Coffee Health

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Crack coffee: when coffee has nothing to do with it

Posted by on 01 May 2007 | Filed under: Coffee Health, Consumer Trends

It’s one thing for the likes of Starbucks to purvey their popular coffee-flavored milkshakes (double-tall, four-pump vanilla caramel macchiato, anyone?) — suitably designed for people who don’t like coffee, but want to play along anyway. But it’s another thing entirely when some coffee purveyors treat the beverage purely as a narcotic with no other redeeming qualities whatsoever.

Case and point with Shock Coffee and its ilk (i.e., Fusion Energy Coffee, Meth Coffee, and anyone else trying to make a buck of this dreck): Shock coffee is all the buzz. This is the malt liquor of coffee. Coffee becomes just a pointless delivery mechanism, so why not just purchase purified caffeine?

Trivia time! So who purchases white, powdery, purified caffeine, you might ask? According to Jay Endries of, here are the top three business consumers of purified caffeine:

  1. Johnson & Johnson — headache medicines go better with caffeine
  2. Coca-Cola — it’s the real thing
  3. Duncan Hines — yes, chocolate cake mixes so rich and so amped up with caffeine, you’ll be doing 2am laps after just one batch of our brownies

'I like my coffee like I like my women: tasteless and scary enough to wake the dead.'

Food Labels Need Caffeine Count, Some Say

Posted by on 20 Feb 2007 | Filed under: Coffee Health, Consumer Trends

The bizarrely misplaced food freak-out continues, as we have people overlooking the environmental, energy consumption, and dietary/health horrors of the processed foods that make up 80% of today’s American diet — focusing instead on caffeine as the root of all evil. Today, TV station KERO in Bakersfield, CA reported that a coffee-drinking New York city councilman, Simcha Felder, “plans to introduce a resolution calling on the federal government to require that food and beverages contain labels revealing caffeine content”: Food Labels Need Caffeine Count, Some Say – Health.

Isn’t that a bit like labelling how much alcohol is in your beer? I thought the main point of food labelling — generally a good thing, mind you — was to make you aware of invisible or insidious things that weren’t necessarily obvious on the surface. What is the value of such a proposal, and the value of our federal government’s time and attention, when whether someone is either over-caffeinated or under-caffeinated isn’t exactly a mystery or black art?

As long as nutritionism remains the rule for America’s eating habits, people will continue to equate their health to the presence or absence of single molecules. A healthy diet or lifestyle isn’t built upon the line-item veto, nor can its foundation be found in binge eating omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, and/or phytochemicals.

UPDATE: February 21, 2007
The New York Press also published an article on this topic: Caffeine vs. Trans Fat: The Smackdown, as did “Good Morning America”: ABC News: Feel a Buzz? There Might Be Caffeine in That. Coca-Cola plans to start labelling in May, according to the AP: Coke To Show Caffeine Content On Labels – Health.

Nashville, TN: Metro Councilman Suggests Tax On Coffee

Posted by on 05 Feb 2007 | Filed under: Coffee Health, Consumer Trends, Starbucks

In a curious move, a Nashville, TN councilman has proposed something of a “latte tax” to help local school budgets: Metro Councilman Suggests Tax On Coffee | WKRN.COM. To help fund technology upgrades at local schools, Nashville councilman Jamie Isabel wants the Tennessee state legislature to increase taxes on alcohol and tobacco, and he would also like to see coffee added to that list.

It will be interesting to see how this small example plays out, because it has potential implications for the rest of the country. With increasing demands and shrinking local budgets, all local communities are looking for new revenue sources, and commonly recognized social “vices” are ready targets (e.g., tobacco and alcohol). But lumping coffee in with the likes of the ATF is a new twist.

We’ve also witnessed examples where legislation has been selectively applied or not based on the perception of class lines — such as California’s banning of foie gras as “inhumane” (a dish with origins that date back to 2,500 B.C.) but not the modern factory farming of chicken. Could a latte tax be another proxy for consumer class warfare between the McDonald’s/Dunkin’ Donuts set and the Starbucks set? (Let alone between coffee drinkers and non-drinkers…)

Considering the per-cup prices when you compare a basic coffee with a “double-tall, four-pump vanilla caramel macchiato,” this could well amount to more of a “milk tax” than a “coffee tax”. It’s hard to say how consumers would react to such a tax. But given the last time they imposed a tea tax in this country, things got pretty rowdy down at Boston Harbor to say the least.

The New Food Science – and Where Coffee Sits

Posted by on 30 Jan 2007 | Filed under: Coffee Health, Consumer Trends

I always say I refuse to write about the latest health-related press release about coffee. Sure enough, last week, I wrote about the so-called new positive news about coffee’s affect on your health. A couple months earlier, I wrote about the folly of drinking coffee or tea primarily as a biochemical or epidemiological decision. But this week, I read an article that perhaps best expresses my skepticism over how science, marketing, and media have all come together in an unholy stew to drive much of the public health debate today.

This past Sunday, the New York Times Magazine ran a cover story by The Omnivore’s Dilemma author, Michael Pollan: Unhappy Meals – Michael Pollan – New York Times. It’s an excellent article reviewing the paradox of why we have more detailed scientific information about nutrition than we’ve ever had previously, and more access to food science, and yet Americans are as unhealthy — and as paranoid about the health merits of their food — as ever.

The crux of his argument is that, in the past few decades, eating healthy foods in moderation has been upstaged by the deconstructionist science of nutritionism (i.e., presuming that the good or bad health effects of foods can be explained by their minute compositions in deconstructed isolation), food lobbyists who have shaped government policy through political influence, food marketers who have shaped consumer tastes through new “food product” introduction, and a much more powerful media market for health (dis-)information and consumer influence.

Coffee As Food

It’s with this backdrop that I read another article published today on the genetically engineered future of Brazilian coffee stocks, taking a different form of the deconstructionist approach towards consumables: Brazil – Brazzil Magazine – Tomorrow’s Coffee Is Being Invented and Grown in Brazil’s Labs. But this isn’t a Luddite rant against genetic engineering. Note how its last few paragraphs qualify coffee as a functional food — and trace coffee’s original bad health rap to twenty-year-old scientific studies of caffeine tested in isolation. This deconstructionist approach of examining caffeine projected false assumptions about consuming coffee as a whole.

One of the major recommendations Michael Pollan makes in his article is to stand by unsexy, health-fad-unfriendly staples that mankind has thrived upon for centuries. Maybe coffee isn’t an anti-oxidant-laden power beverage, but it just might be a functional food. It has certainly withstood the test of time.

A couple weeks ago, they were passing out free samples of this vile Life Force V drink on Market & Montgomery. Not only did it violate every one of Pollan’s warnings about food bearing health claims. (It was a long list on the label, including, and I’m not making this up, “No banned substances”. What the…?) But tasting it made me look up the number for poison control (it’s 1-800-222-1222, btw). Then I ordered the nearest decent espresso I could find.

A New Year’s Coffee Resolution?: A Moratorium On Snake Oil Articles About Coffee

Posted by on 25 Jan 2007 | Filed under: Café Society, Coffee Health, Consumer Trends

There is something bizarre about the media’s unhealthy obsession with the health merits of coffee. Now this is one case where I truly believe the media are just delivering what consumers want from them. And I’ve already written about this subject at length. But a prominent article in this month’s Wine Spectator by Mark Pendergrast, author of Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How it Transformed Our World, prompted further questions for its ironic double standard.

The article is titled A New Year’s Coffee Resolution. In it, Mr. Pendergrast professes to have a New Year’s resolution to drink more coffee. Why? Because he cites many of the latest medical studies showing that coffee might not be bad for you — it might even be good for you. He writes how coffee provides anti-oxidants … and how “it may also help prevent Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, liver cancer, colon cancer, type 2 diabetes and gallstones.”

Of course, we’ve seen many prior forms of the unnecessarily polarizing “coffee: medicine or poison?” article. What made this one different is that it was featured prominently in the most notable consumer magazine for wine drinkers. Isn’t that a bit like Cigar Aficionado magazine citing the latest medical research on the dangers of eating red meat? For all the people who insist on making wine analogies for coffee, we seem to be holding coffee to a different health standard than we have for wine.

Death by Numbers

In 2000, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), alcohol consumption accounted for approximately 85,000 U.S. deaths — third only behind tobacco and poor diet & physical inactivity. Statistics from other U.S. government reports show that, in 2005, 16,885 people in the U.S. died in alcohol-related motor vehicle crashes (representing 39% of all traffic-related deaths), and, in 2001, there were over 1,700 unintentional fatal injuries related to alcohol among U.S. college students aged 18-24.

Curiously enough, none of these reports made mention of coffee-related deaths. No mention of five-morning-cups-of-coffee, caffeine-impaired drivers plowing over pedestrians on sidewalks. No mention of caffeine-addicted patients hooked up to tubes in hospitals who died of espresso-induced liver failure. No mention of college students who die each year from coffee-related binge drinking when cramming for exams.

Americans are notoriously bad with proportions — and particularly those associated with relative risks. We sweat the small stuff and ignore the more dangerous threats, deceived either by high drama or mundane routine. Is this coffee paranoia a bit like people willing to give up their civil liberties — worried about being killed at the hands of terrorists — when ultimately they have greater odds of being killed walking across the street or falling?

Perhaps. But there is good news, wine-drinkers: that cup of coffee you obsess about probably isn’t going to kill you. However, there may be a dirty secret or two about that wine thing you might want to consider.

Personal History: My Two-Year Journey Into the Caffeine Desert

Posted by on 06 Jan 2007 | Filed under: Coffee Health,, Consumer Trends, Home Brew

John Walker, a freelance gaming journalist in the UK, wrote in his blog today about his experiences giving up coffee — on doctor’s orders to relieve anxiety symptoms: bothererblog » Diary Of A Coffee Addict. I commented in his blog about my own experiences of giving up all caffeine for a couple of years back in 2000. Clearly, from the looks of, I have been what you might call “off the wagon” (or is that “off the Swiss water”?) for years now. But because the story is relevant enough, I felt it worth repeating here — with a bit of my own personal coffee history.

Not trying to sound like this month’s Barista Magazine interview with David Schomer, my first memories of drinking coffee go back to when I was about eight-years-old during the 1970s. This was in an era when corporate America was not yet savvy enough to squeeze every penny of profit out of customers. Retailers, from the local A&P to the neighborhood savings & loan, frequently offered free coffee to their customers. (Contrast with today, where a recent trip to BMW of San Francisco revealed that even a potential $40,000 car buyer must carry quarters to pay for their own cup of coffee.)

From then on, I had coffee off and on, but I still didn’t quite buy into the adult mystique of it. Then in 1989, while living and working in Maryland, I visited U.C. Berkeley as a potential grad student. I was easily impressed when a professor nonchalantly invited me to talk shop over a cappuccino (“heard about them, never had one”) from one of the many espresso kiosks along Bancroft Way. It was coffee like I never had before; though by today’s standards, Starbucks was likely a step up. That year, I moved to California to start graduate school at a joint Berkeley-UCSF program. And although it wasn’t the West Coast espresso that brought me here, it was occasionally a nice convenience compared with the one-dimensional coffee served in much of the rest of the country at the time.

From Addict to Recovering Addict

It slowly evolved into a regular habit, with my awareness of better coffee growing over time. But after several years of being a daily drinker of good coffee, drip as well as the occasional espresso, some evil voice of a modern temperance movement got into my head. Noticing the caffeine headaches I would get if I went a day without coffee, I started to think that giving up the stuff — and all caffeine for that matter — might be personally purifying and a healthier alternative. (Of course, I am also a former vegetarian who gave up meat for a couple of years during grad school, so perhaps there’s a pattern in this.)

Then in early 2000, I stumbled upon the most convenient timing: I decided to quit caffeine the day I scheduled my elective sinus surgery. Oh sure, I would have a massive pounding headache for a while. But would I really notice the difference between that and having my sinuses packed with gauze during my recovery? My doc even prescribed all the Vicodin I would ever need to get through it. (Not that I was worried about going down the road of a Brett Favre or Rush Limbaugh, but I’m a bit of a masochist who prefers to endure the pain unless I really need the meds. And on the theme of personal purification, ultimately I took none of it.)

I was coffee-free for the longest time; I missed the flavor, but not immensely. And while the purification thing seemed like a nice purge, it truly had little effect on my quality of life. The caffeine never had much effect on me, other than my withdrawl headache symptoms; I could always down a couple of double-espressos an hour before bed and still sleep like it was a glass of milk. Unfortunately, I believe some people are genetically/biologically predisposed to heightened chemical sensitivity to caffeine — not unlike the way some people can fall violently ill with just the smell of perfume.

“Again, can someone explain to me why this was a good idea?”

Then came a 2002 return trip to Italy, and, as with my prior vegetarianism stint, the whole denial thing suddenly seemed absurd. And while Italian espresso suffers from a sort of sameness, their baseline was (is) so far and away better than the U.S. baseline, I revelled in the convenience of being able to go anywhere and have good espresso. I decided then that I was born to be a coffee drinker, and I was only betraying my true nature as a human being. Who am I to defy God’s gift of my caffeine insensitivity?

Of course, the rest is history. A familiar story to anyone who has caught the good coffee disease, my death spiral into the pursuit of better and better coffee only accelerated. Italy was my gateway drug to the hard stuff of home espresso, home roasting, and cries for help that lead to

In the end, the caffeine angle is an amusing one — given that espresso, my coffee beverage of choice, is one of your better options. Culturally, at least in America, we errantly behold espresso as if it were an intravenous drip of pure caffeine. Writers and editors constantly riff on espresso as a euphemism for the most potent infusion of caffeine your veins can handle. Pulling an all-nighter? Six cups of coffee won’t do, but six espressos will keep you awake from now until Christ’s second coming. (For example, last year, San Francisco magazine even resorted to calling me a “caffeinista”.) Yet if made properly — i.e., without all the water-soluble muck that comes tumbling out into your typical over-extracted American espresso — it has less caffeine than your average drip coffee.

Decaf Coffee Is Not Caffeine-Free (And Particularly If You’re At Starbucks)

Posted by on 29 Nov 2006 | Filed under: Coffee Health, Consumer Trends, Starbucks

Ignore the stating-the-obvious article title for a moment. Even ignore my latest tirade against unimaginative writers who use the caffeine riff as a synomym for coffee.

Today WCCO-TV, the CBS affiliate in Minneapolis, published a story on how they tested the caffeine levels of random decaffeinated coffee samples at five different retailers: – Decaf Coffee Is Not Caffeine-Free. Although the NCA suggests that caffeine levels should be about 3 milligrams in an 8-ounce cup of decaffeinated coffee, WCCO-TV found the levels between 3-7 mg — with the exception of Starbucks.

The Starbucks decaffeinated coffee had a whopping 175 mg of caffeine — or pretty much the same as a cup of regular coffee. WCCO-TV even tried to see if they got the wrong stuff by mistake, but this curious bit of evidence suggests something I’ve wondered about all along: maybe Starbucks serves all their coffee drinks from the same spigot? For those fans of The Simpsons, I’m reminded of an epsiode where Homer tours the Duff Beer brewery. In the background of the scene, you subtly notice a single pipe feeding three storage tanks labelled “Duff”, “Duff Lite” and “Duff Dry”.

UPDATE: October 25, 2007
Perhaps asleep at the wheel the first time around, Consumer Reports jumped on this story idea and published an article in their November issue, per the New York Times: A Wake-Up Call for Coffee Drinkers – Well – Tara Parker-Pope – Health – New York Times Blog.

Healthy Coffee?

Posted by on 31 Oct 2006 | Filed under: Coffee Health, Consumer Trends, Quality Issues

You know the phrase “knowing just enough to be dangerous”? A good example can be found in the regular stream of rip-and-read medical research press releases that appear in the daily media cesspool. And scuttlebutt on the health benefits and detriments of coffee are in steady supply.

I promise not to go off on my usual tirade about mainstream media’s sorry state of science and medical reporting. But I’d like to tackle the more general issue of how food-as-medicine thinking can create a sorry world of over-anxious people and sterilized, unenjoyable edibles (and drinkables).

First, take a lot of the salesmanship buzz about the growth of tea consumption in the press these days. Inevitably, they play the health card. We learn that tea drinkers have always known it’s better for you than coffee, and now there’s proof (thanks to one study that apparently suffices as the basis for all our health care decisions). We learn that consumption of tea is on the rise because of rising interest in the health benefits attributed to tea.

Don’t get me wrong — I enjoy tea and all its yummy anti-oxidant goodness (just call them “flavor crystals”). But how much should my choice of beverage be dictated by an actuarial assessment comparing my mortality risk of cancer or stress hormones? Even if this uncoordinated media mass of medical non-sequiturs truly came to a coherent conclusion that I had a 0.16% higher risk of cancer by drinking coffee instead of tea, when does that statistic become the prime determinant of what I should consume? Flavor, apparently, is just an inconvenience.

Tea aside, coffee itself has been alternately viewed as a monster or savior, depending on your study du jour. An alarmingly obese America seems very worried about the nine-calorie coffee, despite its regular consumption for hundreds of years. Over the weekend, one cited study claimed coffee harmed sperm — arguably taking a page out of the “smoking may reduce the blood flow and causes impotence” threats you now see posted on cigarettes in the U.K.

Subtle flavor, not so subtle labelling in the duty-free shops of London's Heathrow Caution: coffee may be harmful to your health

When health concerns kill food

I’m not advocating ignorance. Everyone is capable of making personal choices based on available information. But when alarmist health-consciousness sets the standard, we all suffer.

Oddly enough, take the example of pork. While in Portugal, I was lucky enough to eat quite a bit of proco preto — literally a “black pork” that comes from a special line of pigs in the Alentejo region that’s popular around Lisbon (black is the color of the animal, not the dish). Porco preto, like any other pork in Portugal, tastes nothing like pork in America. Why? Because at some point Americans got the idea that pork was the taste of premature death on four hooves. So pork was bred to be leaner, drier, whiter, and without any flavor — and ultimately not worth eating for many.

A more famous example concerns unpasteurized cheeses (i.e., cheeses that are not pre-heated to kill off some bacteria). America can claim production of a number of good cheeses, but many of what are considered the best cheeses in the world are unavailable here due to U.S. pasteurization laws. Roquefort, Camembert, Brie … safely consumed for centuries, the real deal may carry a rare risk of salmonella or E. coli. But there’s a good reason the French call pasteurized cheese “dead cheese“.

Moderation and personal choice should always play a role in our food supplies. But when we’ve let the forces of health paranoia rule our choices, most everyone loses out. We’ve made ourselves sick and made our food far less appealing in the name of health fads and the conventional wisdom of the moment. All of which is another major reason why, when someone presents me with another study du jour that says coffee may cause additional limb growth, I just want to smack them upside the head with the third arm growing out of my back.

UPDATE: November 24, 2006:
The penny wise and pound foolish obsession on whether to label coffee as good or evil continues in the media: A cup of confusion: Is coffee healthy or not? – Nutrition Notes –

Starbucks Under Fire For ‘Unhealthy’ Coffee Drink

Posted by on 20 Jun 2006 | Filed under: Add Milk, Coffee Health, Consumer Trends, Starbucks

As a follow up to a previous post from February, Upscale coffee drinks almost as caloric as Big Mac, SF’s CBS 5 news aired a story today noting that Starbucks’ Banana Mocha Frappuccino (who has time to pronounce all that?!) is even more caloric than a Big Mac: – Starbucks Under Fire For ‘Unhealthy’ Coffee Drink.

And yet people are often obsessing over the possible health risks of coffee — the coffee is least of their worries. (If Clara Peller were alive, she’d be yelling, “Where’s the coffee?!”) Starbucks says it is actively researching alternatives to high fat products, but it’s clearly the consumer, not Starbucks, that’s the problem here.

Mom was right: never eat or drink anything bigger than your head.

UPDATE: December 13, 2006
Months later, and CBS still loves this story — as evidenced by today’s video and news article from KEYE-TV in Austin, TX: – Cover Story: Coffee Drinks, Fats, Calories.

P&G sees big market for stomach-friendly coffee

Posted by on 12 May 2006 | Filed under: Coffee Health, Consumer Trends

Earlier today, Proctor & Gamble Co. (manufacturer of Folgers and one of the Big Four) announced the launch of a new coffee concoction formulated to reduce stomach irritation: P&G sees big market for stomach-friendly coffee – Reuters Business Channel | (This story was also picked up by the Cincinnati Business Courier: Procter debuts coffee that goes down easy.)

This new product, called Simply Smooth, reportedly uses a special blend of coffee beans which are roasted to limit the level of phenols in the resulting brew. Phenols are associated with stomach irritation when consumed at significant levels. Simply Smooth is available in regular and decaffeinated versions and is being rolled out nationwide this May.

It appears that Big Coffee is lifting a page from the market segmentation playbook of orange juice. Perhaps the Big Four are looking for a profit strategy successor to their investments in cheaper robusta coffee (which, ironically, were made in response to the growth in popularity and price of competitive specialty coffee). Is this their first step towards the beverage company strategy to carve up the consumer coffee market with a confusing array of “consumer need categories”?

Who better to start it than P&G, who practically invented product branding strategy? I can only imagine what’s coming next from the Big Four: coffee with extra vitamins C & E plus zinc, calcium enriched coffee, heart-healthy coffee… One thing is for certain, however: these conversations have already taken place in their various boardrooms.

UPDATE: March 14, 2007
The New York Times ran an article on “stomach friendly” coffee today, noting the complete lack of scientific evidence indicating that it does any such thing: Decaf Being Joined by De-Heartburn – New York Times. As with a lot of product marketing, consumers need only to believe that it does something special for them.

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