Posted by Donna Hargrove, D.O., FACOG – Nutritional Editor

Nutrition Factoids

Is coffee the biggest vice or best health advice?  Few food substances have been studied more than coffee. Since Americans consume so much of it, the latest research regarding it’s affects on your health is helpful to know. But before we take a look at the latest research, there are some interesting factoids about coffee and its rather colorful history.

A coffee bean is the seed of the coffee plant (the pit inside the red or purple fruit often referred to as a cherry). Even though they are seeds, they are referred to as ‘beans’ because of their resemblance. The fruits, coffee cherries or coffee berries, most commonly contain two stones with their flat sides together. In a crop of coffee, a small percentage of cherries contain a single bean, instead of the usual two. This is called a peaberry. Coffee beans consist mostly of endosperm that contains 0.8 – 2.5 % caffeine, which is one of the main reasons the plants are cultivated. As coffee is one of the world’s most widely consumed beverage, coffee beans are a major cash crop, and an important export product for some countries. It is considered a regularly consumed beverage in the United States – as popular as soft drinks and even water – and because of the volume consumed, it is here that coffee is highest in demand.

The following partial excerpt from E-How gives us some history of the Coffee Bean.

Coffee tree with beans

Wild coffee beans are believed to have been discovered in about A.D. 600 by an Ethiopian shepherd whose goats were keeping him up at nights after eating red coffee berries. After realizing that the beans had the same effect on him, the resourceful shepherd told the abbot at a nearby monastery about the beans, which were then brewed by the monks into a hot drink that kept them awake for long hours of prayer. By A.D. 1000, most experts say the coffee drink grew in popularity in East Africa and then migrated with the slave trade to Yemen. The magical drink was first enjoyed by clerics there, and the world’s first coffee fields were cultivated in Yemen in the 1300s. From the 13th to the 15th century, Mecca became dotted with coffee houses, an important place for people to gather, discuss the issues of the day, and drink their hot coffee. The Arab region controlled the coffee industry for several centuries and exported only roasted, “infertile” beans to trading partners in Europe and Asia, who couldn’t grow their own crops.

But an Indian pilgrim broke Arabia’s hold on coffee by smuggling either fertile beans or a coffee plant back to India, starting an explosion of coffee growing elsewhere. In the 1600s, the Dutch also got their hands on a coffee plant and began growing coffee in their Southeast Asian colonies. This chain of events meant that Europe had a direct source for its coffee. Once coffee was introduced in Europe, the more tropical of the European empires were used to produce coffee, which explains why coffee is grown today in places like Hawaii, Jamaica and Brazil.

There are two commonly grown types of coffee beans: robusta and Arabica. Robusta is more bitter than Arabica and has less flavor but is cheaper to grow. About three-quarters of coffee cultivated in the world is Arabica. The coffee bean is actually found inside an edible berry that grows on a small evergreen bush, and the coffee plant generally takes seven years to mature. Most of the world’s coffee beans are cultivated in Latin America, Southeast Asia and Africa. Coffee blends got their names from the ports that exported beans, which explains names like Java and Mocha.

Coffee has played an important role in history and culture. It was first used in religious ceremonies in both Africa and Yemen, but its consumption was banned by the Ethiopian Church and later by the Ottoman Empire in Turkey in the 1600s. Today, coffee is the national drink of Ethiopia. When coffee made its way to Italy, it was “baptized” by Pope Clement VIII in 1600, in spite of appeals by some in Europe to ban the Muslim drink. Many Europeans believed that coffee had medicinal qualities as an aide for stomach ailments, helping to clear the lungs and relieving headaches. In England in 1674, however, a “Women’s Petition Against Coffee” declared it to be an “abominable, heathenish liquor.” Because coffee houses were sometimes a hotbed for seditious activity and organizing, coffee was banned sporadically from time to time in Europe during the 1600s and 1700s. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints claimed that coffee is physically and spiritually unhealthy. The Mormon doctrine of health by founder Joseph Smith includes the statement that “hot drinks are not for the belly,” leading to the church’s interpretation that both coffee and tea are forbidden drinks.

Today, coffee is an important commodity and the industry is the main source of income for 25 million farmers. In 2005, coffee was the world’s seventh largest agricultural export in terms of value. Not surprisingly, the biggest importers of coffee are the United States and Germany.

One of the most popular misconceptions about coffee is that it leads to health problems. Instead, recent studies about coffee have led to a shift in beliefs about coffee and health. Some studies have shown that coffee, taken in moderation, does not normally lead to dehydration, and other studies have shown that consuming a moderate amount of coffee (about two cups a day) does not lead to an increase in blood pressure. For some people, the acids in coffee can irritate the stomach. It’s also a misconception that oily coffee beans are better than dull beans. Oily coffee beans are usually a sign of over-roasting. In addition, a darker coffee bean doesn’t necessarily mean the coffee is better. It often means, again, that the coffee was over-roasted. Another misconception about coffee is that espresso has more caffeine than a regular coffee. In fact, it has less caffeine.

What does current research suggest as health benefits?

Emerging evidence suggests that higher coffee consumption (3-5 cups per day) may reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, as much as 35%, regardless of sex, weight or geographic location. According to Frank Hu, MD, MPH, PhD, nutrition and epidemiology professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, the data on coffee and type 2 diabetes is pretty solid based in more than 15 published studies (1). What is it that coffee contains that gives it a healthy side? Coffee is known to have strong antioxidant properties (which prevents cell damage), along with magnesium and chromium, which help the body use the hormone insulin (controls blood sugar) (3). Some studies have looked to isolate the chemical compound in coffee that may be responsible, but so far it looks like it is the total package that results in the positive effects (1).

Coffee has also been associated with a decreased risk of stroke (5), Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s and dementia (2), along with decreases in cardiovascular disease (3) and cancers from liver, colon, prostate, breast and rectal (4). Some of this affect seems to be related to the caffeine but not all, and exactly how it works is not known.

Calorie wise, coffee is a bargain with only 7 calories per 6 oz cup – if you drink it black. The problem comes in the trimmings. Half and half, 40 calories for 2 tablespoons, a teaspoon of sugar – 23 calories, 2 tablespoons of a “non fat” nondairy creamer – 50 calories. “I would never use 2 tablespoons of creamer in a cup of coffee” you say.  Really? Who measures since most people just pour. And most coffee cups are 12 oz and not 6, so you need more of everything if you are looking to sweeten and whiten.

Is there a bad side of coffee? Coffee contains acids that can cause heartburn and may increase risks for stomach ulcers. Coffee is a stimulant which can interfere with sleep patterns, make people jittery and irritable and may cause irregular heart rhythms in some people. However, coffee consumption is not associated with an increase in mortality from any cause (6). So unless you have been told to avoid caffeine and coffee in particular, go ahead and enjoy your java.


For all you’ll need to know about the storage of coffee beans, ground coffee, or other great information go to using this link.


(1)     Rob M. van Dam, PhD, Frank B. Hu, MD, PhD. Coffee Consumption and Risk of Type 2 Diabetes. JAMA.2005;294(1):97-104.

(2)     Marjo H. Eskelinen, et al. Midlife Coffee Drinking and the Risk of Late-Life Dementia. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.2009.Vol 16:1:85-90.

(3)     Lene Frost Anderson, et al. Consumption of Coffee is Associated with Reduced Risk of Death Attributed to Inflammatory and Cardiovascular Diseases in the Iowa Women’s Health Study. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Vol 83, No. 5, 1039-1046, May 2006.

(4)     Helena Jernstrom. Coffee Consumption and CYP1A2*1F Genotype Modify Age at Breast Cancer Diagnosis and Estrogen Receptor Status. Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers and Prevention 2008;17(4):895-901.

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