Wilderness Underfoot: Good science debunks the evils of coffee

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11339786018395.jpg’, ”, ‘Cup of brewed coffee, coffee beans, and a coffee plant – Consuming about 300 to 400 milligrams of caffeine per day (three to four cups of coffee) is now considered safe.’);

After 1,000 years of dispute over the dangers of drinking the evil brew, scientists have given coffee a clean bill of health.

Somewhere in Yemen, about 1,000 years ago, people first tasted a hot broth made from the coffee bean. The bean had been chewed and eaten before then, but using it to make a beverage suddenly changed everything. With its rich flavor and its stimulating buzz, brewed coffee soon became popular throughout the Middle East. Until the 1600s, the Arabs—realizing the value of the coffee plant and the wonderful new drink—successfully prevented the distribution of any seeds capable of germination. Then, the Dutch took an interest in coffee and smuggled seeds back to Holland. More seeds were smuggled into India, and the Dutch moved to establish colonies in the region to take advantage of coffee cultivation. Soon, coffee became widely available to Europeans, who became hooked.

The stimulating effect of drinking coffee was obvious from the beginning: it improved alertness and mental acuity, and it staved off sleepiness. Later, it became a social drink, associated with coffee houses where great thinkers would meet to read and discuss the news and politics.

But perhaps because of its popularity, coffee has been a much-maligned drink. One of the earliest—if short-lived—bans against coffee was in Cairo in 1511. It was initiated because coffee houses were said to be brewing political dissent along with each cup of java. Later, bans and protests against coffee asserted the sinfulness of its consumption and the medical dangers of caffeine. They often exaggerated its addictiveness, claiming it was no different than life-robbing substances like cocaine and heroin.

In recent decades, various researchers have claimed caffeine caused a slew of health problems, including pancreatic and bladder cancers, lung cancer, heart disease and high blood pressure. But this research has been outnumbered by studies that show no clear relationship between these diseases and caffeine. In fact, its use may be beneficial.

For coffee lovers, this is good news. Drinking moderate amounts of coffee is now considered safe for most people (even so, pregnant women are still advised to avoid caffeine). The benefits include better physical endurance, headache relief, and possibly, protection against some cancers. And amazingly, coffee has recently been found to be the most potent source of antioxidants in our diet.

From the Dec. 7-13, 2005, issue

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