by Angela Self, MD, TCMS President
This article was originally published in the September/October issue of the Tarrant County Physician. You can read find the full magazine here.
Sometimes you just need to grab a cup of coffee, sit under a tree, and contemplate nothing at all. Years before I started coffee blogging, I remember watching an episode of 60 Minutes where a segment was on “living into your 90s” by Leslie Stahl (the episode aired on May 4, 2014). I was still a toddler in my appreciation of coffee, and this episode was one of the things that propelled me to look further. Some of the commonalities that these 1,600 nonagenarians shared were physical activity (average 45 minutes a day, but at least 15), moderate alcohol consumption (those who had one to two drinks a day lived longer than those who did not drink), and coffee consumption of one to three cups a day (not more). At that time, I clung to the coffee part of the study. Now, I am realizing how far behind I am in alcohol consumption.
As the story goes, coffee was first discovered in Ethiopia by a goatherd named Kaldi. He played music for his goats each day and they would come running to follow him home. One day they did not come, so he went looking and found them playing, bleating, butting heads. He wasn’t sure what was going on but noticed they were eating leaves and berries from a plant. They refused to come for hours, but they made it home eventually. He was concerned the plant might be poisonous, but the next day the goats ran to the same area and started eating from them again. Kaldi, after seeing that the goats were not ill from the plant, decided to try it himself. That is how Mark Pendergrast tells the tale in Uncommon Grounds. The Ethiopians got creative with how they consumed this energy-giving substance that heightened alertness, a very desirable property, and thus the coffee drink was introduced to the world.
Coffee was first traded to the Arabic people by the Ethiopians. Arab Sufi monks would drink coffee to stay awake for midnight prayers. Coffee was banned more than once in that society in the 1500s, but this did not discourage people from drinking it privately. The business of “coffee growing” got quite political, and because growers tried to keep their sacred plants from being shared, there were coffee beans and trees that were smuggled from one country to another in the 1600s. The beverage was becoming popularized in Europe, and in the early 1600s it was an exotic drink used by the upper class. By the 1650s it was being sold on the streets in what sounds like coffee trucks, offering coffee and other beverages. The first coffee shop to open in Italy was reportedly Caffè Florian in Venice in 1683. This café became a place of “relaxed companionship, animated conversation, and tasty food.”1
The properties of coffee make this beverage magical—I mean, medicinal. I appreciate that reflux can be exacerbated by coffee with relaxation of the lower esophageal sphincter, and that it can keep susceptible people awake at night. However, I would rather focus on its healthy properties. Studies have been done that suggest coffee can lower the risk of cancer of the prostate, liver, endometrium, colon, and mouth.2 It is also recommended for nonalcoholic fatty liver disease because it can possibly decrease fibrosis. Caffeine comprises two to three percent of the coffee content and is present as a salt of chlorogenic acid. Tannin comprises another three to five percent. The antioxidants in coffee fight inflammation, which Rubin and Farber taught me was the basis of disease.
There are 70 species of coffee (Coffea), but the two main ones that are cultivated are Coffea arabica (75 percent) and Coffea canaphora (25 percent), and there are multiple thousands of varieties or varietals. The plant is indigenous to many countries, including Ethiopia, Brazil, Mexico, Guatemala, and Vietnam. I have tried coffee from many countries and a couple of my favorites are Costa Rica and Rwanda. I really like that Rwanda has a large female-run co-op that was started in 2009 when 85 female coffee farmers pooled their resources to form the Gashonga Cooperative (fair trade certified). I first fell in love with the body and flavor of this single-origin coffee at Oak Lawn Coffee Company (sadly, it is now closed), where they served the tasty espresso from a Denver roaster, Commonwealth Coffee Roasters. I even traveled to Denver to get another sip of this juice from the gods only to learn that Commonwealth was one of a handful of similar excellent coffeemakers: Allegro, Sweet Bloom, Little Owl . . . (perhaps just read my blog on that Denver trip at coffeebyangela.com).
To sum it up (I think Allison is knocking on my door), coffee is healthy for most people when consumed in moderation. It contains antioxidants, caffeine, and tannin, among other natural chemicals. It has done more to bring people together in this country than anything I can think of, even music. I believe that it staves off diseases and can even contribute to a longer life.2
Also, I just like it and I think it tastes much better than beer. So, cheers, and I hope we can enjoy a cup together soon!
1. Pendergrast, Mark. Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World. New York: Basic Books, 2010.