Pros and Cons of Caffeine - Is Coffee Good For Us?

It seems that every friendship group has one: a person who is almost righteous in their avoidance of caffeine. If recent statistics are any indicator, it is a trend that is on the rise. A huge 63% of Gen Z say that they do not drink coffee at all, nearly twice the amount of millennial abstainers. 

It appears that a few of us are beginning to lose our taste for coffee, whether it's due to health concerns, environmental issues, or ethical considerations. However, it's unclear why coffee is receiving such negative attention, and it's hard to know whose advice to follow. 

In this article, we will explore the pros and cons of caffeine and whether we should be reducing or -as evidence is quickly mounting to the opposite of popular thought- actually increasing our intake.

What are the pros and cons of caffeine?

Coffee is made up of over 1,000 bioactive compounds as well as caffeine, and we are only just now beginning to understand the effect they all have on the body.

The most attention-grabbing headline recently has to be that coffee drinkers are at a lower risk of early death - definitely not something that we should take lightly. 

The study involved a large group of people: 170,000 participants with an age range of 37 to 73 years. It was conducted over several years to obtain comprehensive insights into lifestyle variations. Among the various statistics collected from this groundbreaking research, it was discovered that individuals who consumed coffee (without overindulging) were up to 30% less likely to die early than those who did not consume coffee at all.

How much coffee is too much?

How much coffee is the right amount? What is considered excessive consumption? There are many memes about excessive caffeine consumption, but apparently, the sweet spot for experiencing the benefits is somewhere between 1.5 to 3.5 cups of coffee (which is around 400mg of caffeine for those who are interested in the technical details).

So, are there any health benefits to drinking coffee?

As well as containing antioxidants and riboflavin - which are essential for maintaining good health - there have been multiple studies working towards proving that, in direct argument to the oft-quoted statement that we should all be cutting down, coffee can actually be good for you. These findings include:

  • Some of the chemicals that make up coffee have been shown to improve insulin sensitivity, which can lower your chances of developing type 2 diabetes.
  • Can prevent long-term (or chronic) inflammation, a state that can contribute to developing cancer.
  • Coffee drinkers are less likely to die from strokes or coronary heart disease.
  • Can reduce risk of womb cancer, liver cancer, colorectal cancer- but only in caffeinated coffee - as well as some melanomas.
  • Lower risk of Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and other neurological diseases, as well as supporting your general brain health. 
  • May help with boosting your metabolism and fat burning, although further studies are needed.

The idea that the alertness caffeine affords you is purely a placebo has also been effectively debunked as of 2018. Of course, as with any study, this research is reliant on how people choose to consume their daily jolt of coffee. A venti caramel macchiato with extra syrup and whipped cream will not be as good for you as a drip filter americano served black.  

As a side note, very hot drinks have been linked to oesophagal cancer, so asking for that extra hot latte -anything above 65°C- will not only annoy your barista (‘extra hot’ means going to a temperature that burns the milk, effectively ruining the drink. It is this which makes espresso based coffees taste extra bitter), but could also be detrimental to your health. 

Milk-based espresso drinks, such as cappuccinos, lattes and flat whites are not supposed to be as hot as the instant coffee you drink at home. Think of it as a different drink entirely, rather than a variation of the one you are used to - the differentiation might even keep you healthy!

Caffeine is not for everyone

The main problem people have with coffee consumption is the negative side effects of its best-known component - caffeine. And those of you supping down tea and matcha lattes instead, I have news for you: they contain just as much, and in some cases much more caffeine than your average latte

Excess caffeine in your system can lead to unwanted side effects, including a racing heart, high blood pressure, dizziness and headaches (possibly from dehydration), irritability and restlessness. 

It’s these side effects that are the first thing to make people side-step coffee altogether, which is understandable, as they can range from uncomfortable to debilitating. Add into the mix pregnancy, pre-existing health conditions, and caffeine interacting with certain medications, and it’s not hard to see why some people avoid coffee for the caffeine alone.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a set guideline for when these symptoms will appear; the effect that one cappuccino has on you may be very different to how it affects your friend. This is down to personal sensitivity levels with caffeine, as well as other outside factors, such as body weight, if the person has eaten recently, their anxiety levels, and the strength of the coffee itself. 

This is not to mention how it was brewed, and if it is mixed with milk, water or taken straight. This very fact makes research hard to thoroughly and accurately quantify - but with studies including such a large amount of data and people, with multitudes of variables, it is the best we can hope for when it comes to lifestyle choices such as caffeine intake, and their effects on our health.

So is decaf coffee bad for me or not?

So you’ve decided that you want all of the benefits that coffee has to offer you, but not the jitters that come with a high caffeine intake. You start exploring decaf options - only to find all of the horror stories that decaf is not only bad for you, but that some research has shown that it may even promote cancer growth. While the verdict is still out on this, it is worth noting that the claims are not down to the beans themselves, but rather the method by which the caffeine is removed.

Caffeine is water soluble, making it relatively easy to remove. With the sheer quantity of decaf coffee needed, however, many companies rely on chemicals to do it quicker and more efficiently, and unfortunately, the agents used can be solvent-based. 

The two main types are Ethyl Acetate and Methylene Chloride. Ethyl Acetate is derived from fruit, and can sometimes leave a fruity aftertaste - not necessarily bad, but maybe not something you want in a coffee. This alone does not have negative effects on humans but can be dangerous when it is fabricated with chemicals. 

Methylene chloride however is fairly contentious, and worryingly prevalent in coffee shop decaf. The agent is added to water that the beans are soaked in to speed up the process. The issue comes from ongoing research into claims that methylene chloride slows down the central nervous system, affects hand-to-eye coordination, or outright causes cancer. It is therefore banned in some countries. 

But there is a healthy alternative! Swiss Water Process uses only water and charcoal to decaffeinate their beans, with no solvents being added at all. It gets a bit science-technical, and as it is more time-consuming than other processes, it can be more expensive. But if health benefits are something you are after, these healthy decaffeinated coffee beans are unquestionably the right choice for you.  

In order for coffee to be classified as decaffeinated, the coffee beans must have a caffeine content of between 0.2-5mg per serving, although the regulations differ from country to country. It is important to note that different coffee beans contain varying levels of caffeine; robusta beans, for example, contain more caffeine than other types of coffee beans, and black coffee is generally stronger than coffee that has a lot of milk added to it. If you are trying to reduce your caffeine intake, it's something to keep in mind.

The matter of sleep

Coffee as a beverage began its life as an aid to avoid sleep, as did tea, and it seems we have been trying to catch up ever since. As nearly 90% of the human population have at least tried coffee, it is the most used psychoactive drug on the planet. But is it preventing us from getting a good night's sleep?

As with any study into lifestyle choices, it is worth mentioning that poor sleep quality is endemic, to the point that we don’t even really know when we aren’t getting enough. While it may be easier to write it off as down to caffeine consumption, sleep can be affected by so many other factors, including light and sound pollution, personal stresses, alcohol, and our inability to take our eyes off our screens for the majority of the day. 

Caffeine consumption can impact your sleep if taken too late in the day, in quality as well as quantity. Waking up repeatedly (even if just for a minute or so) is not normal, and means you are not getting good quality sleep, even if you get in a full eight hours. Insufficient sleep can also all but undo all of the positive effects drinking coffee can have on your health. Lack of sleep has been linked to the development of strokes, heart failure, obesity, Alzheimer’s, and higher levels of depression.

This then can be exacerbated when you start needing caffeine to make up for lost sleep, which prevents you from getting to sleep later in the day. This can quickly become a vicious cycle of sleep deprivation, and a debt that’s never paid forward. 

If sleep is something you struggle with, it is worth cutting down on the caffeine for a bit, and looking at the other factors that could be impacting your nighttimes. 

Other considerations for coffee consumption

Coffee is one of the most commonly traded commodities in the world, so it is not just our bodies that it affects. The vast quantities required to meet demand and the sheer workforce needed to farm it can lead to questions about work environments, ethical practices, and what impact large scale farming has on the planet.

How ethical is your coffee?

The third wave coffee movement has done much to help improve the quality of the coffee industry, not just for us as consumers (thank you for the flat white and aeropress!), but also for the lives of the workers all along the supply chain. By its very essence, single origin coffee allows us to know exactly what we are drinking, and who grew it. This helps us to make informed choices about what we consume, and the ethical implications of our actions. 

Taking a moment to question where your coffee comes from is a small action that, if all of us commit to doing it, can absolutely transform the industry and lives of those who work in coffee for the better.

And what about the environment?

When it comes to changing our coffee habits for climate change, it may actually be the other way round: climate change is affecting our coffee drinking habits. Even the hardier varieties of coffee are suffering under rising temperatures, and the fluctuations in seasons are playing havoc with the crop too. The current outlook is that the aptly named ‘bean belt’ may shrink by as much as 50% by 2050. This will naturally push up prices as demand has to be met, likely making the less ethical, cheaper variations seem all the more appealing.

It’s not all bad news, however. With the knowledge of what is happening, smallholding farmers, owners, growers and roasters are actively pursuing ways to work around this, leading to new innovations in how we can do things in a greener way.  So how can you help out? Simply put, buy from these sustainability focused brands! Don’t succumb to the promises of lesser brands with ambiguous claims and greenwashing.

When sourcing ethical and sustainable coffee, look out for brands that are certified by Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance, Direct Trade, and those who make claims to be Carbon Neutral and Zero to Landfill. The last one is less about the grower and more about the middleman that gets the coffee to you - maybe the roaster, maybe the vendor - but it means that they have done everything they can to ensure that their processes create as little waste as possible, both physically and in terms as energy, and have also done what they can to offset that which cannot be helped.

Final thoughts

Coffee is, of course, a personal choice, and whether (or how) you decide to consume it has to be a personal choice taken for reasons that suit you and your body. If you are highly sensitive to caffeine or react negatively to coffee, then by all means stick to another drink. 

However you decide you take your coffee, always make sure that you get the best quality that you can afford to, to make sure that it is fresh and full of the health-giving benefits that only coffee can bring. Finally, always question a retailer about where they get their beans from, and if they are ethically and sustainably sourced. 

Here at The Coffee Bean Shop, we physically visit each of the coffee farms we source their coffee from, to ensure that the coffee farmers and workers are treated fairly and earn a proper wage for their work.

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