An aromatic mug of coffee in the morning, a relaxing cup of tea in the afternoon, a satisfying piece of chocolate in the evening are all daily pleasures with a common ingredient – caffeine.
People have enjoyed foods and beverages containing caffeine for thousands of years. In fact, tea is considered the most popular drink on earth and coffee is a close second. Even so, controversy, confusion, and misconceptions about this alkaloid continue to abound. And it’s no wonder. First, researchers claim that it’s unhealthy. The next month, other research reveals that a cup or two of coffee a day is harmless. And now caffeine is being touted as a possible cure-all for a host of ailments, including diabetes and cancer.
It’s time to find out if caffeine really is good to the last drop.
Caffeine is a naturally occurring substance found in tea leaves, coffee beans, cacao (used to make chocolate), and kola nuts (the plant that gives cola soda its flavor). It is also added to many soft drinks, energy drinks, and over-the-counter cold and headache medicines.
Caffeine belongs to a group of stimulants called xanthines, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classified caffeine as ‘generally recognized as safe’ (GRAS) in 1958. Along with nicotine and alcohol, caffeine is one of the most widely used mood-altering drugs in the world.
So just how does caffeine work? It fuels your central nervous system. Your heart rate increases, your pupils dilate, and your muscles tighten. Now you’re experiencing the caffeine high. In Buzz: The Science and Lore of Alcohol and Caffeine, (Oxford University Press, 1996) author Stephen Braun explains, “The brain . . . resembles a car with several brake pedals and several accelerators. Interfere with any one of these pedals, and you’ll affect the speed and action of the car. Drinking caffeine is thus like putting a block of wood under one of the brain’s primary brake pedals.”
It only takes 15 to 20 minutes for caffeine to enter the blood and its effects can last for around 31/2 to 4 hours. The caffeine content of a tea bag brewed for 5 minutes is about 45 to 60 milligrams (mg) for a 5-ounce cup. A 12-ounce soft drink will pump you with around 35 mg, and a one-ounce piece of dark chocolate boasts 20 mg. You can expect to find about 100 mg of caffeine in a shot of espresso (one or more shots are used to make a latte or cappuccino), while a good old-fashioned cup of joe supplies about 80 to 130 mg. And java junkies everywhere are rejoicing
Coffee has been put through the scientific ringer. Some 19,000 studies have been conducted examining coffee’s impact on health, and for the 108 million Americans who routinely enjoy this brewed beverage, there’s lots of good news.
Researchers have found, for example, that coffee drinkers are 50% less likely to get liver cancer than nondrinkers. And a few other studies have found ties to lower rates of colon, breast, and rectal cancers, indicating that coffee may have anti-carcinogenic properties.
Heavy coffee drinkers may also be half as likely to get diabetes as light drinkers or nondrinkers, and results from long-term studies are showing that coffee may not increase the risk for high blood pressure over time as previously thought.
There’s also evidence that coffee seems to protect men, but not women, against Parkinson’s disease. One possible explanation for the sex difference may be that estrogen and caffeine need the same enzymes to be metabolized, and estrogen captures those enzymes.
Many of coffee’s reported benefits are a direct result of its high caffeine content. Caffeine is also responsible for treating headaches. A single dose of the pain reliever Excedrin, for example, contains up to 120 milligrams. It’s also caffeine, and not coffee, per se, that makes java a potent aid in enhancing athletic performance.
But hold onto your cafe latte, caffeine is not completely innocent. Caffeine is a drug, pure and simple. It can be abused if you use it in place of a good night’s rest or a healthy diet. It’s also an addictive substance, and if you skip your usual morning cup, you can develop a caffeine withdrawal headache.
Too much caffeine for anyone will cause nervousness, rapid heartbeat, palpitations, sleeplessness, and irritability. But for those who are caffeine sensitive (approximately 20% of the population), just a few milligrams will set off such strong reactions as rapid speech and the jitters. Other extreme forms of caffeine sensitivity may cause paranoia, skin rashes, and even muscular pain. Yikes.
Furthermore, according to Ayurveda, nature demands balance and without it a person will experience disease. Constant overuse of caffeine is thought to force the adrenal glands to work in a way Mother Nature never intended, throwing off your balance and depleting your rasa (or life energy). Ayurvedic physician Partap Chauhan, founder of the Jiva Ayurveda Clinic and Panchakarma Center, the Jiva Pharmacy, and www.Ayurvedic.org, says “Caffeine is not recommended as a part of the Ayurvedic diet, and there is no mention of caffeine in the ancient Ayurvedic texts.”
And don’t forget that calories count as we rarely consume caffeine by itself. We generally swallow it mixed with sugar, cream, milk, and other calorie-dense mixers. Starbucks and other coffeehouses have loads of high-calorie special coffees and teas, laden with whipped cream and flavored syrups. Buyers beware, those add-ons can take a zero-calorie cup of coffee or tea and turn it into more than a meal’s worth of calories, as many as 600 per cup.
Registered dietitian Diane Dyer says to keep, “all things in moderation, and another place where this recommendation is appropriate is caffeine. And moderation is defined by the amount of caffeine in 2-3 cups of coffee (200-300 mg caffeine).”
But what type of coffee is just as important as how much. “Organic coffee is grown without the use of chemical fertilizers and insecticides. In addition to being beneficial to consumers looking to consume natural products, it is beneficial to the environment and the farmers who grow it”, says Joe Alcantara, President of the North America Cafe Bom Dia International. “Fair Trade Certified coffee assures that the grower receives a ‘fair price’ for his harvest. This process is audited by TransFair USA, and traces the transaction between the grower and roaster of the coffee to make sure this in fact occurs.”
But not everyone gets the coffee green light. If you experience any symptoms associated with caffeine sensitivity, talk to your doctor about your caffeine intake. The same goes if you have high blood pressure or heart disease.
And people with ulcers or who are prone to stomach stress, along with pregnant and nursing mothers, also need to be careful. According to Caroline MacDougall, founder and CEO of Teeccino Herbal caffeine-free Coffee, “Women are more susceptible than men to problems with caffeine and should avoid caffeine while pregnant or trying to conceive. Additionally, anyone with digestive problems like heartburn, acid reflux, GERDs, IBS, Crohns’ disease, or ulcers should avoid caffeine as it aggravates the symptoms of these conditions.”
Conscious Caffeine Fixes
Fair Trade for coffee farmers means community development, health, education, and environmental stewardship. And organic coffee is grown using methods and materials that have a low impact on the environment. Here are some conscious caffeine choices:
Arbuckle Coffee Roasters – an organic roaster and supplier, ArbuckleCoffee.com
Cafe Bom Dia – tree-to-shelf organic coffee provider, CafeBomDia.com
Equal Exchange – worker-owned, Fair Trade cooperative and one of the largest U.S. organic coffee roasters, EqualExchange.com
Green Mountain Coffee Roasters – one of the bleading U.S. organic coffee roasters, GreenMountainCoffee.com
Jim’s Organic Coffee – the nation’s first all-organic coffee roaster and the leading all-organic roaster nationwide, jimsorganiccoffee.com
Caffeine-Free Coffee Fixes
Herbs, grains, fruit, and nuts can be roasted and brewed, just like coffee.
Teeccino is made from roasted carob, roasted barley, and roasted chicory and it contains figs, almonds, and dates for sweetness and a nutty flavor. teeccino.com
Roastaroma – this tea is a blend of roasted barley, roasted chicory root, and roasted carob, with cinnamon, allspice, and star anise added for a full-bodied taste. celestialseasonings.com
Genmaicha is a green tea blended with roasted brown rice; it has a nutty, mellow flavor. edenfoods.com
Cafix is a non-acidic, caffeine-free, freeze-dried grain drink made from barley and chicory. internaturalfoods.com