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Coffee: the world's most utilized drug

Coffee. The number one most utilized "drug" in the world. Enjoyed by billions of people from every continent in countless forms: latte, Americano, café au lait, misto, iced, espresso, and the list goes on! While there are ongoing studies weighing out the health pros and cons to drinking this magical beverage, I can give you insight on a few interesting studies that I learned about through my studies as a student of naturopathic medicine. These studies really blew my mind! But to start off this blog post, lets take a journey to learn how coffee is grown and cultivated. I will share with you some highlights from when I toured the Alajuela Coffee Plantation in Costa Rica last summer before I completed my yoga teacher training.

Coffee berry trees.

Located in a quaint village on the peak of the Poás Volcano, the Doka Estate Alajuela Coffee Plantation has been around since 1824 and is the world’s LARGEST coffee bean supplier. They supply beans to none other than North America’s beloved Starbucks Coffee Company.

The coffee berry grows on trees in a rich ruby red colour where the branches are sometimes mistaken for local poisonous snakes. When I asked about the kind of pest control methods that are used on the crops, our guide couldn’t provide me with any pesticide names, but he said that the caffeine in coffee acts as a natural repellant so when insects eat the plant, the stimulant reminds them not to consume the plant again.

Coffee berries before they turn to their ripe red colour.

During the cultivation season, immigrant workers fill these baskets with the berries, where they earn 2 dollars per basket. To put this into perspective, it takes one worker 45 minutes to fill one basket.

This is the size of the basket that workers must fill to earn $2 per basket.

Once picked, the coffee berries are washed in large water baths and the low density (poor quality) berries float to the top and are discarded. From here, the coffee bean is stripped from inside the berry and the berry portion (which can be sweet) is kept to feed the cows and fertilize the coffee trees. As a side note, there are some brands of coffee with a high antioxidant content because the bean is ground up with the berry… it is the berry portion that offers excellent health boosting benefits.

Coffee water baths.

Once the beans are stripped from the berry covering, they undergo a 48 hour fermentation process in water baths and then they are dried in the open sunshine. The water from the water baths (which smells absolutely awful) is re-used to water the coffee trees in the dry season. The coffee bean itself has a sticky outer coating that gets dried by sun. You can see in the photo below that the sticky coating can be cracked open once the beans have been dried. This dried outer coating is used to make paper! I was really happy to see that no part of the coffee bean gets wasted and all of the water gets re-used!

Coffee bean stripped from its coating.

The coffee bean can be exported with the dried shell still in tact because it provides the beans with a natural preservation that allows them to be stored for years; whereas without the shell, the beans must be roasted within 5 months.

Up until this point, the coffee beans are white in colour, as you can see below, and they are stored in bags until ready to be exported. It is only when the beans are roasted that they turn black.

Coffee beans are graded by their size, where we were told the bigger beans are better! They are further graded into three qualities:

Lowest quality is on the left and the highest quality is on the right.

1st Quality- The highest quality beans would be the beans sold to Starbucks. These beans are roasted for 22 minutes. The longer the beans are roasted for, the stronger they taste because the beans are essentially being burnt. Our tour guide said that this 22 minute roasting period is way too long, and ruins the authentic flavour of the bean… but Starbucks does this (I was told), so that when they mix the Costa Rican beans with beans from other Countries, the coffee will all have one generic taste where they can then flavour it into the fancy drink of your choice! 70% of the best quality beans cultivated from Costa Rica are sold to Starbucks.

2nd Quality- The next best coffee bean grade stays in Costa Rica to supply all of the local grocery stores and coffee shops. We were told that Costa Rica has “the best coffee in the world”. I am no coffee connoisseur, but I know that many people in my yoga training group seemed to rant and rave about the coffee over there.

3rd Quality- The worst quality beans get burned into ashes for the plantation OR they are kept to make your (you guessed it) instant coffee! These beans get burned and mixed with sugar, honey, etc. to change colour and taste before they are sold on supermarket shelves at a store near you.

Remember, all of the coffee varieties in Costa Rica (house blend, french blend, breakfast blend, espresso, etc.) are all derived from the same exact (second grade) bean. They only differ in regards to how long they are roasted for:

  • House blend is roasted for 15 minutes and since it was roasted for the shortest period of time, it means that this blend has most caffeine! The less time that the beans are roasted for, means more caffeine!

  • French blend is roasted 17 minutes

  • Espresso/Italiano blend is roasted for 20 minutes

  • Breakfast blend is a combination of all 3 blends listed above

The different coffee blends after they have been roasted.

How is decaffeinated coffee made?

After the beans are dried in the sun, some of the beans are shipped to Germany. German engineers have created a very specialized expensive steaming machine to steam the beans in water for 24 hours, which removes much of the caffeine content (but always remember, even decaffeinated coffee has quite a bit of caffeine). After the 24 hour steaming process has subsided, the leftover water is then full of caffeine! This caffeinated water is sold to various companies that add caffeine to their products: red bull, coca cola, sports drink companies, etc. The leftover coffee bean from this steaming process is then sent back to Costa Rica where they roast it for 17 minutes and then package it for sale as decaffeinate coffee. Please keep in mind that even decaffeinated coffee contains caffeiene!

The decaffeinated (lowest quality) beans.

Is coffee a good for your health?

This is a question that I get asked all the time! There is 50-100 mg of caffeine in 1 cup of your average cup of coffee. There are countless studies suggesting numerous health detriments and benefits to consuming a cup of java, so understanding your own personal health history and identifying your own personal health goals is key in determining whether or not coffee is something worth consuming. Again, you must determine what your own goals are based on your own specific health! We all have different bodies and as such, we cannot assume something that is good for one person will be good for everyone. As a side note, this is one aspect I love about naturopathic medicine; it is all about a personal individualized approach to treatment and not a “one size fits all” treatment approach.

Here are some questions to ask yourself when determining whether coffee is a suitable beverage for you:

Do you feel like you need coffee to get through your morning or afternoon slump? Do you get jittery when you drink coffee? Are you chronically stressed or suffer from adrenal fatigue? Do you get tension headaches if you don’t consume coffee daily? Do you have diabetes? Do you have history of osteoporosis or osteopenia? Do you take any medication or natural health supplements? Even herbal products can be dangerous and it is important to consult with a licensed naturopathic or medical doctor before taking any products that you purchase at a health store. If you simply enjoy a cup of coffee on occasion and you do not have any significant health history that may be affected by consuming caffeine, then perhaps it is perfectly fine to indulge. Everything in moderation!

What does the research say about coffee?

While I will leave it up to you to do your own research and discuss with your doctor whether coffee is a good choice for you to incorporate into your lifestyle given your goals and state of health, below are 2 (of many) interesting studies on coffee that I learned about during my studies this year.

Study #1: If you suffer from high cholesterol and regularly enjoy a cup of joe or espresso, you should switch to make sure that your coffee was made with a bleach-free paper filter and not french press, percolated, (or other non-coffee paper filtered methods), etc. The reason is that coffee made without a paper filter contains oils from the bean that raises cholesterol, but when it is brewed through a paper filter, the filter can remove these fats which can decreased your cholesterol by a whopping 20-25%! To put this dramatic value into perspective, statin drugs are said to only decrease LDL cholesterol by 30%, so if you drink paper filtered coffee, you can nearly lower your cholesterol by as much as a statin drug. To go off on a little tangent here… there are SO MANY simple changes you can make in your life to acquire healthy cholesterol levels! I’m not talking one or two studies that showed some neat results here, I’m talking BIG changes that made a statistically significant difference in many comprehensive studies. If you’d like to hear some tips, let me know and I can write about it in an upcoming post.

Study #2: Many athletes utilize coffee as a performance enhancing “drug”, so to speak. For endurance athletes like marathon runners, cyclists, or people engaging in exercise longer than 1.5-2 hours (which is the amount of time needed to deplete your liver glycogen stores), caffeine at a dose of 3-9mg/kg body weight enabled them to utilize energy from their fat reserves and shunt energy production away from liver gluconeogenesis or the breakdown of muscle. The study stated that when endurance athletes used caffeine, they were able to maintain a steady pace for the entire length of their event. The kicker is, that you must be engaging in the activity for at least 1.5-2 hours before this mechanism kicks in. The limiting factor in long endurance events is loss of glycogen stores (colloquially known as “hitting a wall” since your body cannot create new energy from gluconeogenesis). After 1.5-2 hours caffeiene forces your body to shift your metabolism away from using glycogen and force it to burn fat. It should also be noted that your body can adapt to caffeine as a performance enhancer, so it is best to do your training without caffeine and then utilize it during the actual event to maximize the benefits. This study stated that this effect does not work if you habitually drink caffeine on a daily basis!

Whether or not you enjoy drinking a cup of coffee or tea as part of your morning ritual or culture, it is always fascinating to learn about how things are made and how different products interact with our bodies.

As always, if you have any questions or want to learn more, please don’t hesitate to ask.

Have a wonderful day, everyone!

Fun fact from my Costa Rican tour guide:

Coffee translated to Spanish is “café”, which means "brown" in English.

If coffee is black, why is it called café, which means brown? Coffee was discovered in the city of Kaffa, located in Africa. Kaffa translated to English means coffee, but when translated to Spanish is café, which means brown.

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