Coffee: Healthy Treat or Dangerous Indulgence?
Coffee isn’t a drink; it’s a lifestyle. Three-quarters of Americans drink coffee every single day. Americans are, in fact, the leading coffee consumers across the globe, with annual retail sales in 2016 estimated at 5.17 billion dollars (Statista, 2017). American millennials are into having out-of-home, premium coffee, in response to which coffee chains and restaurants are fast expanding their menus.
Coffee fuels some people to stay awake and function throughout the day and helps others to relax and unwind at its end. Whether you are a caffeine junkie, like most Americans, or someone who prefers not to rely on it at all, you will find a great wealth of information to validate both points of view.
For American Muslims, who fast during the day during the month of Ramadan, it’s not uncommon to see coffee lovers indulge in a few sips, as soon as the fast ends. In Coffee, The Power Drink of the Pious, Naeem Ali, a blogger from Canada, relays the history of coffee beans originating in Ethiopia, then as a drink in Yemen—centuries before the fascination spread to the rest of the world. “For the pious Muslim over eight hundred years ago the night could not begin without a freshly brewed cup of coffee,” he writes. “Coffee was the power drink of the pious. For the first 300 years after it was discovered, coffee was closely associated with Muslims…Believers consumed coffee to stay awake during the night in contemplation of Allah.” Indeed, the potent caffeine stimulant attracted legions of devotees as it does today. And for this reason, there was controversy surrounding coffee consumption, particularly with those who worried it may be a bit too potent and addictive. During this time, as Ali points out, “A concerted effort was made to declare coffee a forbidden intoxicant.” Eventually, religious scholars came to the realization that unlike alcohol, coffee is not derived from fermented fruit and doesn’t fit the Islamic definition of an intoxicant.
It did not remain the drink of the pious for long. Renowned poet Mahmoud Darwish celebrates his daily coffee as an irreplaceable moment in time: “Coffee should not be drunk in a hurry,” he writes. “It is the sister of time, and should be sipped slowly, slowly. Coffee is the sound of taste, the sound for the aroma. It is a meditation and a plunge into memories and the soul”—words that resonate well with coffee lovers.
People who aren’t lovers of coffee can, on the other hand, relate to The Women’s Petition Against Coffee in 1674— around the time when coffee was first introduced in England: “Coffee leads men to trifle away their time, scald their chops, and spend their money, all for a little base, black, thick, nasty, bitter, stinking, nauseous puddle of water” offensive words to the ears of coffee devotees.
Exactly where and when coffee was first cultivated is not known. Some historians believe that it was first grown in Arabia near the Red Sea around the year 675. Others say that coffee was discovered in Ethiopia around the year 900. Still others say that around the year 575, Arab traders took it to the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, where the cultivation of coffee flourished. From the Arabs, it is believed to have gone to the Turks. The world’s first coffee shop, Kiva Han, is believed to have opened in Constantinople in 1475. It was introduced into Europe in the early 1600s. The Christian church denounced coffee as “the hellish black brew,” until Pope Clement VIII baptized it. In 1670, Dorothy Jones of Boston became the first licensed American coffee trader. Nearly a century later, Thomas Jefferson described coffee as “the favorite drink of the civilized world.”
Today, there is no industrial city, town, or suburban community without coffee shops. Coffee and coffee-flavored products fill shelves everywhere, ranging from plain black coffee, flavored coffee, tiramisu, coffee jelly, coffee flavored ice cream, to coffee marinated meat. Do you know that a person who actually makes the coffee in a café or restaurant is called a barista, and that the two main species of coffee plants are Arabica (difficult to grow and expensive) and Robusta (hardier and cheaper)?
Up until a few years ago, study after study indicated that coffee was all around bad for us. Recent research shows otherwise. A study published in January 2017, titled Coffee Intake Is Associated with a Lower Liver Stiffness in Patients with Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease, Hepatitis C, and Hepatitis B by Alexander Hodge et al. indicates that, “Coffee consumption, not tea, was associated with lower liver stiffness, non-invasive marker of liver fibrosis. [The] study adds to the growing evidence that coffee consumption has a beneficial effect in a variety of liver diseases.”
In defending coffee’s case, the Mayo clinic’s website states that earlier studies didn’t always take into account other high-risk behaviors, such as smoking and physical inactivity, which tended to be more common among heavy coffee drinkers. Studies now show that coffee protects against Parkinson’s disease, liver diseases, and type 2 diabetes. Coffee also appears to improve cognitive function and decrease the risk of depression. The website, does however, correlate high consumption of unfiltered coffee (boiled or espresso) with mild elevations in cholesterol levels. Another risk factor is a specific, yet common, genetic mutation that slows down the breakdown of caffeine in the human body. Those with it are at a higher risk of heart disease if they consume more than two cups of coffee a day.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) states that hot beverages, even hot water, above 149 F (65 C) are “probably carcinogenic to humans,” as they damage esophagus cells. It’s good to know that the actual drinking temperature in the US is typically lower than 149 F.
In a 2011 study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, researcher Kathryn M. Wilson, found that the non-caffeine components of coffee had a “Strong inverse association between coffee consumption and risk of lethal prostate cancer.” The key word here being “inverse,” meaning that coffee consumption produced a reduced risk of developing cancer. Another key phrase is “non-caffeine components.” Although most people know that coffee contains the caffeine stimulant, many do not know that it’s a compound mixture that also contains potassium, magnesium, proteins, carbohydrates, lipids, and antioxidants. Decaf thus has the same benefits sans the caffeine.
It’s hard to blame obesity on coffee since an eight-ounce cup of black coffee accounts for less than three calories and zero fat. While you can’t break the calorie bank on coffee, the problem only arises when you consume multiple cups with added flavor, sugar, cream, etc. In this case, the single serving of coffee becomes more of a weighty dessert. A report in the “Eat This, Not That” newsletter titled, “How Your Coffee is Making You Fat,” indicates that flavored creamers in coffee account for 140 calories, 6 grams of fat, and 24 grams of sugar per 8-ounce serving. The report further indicates that a “single cup of coffee with ¼ cup of creamer equals an additional 15 pounds a year on your derriere.” The report suggests to replace non-dairy creamers, which contain trans-fat, sugar, soybean oil, corn syrup, and carrageenan stabilizer, with a splash of milk, agave syrup, maple syrup, honey, or other natural flavors such as vanilla or almond extracts.
In The Big Five: Five Simple Things You Can Do to Live a Longer, Healthier Life, Dr. Sanjiv Chopra champions the habit of drinking a cup of coffee every day, but maintains that drinking more than two cups per day may lead to addiction. He writes, “Once you start drinking coffee and your system gets used to it, it’s very difficult to stop drinking it—and if you do, sometimes even for a day, the physical repercussions of withdrawal can include headaches and nausea. It can make you feel unusually tired and even depressed.” He further adds that, “Those people who drink more coffee than their system can easily tolerate may become overstimulated; too much caffeine can cause nervousness, a rapid heartbeat, excitability, insomnia, and worsening heart burn.”
If you are still wondering about whether it’s okay to drink that second, third, or fourth cup of coffee for the day, remember to know your body, listen to it, and as with most indulgences in life, know when to stop. As for the Islamic determination, we can all rest assured that while coffee may not be the ideal source of strength and stamina, it is nonetheless a much more benign, modern day vice, when there are other more harmful and non-permissible addictions available. Moderation is the key to good health. The Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) said, “Always adopt a middle, moderate, regular course, whereby you will reach your target” (Sahih Al-Bukhari, Volume 8, Hadith 470).
Asma Jarad is a writer and editor. She holds a Master of Arts degree in English Language and Literature from National University, and a Bachelor of Arts degree in Liberal Studies from the University of Illinois.