Health and Ecological Concerns: Caffeine

Caffeine intake isn’t considered as risky as it once was due to the latest research, yet it certainly amplifies the human stress response!

Maybe someday in the future we will discover that caffeine was the root of all human evil, but studies on the long-term health effects of caffeine have been inconclusive and contradictory as of yet.

It was proven that a rat drinking 12-14 cups a day risked birth defects; a stern warning to all you rats out there!

Caffeine is a strong substance for sure, and if you experience any discomfort from it, the answer is quite intuitive:

  • Drink less coffee!
  • Drink better coffee. Remember, the pre-ground stuff in the can probably contains Robusta beans, which have more caffeine. Also, darker roasts will have a bit less caffeine than light roasts. If you can, use less coffee and grind as fine as possible without clogging the filter. If you use too little, you’ll know by the flavorless, thin-bodied brown water that results.
  • Drink decaf. There are many excellent decafs on the market these days.
  • Drink lo-caf. You can often compensate for decaf’s flavor shortcomings by bolstering it in a blend with a classic, flavorful coffee like a Guatemalen or Costa Rican.
  • If you think the acidity of coffee is bothering you, drink a darker roast.

Caffeine is a stimulant — caffeine stimulates the central nervous system (CNS) by its adenosine antagonist action. Moderate doses usually enhance alertness, concentration and energy. These factors also mean that caffeine can interfere with sleep but as most caffeine is excreted in about two hours, this effect is minimal unless the caffeine is taken too soon before falling asleep. Caffeine also appears to enhance exercise performance, increasing energy, endurance and calorie consumption during exercise.

Caffeine is a diuretic — ingesting caffeine causes an increase in frequency of urinary excretion. Unless extra water is taken in to compensate for the increased volume of urine that is lost, dehydration can occur.

Caffeine is addictive, it’s true– research shows that, although humans seem not to develop tolerance to caffeine (ie do not need more and more, over time, to get the same results, unlike, say, heroin) it does appear that caffeine does cause dependence in humans. This means that the body becomes used to receiving a certain amount of caffeine at regular intervals and temporary effects, such as headache or fatigue, will be apparent each time caffeine is not received when the body expects it. These symptoms are, however, short-lived and usually disappear in several days. Slowly tapering off consumption of caffeine will minimise these effects.

Caffeine does not seem linked to cancer — in fact, a study in 1986 showed that four cups of coffee per day might actually lower the incidence of cancer compared with non-drinkers. Studies showing negative health effects of coffee were performed with rats that consumed more than the human equivalent of 24 cups of coffee per day. I believe almost anything in that sort of excess would prove to be unhealthy. There have been conflicting recent reports about coffee and cholesterol…that unfiltered coffee raises cholesterol. This seems odd for a food with 0 fat.. but there may be other chemical processes at work.


Chemicals and Decaf

Here is the bottom line on the different decaffeinating processes:

Chemical Process -Methylene Chloride (Also called European Process or KVW)

Coffee cuppers will usually pick decafs processed with methelyene chloride as the best in cup quality. Beans are soaked in near boiling water, extracting the flavor oils and caffeine from the coffee. The water is separated into a tank where it is treated with methylene chloride. It bonds to the caffeine and is then easily removed from the flavor oils. The beans are reintroduced, absorbing their long lost flavor.

Why is Methylene Chloride Decaf not as scarey as it sounds?:

  • Methylene Chloride is allowed by the USDA in amounts of 10 PPM (Parts Per Million). The European Union, under whose guidlines the German decafs are performed allows 3 PPM. The coffee tests at LESS THAN 1 PPM …every time.
  • The Methylene Chloride is never absorbed by the bean really. It is a solvent and therfore does not bond with the coffee.
  • Methylene Chloride is highly volatile and completely dissapates at 170 degrees. Coffee is roasted for 15 minutes at 500 degrees and brewed at 200 degrees.
  • Methylene Chloride warnings concern situations and industries where people use the chemical directly, with over 25 PPM direct contact. Yes, it is nasty stuff.
  • I had believed Methylene Chloride use may contribute to the depletion of the ozone layer. It appears to not be true, according to the World Health Organization that states that MC has no environmental impact, outside the chance of a chemical spill. But household bleach would have an impact in a spill too.
  • The fact is, MC is mostly employed under the most stringent environmental stadards in the world when it is done in Germany. We may periodically choose to offer an MC decaf because of its outstanding cup qualitites, but will only offer German-processed ones for this reason. EU standards for non-emmisions including vapour-reclaimation from coffee plants (even for roast smoke) is an assurance that this process is being performed with care.

– Chemical Process- Ethyl Acetate (Also called Natual decaf)

Ethyl Acetate is a naturally occuring organic compund found in some fruits. You may be interested to know that chemical processes are cheaper to the coffee consumer because caffeine is resold to cola manufacturers, diet pills, chocolate products, ice cream treats, etc. It’s very, very valuable stuff! Caffeine is recoverable in the Swiss Water Process too.

– Swiss Water Process

This is an “indirect” decaffeination method, Beans are soaked in near boiling water, extracting the flavor oils and caffeine from the coffee. The water is separated into a tank where it is forced through charcoal filters and generally stirred around in hot water to remove the caffeine. More flavor oils (colloids) are damaged/removed. The beans are then reintorduced to the swill, absorbing their flavor. Since no chemicals are used, there’s nothing to worry about but higher prices and duller coffee. We have had trouble in the past with the cup quality of SWP coffees ; bright, lively coffees especially can end up cupping quite flat. I have worried about flavor contamination between batches too – some origins start having character they shouldn’t and I wonder if there isn’t some “carry-over” between batches at the SWP plant. The Indonesian coffees seem well-suited to SWP processing. We sometimes offer a Sumatra, Sulawesi or an Indonesian Blend of these coffees.

– “Mountain Water Process”

Since late ’02, we have been obtaining water process decaf coffee that is remarkably good quality from a factory in Mexico. The name of the company is Sanroke, and they call their process “Mountain Water Process Decaffeination” (to distinguish it from the “Swiss Water Process”). The water is from the glaciers of the Pico de Orizaba mountain in Mexico. The process they use is the same as described above – using water to float the coffee oils and caffeine in a solution, then filtering the solution to remove caffeine, and returning the water soluble oils to the coffee. The only difference is that the cups are delicious!! The SWP decafs we cupped often were bland and lackluster, whereas the WP decafs we have been stocking taste very close to premium regular coffees. This factory is working on its organic certification, so we hope to so offer the same decafs are certified organic coffees where applicable. You may notice that these new WP decafs dominate our decaf selections – and that is only because they taste so good!

– C02 process

The latest, much hyped decaf process has been disappointing. Some C02’s approach the chemical decafs in cup quality, others are nearer to SWP decafs. In this technique, supercritical carbon dioxide is used in a high pressure, high temperature environment. As I understand it, supercritical CO2acts as the solvent penerating the coffee and extracting the caffeine, so when the coffee returns to normal temperature and pressure, there is no residue once the CO2 floats away.

Caffeine for Sale

Caffeine is a hot commodity, and is added to everything from cake mix to icecream and low grade chocolate. When they decaffeinate coffee, the salvage the caffeine and sell it. It makes for some fascinating (er, scatologically speaking) photographs:

Coffee Growing and the Environment

In general, coffee estates, fincas or plantations are more ecologically sound than newer agribusiness growers. Without advertising it, some varietals are grown without agricultural chemicals by tradition, like Yemen Mocha and some Ethiopian coffees. Distinguish between certified organic coffees and ones that are certified to be free of chemicals. The later does not mean that agricultural chemicals weren’t used by the farm. We find this category perplexing, since the trace allowable amounts of agricultural chemicals that might be found in coffee would be obliterated in the roasting and brewing process anyway.

As far as chemical decaf and ozone depletion, we will let you know what chemical was used in the process of our green beans. A related concern is the use of dioxins and chlorine to bleach paper coffee filters. Natural unbleachied filters impart more paper taste into the coffee, but it is hardly detectable.

Flavored coffees use a unpleasant chempical called Propylene Glycol. Because the flavorings need to adhere tenatiously to the coffee in order to survive grinding and brewing, Propylene Glycol is used to as a bonding agent. While considered food safe, I have seen it eat through the epoxy that holds plexiglas coffee displays together over time. There are further reports that spectral analysis performed on some flavored coffees have shown the presence of other artificial compounds used for flavoring or as a preservative. Remember that the beans being flavored are cheap blends, since their own flavor is insignificant. We suggest that if you want flavor, add a flavored sugar, syrup or cream to the coffee after brewing.

Our Position

Sweet Maria’s will always offer organics, co-op coffees, and natural decafs …but not exclusively. “Doing the right thing” is never an absolute, nor are the terms organic, natural, etc. We think it’s important to offer people a choice. We want to advocate home roasting as a cheap pleasure that anyone can afford, and we simply can’t afford the high cost of many organics. We will always pass on all the information we have about the origins of our coffees. And we’ll never do flavored coffees. Please contact us with your comments, opinions, questions and answers!