or without roasted carob, barley, almonds, or figs.
I’m not a coffee lover, never have been. As a child, I sipped my mom’s coffee with cream and sugar but never developed the coffee habit. (And I love mornings!) As an adult, I have choked down black coffee under duress on a couple of long, snowy cross-country drives, agreeing with my driving companion that I’d rather have coffee than an accident. I tried coffee as a pre-aerobic stimulant and fat-burning aid, then gave it up. I liked the buzz, but it wasn’t worth the lost sleep or adrenal exhaustion I incurred.
For years, I’ve enjoyed the hearty, robust flavor and fragrance of roasted barley, dandelion, and chicory roots and successfully served them to guests. I buy the “grinds” from the bulk herb and spice section of health-food stores, although you can also order them by mail or over the Internet from Frontier Herbs (www.frontierherb.com) and Alvita (www.alvita.com).
Of the instant alternatives, Kaffree Roma and Yannoh were my favorites for many years. In recent years, I’ve sampled and enjoyed Roastaroma and Raja’s Cup.
Don’t want to banish the brew? Then go organic and work on reducing the amount of coffee you drink. Organic coffee is grown, harvested, and processed without synthetic chemicals (pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers), which have been linked to cancer and other health problems. Organic growers must meet stringent standards and have their products certified by an independent third party.
Look for “shade grown” coffee. This type is cultivated under a canopy of native shade trees, home to a complex ecosystem, including half of the plant and animal species (migratory birds, insects, and more) on the planet. This approach supports the soil and land while providing low-income third world farmers with alternative cash and food crops in addition to coffee, giving them a chance to break the cycle of poverty and farm their land sustainably. According to the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, as many as 150 different bird species have been sighted and documented in shaded coffee farms, compared to only five to twenty species in unshaded coffee farms.
As for cost, organic coffee ranges from $10 to $14 per pound. The good news is this: One pound of coffee makes about thirty to forty cups, so even if you pay $12 a pound for organic, you’ll still only be paying $.30 to $.40 per cup of coffee.
Equal Exchange Fairly Traded Organic Coffee
(shade grown); www.equalexchange.com
Cafe Altura (biodynamically grown); www.cafealtura.com
Rapunzel Pure Organic Coffee (shade grown); www.rapunzel.com
Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (shade grown, fairly traded); www.greenmountaincoffee.com
Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting Company (organic, fairly traded); www.santacruzcoffee.com
Caffe Ibis (shade grown, organic, fairly traded); www.caffeibis.com
Rachel Albert-Matesz, B.A., is a freelance nutrition journalist, healthy cooking instructor, and food coach. More than 180 of her articles have appeared in national and regional magazines and newspapers. She is currently at work on The Paleo Diet Cookbook (J. Wiley & Sons, January 2003).
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