By Jody McCutcheon
Coffee is your day-starter, your morning thunder. And when I say your, I mean our. Nearly ubiquitous, coffee is the world’s second most-tradable commodity, after oil. Most of us can’t go a morning without a cup.
But is this traditional morning pick-me-up actually bringing us down? Does coffee have detrimental effects on human health and, more important, on the environment? Eluxe investigates the health effects of coffee.
Coffee and Your Health
Coffee’s main active ingredient is, of course, the stimulant caffeine, a noted, fast-acting, headache reliever. Over the years, research has indicated that moderate coffee consumption offers the general population several mildly beneficial effects. Studies have linked coffee consumption to lowered risks for many conditions, including dementia, heart disease, diabetes mellitus type 2, liver cancer, cirrhosis and gout.
Coffee’s benefits stem from more than just caffeine content. Decaffeinated coffee can help prevent prostate cancer, and coffee’s antioxidants—stronger in roasted than green coffee—help prevent free radicals from damaging the body’s cells, and guess what? As a result of this, your morning cuppa can actually be good for your skin! This is not only because it protects it from the free radicals that result in wrinkles, but also because coffee can lend your skin some protection from the sun’s damage: apparently coffee drinkers have lower chances of developing skin cancer than those who don’t indulge.
Of course we should all know by now that more than two strong coffees a day may exacerbate pre-existing problems like anxiety, migraine and arrhythmia. It can also disturb sleep patterns and lead to caffeine dependency; chronic-user withdrawal may include headaches, increased depression, anxiety or fatigue. Coffee consumption can also interfere with ferritin and iron absorption, potentially leading to iron-deficiency anaemia and other health problems, especially in women. Fetuses are sensitive to caffeine and metabolise it very slowly, thus pregnant woman should limit their cuppas.
Though the health rewards of coffee are, on the whole, generally stronger than health concerns, a relatively new type of caffeine-delivery system adds a bit of worry. Single-serve brews are individual servings brewed in a plastic pouch or aluminium pod by a special machine. Essentially, hot water is flushed through the pouch or pod to produce the coffee; but there is a concern that styrene and other toxins are leached from plastic pouches in particular into the water. Long-term exposure to styrene can cause fatigue, anxiety, difficulty sleeping, low-platelet counts and chromosomal and lymphatic abnormalities. But these new pod systems are hurting the health of the planet, too.
Invasion of the Pod Polluters
Single-serve brews have become all the rage. While aficionados may prefer traditional coffee’s perkier flavour, single-serve is ultra-convenient and trumpeted as an energy-efficient solution to wasted coffee. Yet any claims by Nespresso et al. that their products are clean and green belie the fact that the coffee pods, made of plastic or aluminum (in some cases both), often aren’t recyclable. Or if they are, facilities don’t exist. Or if facilities exist, systemic inefficiencies sabotage any significant recycling attempts. So these pods essentially are pre-fab trash.
They may seem tiny, but they add up: if a third of the US population of 316 million drinks single-serve brews, that’s 100 million pods a day, 36.5 billion a year. Each weighs roughly 12 grams, which computes to about 977 million pounds of waste—almost a billion pounds—per year from coffee pods alone, clogging landfills just in the US. Oh, and did we mention that the plastic pods are linked to chronic health problems?
It’s not worth the convenience. We need to grasp the logic that informed, disciplined decisions favouring environmental responsibility always—ALWAYS—trump convenience.
Trouble Brewing: Coffee and the Environment
This is true in how coffee is cultivated, too.
Historically, coffee has been cultivated by the shade-grown method. A lush tree canopy not only enables the growth of coffee crops, but also provides habitation for many diverse species of flora, fauna and insects, preserves topsoil from erosion and nurtures a thriving ecosystem with its own built-in pest-control systems, thus rendering chemical pesticides unnecessary.
In the 1970s, many coffee farmers switched to sun cultivation, and the higher-yield monocrop unleashed environmental havoc. First and foremost, eliminating the tree canopies decimated habitats and food sources for multitudes of species, forcing them to die out or migrate. How lush are shade-grown coffee plantations, biotically? One study suggests arthropod diversity alone—wasps, beetles, spiders, ants—found on a single tree species in shade-grown coffee plantations approximates that found under similar conditions in undisturbed tropical forest.
But sun-cultivation means mass deforestation. Thirty-seven of the world’s fifty most-deforested countries are major coffee producers. To date, more than 2.5 million acres of Central American forest have been sacrificed to coffee farms–mainly to feed demand by large corporate coffee brands like Nescafe. The loss of biodiversity is just one indication of unsustainability: deforestation contributes twofold to global warming, by releasing carbon stores and by eliminating a vital source of carbon absorption, the trees themselves.
Sun-cultivation also means more agrochemical pollution, as the natural pest-control systems of shade-cultivation are destroyed. Simply put, sun-cultivation requires more chemical input to succeed. Toxic pesticides like DDT, benzine hexachloride, chlordane and endosulfan have been detected in green coffee beans. Furthermore, sun-cultivation relies on nitrogen fertilizers, which can contribute to nitrate contamination of local aquifers, harming the health of local people and even causing cancer.
This method of farming also leads to higher soil erosion rates, and mitigates the soil’s ability to recycle nitrogen, especially in high-rainfall areas, where sun-cultivation causes the loss of almost three times more soil nitrogen than does shade-cultivation.
You can certainly still enjoy your morning Joe guilt free. Here’s how:
- Be sure your coffee is ethical. Organic-certified coffee is best. It’s usually shade-grown, with all the natural benefits. Good crop rotation helps prevent soil erosion and depletion of soil nutrients while controlling for pests. All fertiliser is one hundred percent organic, like manure, compost and—surprise—coffee grounds (an ideal compost or mulch material).
- Look for Rainforest Alliance certification on the packet, which identifies brands concerned with conservation and sustainability. In general, big brands like Nescafe are more suspect: the larger the company, the more decentralisation and thus difficulty in monitoring the goings-on at all stages of production. Buy small, benefit big!
- Once you have the beans you want, brew them in your own French press or espresso maker. Avoid those pods at all costs–they’re the very definition of useless waste!
- If you’re off to Starbucks or another cafe chain, make sure you ask for the Fairtrade or organic blend (most have at least one), and if you’re staying in the shop, ask them not to give you a paper cup! Whenever possible, drink from your own reusable cup. It’s a little more do-it-yourself, a little less convenient, but it’s the best way to enjoy a brew of environmentally responsible morning thunder.