Toning Down the Buzz

A person growing up in America has likely known of coffee’s existence their whole life. “I’m not a real person until I’ve had my coffee,” a child may overhear an adult say at some point.

That child will then enter adolescence and perhaps end up spending their days at the mall, inevitably stumbling into one of Starbucks’ 11,000 locations. They might order a Caramel Frappuccino–the kind of drink that’s more like a dessert than a coffee. Little do they know that a Frappuccino is the marijuana cigarette of the caffeine world–a gateway drink that usually leads to harder, more caffeinated beverages.

Their school will start pumping out more work than they can handle in one day, and before they know it, they’ll be downing triple espressos twice a day just to get through finals week.

Within the US, “regular” coffee consumption (such as the ground coffee that is sold at supermarkets) has gone down but specialty coffee (such as Starbucks) has increased tremendously over the years.

Although ground coffee is, and has always been, cheaper than specialty coffee, consumers in the 1960s and 1970s felt the option was close to tasteless. In response, smaller roasting companies began producing specialty coffees that were richer in flavor. So, consumers didn’t mind doling out an extra dollar or two to buy the tastier option.

Today, about 70 percent of coffee beans sold around the world come from Coffea arabica plants. As with many crops that are grown extensively to meet their demand, environmental impact is a concern.

Coffee is typically grown in tropical and subtropical areas at high elevations. Sun-cultivated coffee, along with the use of fertilizers, results in the highest yield of beans. However, this method limits the diversity of plants in the area, which in turn affects the variety of insects and animals that use these plants to survive. Sun cultivation also contributes to deforestation of any region that decides to grow coffee, once again putting the biodiversity of the area at stake.

Photo courtesy of trophygeek.

So should we be recommending a lower consumption of coffee to the public? Ted Fischer, professor of Anthropology and Director of the Institute of Coffee Studies at Vanderbilt University, says no.

“Coffee growers probably do need to be more careful about their pesticide and fungicide regimes,” Fischer tells BTR, “but it is not like African Palm or cattle grazing or some of the really awful environmental impacts.”

Fischer also shares that good coffee is generally “shade grown” and since these plants are bushes and trees, they aid against erosion. If anything, coffee growers should be more concerned about the fact that within the next century, Coffea arabica plants may not be able to produce the same amount of product due to climate change.

According to computer models used to forecast how wild Arabica would fare under three different carbon emission scenarios, the team found that in the best-case scenario, yields of the beans would see reductions of 65 percent by the year 2080. If global warming continues at the same pace it currently holds, however, wild Arabica may essentially reach near-extinction levels, with a reduction of 99.7 percent at 2080.

Ironically enough, coffee may be causing its own demise with the massive popularity of the single-serving coffee pod. Even the inventor of the popular Keurig K-cup told The Atlantic that he regrets ever making the non-recyclable, non-biodegradable product that are piling up in landfills.

With 82 percent of coffee-lovers nationwide admitting to drinking the caffeinated beverage daily, it doesn’t look like the coffee phenomenon is anywhere close to slowing down. In fact, with news stories floating around raving about coffee’s potential health benefits, consumption statistics are bound to rise within the next few years.

As Fischer relays, the latest Food and Drug Administration guidelines permit drinking up to five cups of coffee per day. He also adds that substances in coffee fight various cancers, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s, and the latest meta-study shows that drinking coffee is negatively correlated with all-cause mortality.

Fischer admits though, that while coffee on its own is good for you, anything you add to it (such as milk or sugar) may have detrimental effects. Unfortunately, that means that black coffee is much healthier for you than, for example, the average American woman’s drink of choice: the latte. It also means that when the FDA allows five cups of coffee, they really mean black coffee, although some Americans may believe the guideline applies to espresso drinks as well.

When asked if perhaps the FDA and the media in general should be glorifying different solutions to being tired, such as napping more often, Fischer doesn’t necessarily think that will keep certain consumers from abusing caffeine.

“Like anything, coffee, and caffeine in other forms like energy drinks, can be overused. But most of the time the problem really isn’t the coffee but the job or circumstances creating stress and requiring extraordinary hours,” Fischer says.

According to a report by Gallup in 2014, 40 percent of Americans who work full time say they clock the standard 40 hours a week. Another 50 percent however, say they work more than that. Research has also shown that even when American workers are off the clock, they are staying connected to the job through email and other mobile devices, a habit that may be detrimental to their health.

Considering this information, it may be more accurate to say that Americans are not necessarily addicted to coffee, but instead are addicted to the idea of productivity.

As Fischer puts it, “[Coffee] has become a symbol of sober-minded focus and conviviality. The idea of coffee may be as important as its pharmacological properties.”

Instead of trying to slow down the American worker’s consumption of coffee, maybe society should focus on creating a work environment that supports a healthy balance between work and home, as well as drawing a clear line between being efficient on caffeine and abusing it.