Coffee: Devil’s Brew or Nature’s Nectar?

| May/June 2008

Legend says coffee was first discovered in Ethiopia around a.d. 600-850 when a goatherd named Kaldi found that his animals became frisky after eating the red berries from the coffee tree. Kaldi ate the berries and rapidly spread the word about their stimulating properties. Local monks began cultivating the coffee tree to dry the fruit and crush it into a powder; the monks would then drink the reconstituted liquid to help stay awake during long periods of prayer. By the early 14th century, Arabs discovered the process of roasting and grinding the beans, and the rest, they say, is coffee history.

Today, coffee is the world’s most popular drink after water, with more than 1.5 billion cups consumed daily. Around 167 million Americans drink coffee each day, with more coffee drunk at breakfast than at any other time. Early studies gave coffee a bad name after it became associated with raising blood pressure and cholesterol levels, as well as increasing the risk for some cancers. Yet the latest research is revealing coffee’s health benefits. A recent American Chemical Society study identified coffee as the No. 1 source of antioxidants in the U.S. diet, and a 2006 clinical review of almost 300 studies suggests that moderate coffee drinking could help thwart a range of diseases, including type 2 diabetes, which affects an estimated 16 million Americans—more than half of them women.

Coffee and High Blood Pressure

One in three Americans is affected by high blood pressure, a recognized risk factor for heart disease and stroke. It’s well-known that the caffeine in coffee can cause a rise in blood pressure in both normal and hypertensive individuals. One study, published in the European Journal of Clinical Pharmacology in 1999, found that five cups of coffee a day over a period of about two months produced a modest increase in both systolic and diastolic blood pressure.

Research has also shown that regular coffee drinkers may develop a tolerance to caffeine but that the elderly and people with hypertension might be more susceptible to caffeine’s effects.

Coffee and Cholesterol

More than 50 percent of adult Americans, especially women, have a total cholesterol level of 200 mg/dL or higher, which is above the recommended limit. Although several early studies indicated that coffee raises serum cholesterol concentrations, it was later found that the method of brewing has a direct effect on coffee’s cholesterol- and triglyceride-raising properties. Two substances (diterpenes) in coffee, cafestol and kahweol, are thought to be responsible.

These chemicals are released by hot water but are caught by paper filters. Those of us watching our cholesterol should avoid unfiltered coffees, such as Turkish, Scandinavian “boiled” and French press (cafetière) coffees, but we still can enjoy filtered, instant or percolated coffees.

3/16/2014 3:35:02 AM are definitely natures nectar! I couldn't live without my morning coffee... or two, or three! I love my coffee that much. YUM

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