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Coffee: Health Hero or Villain?

written by

Susan Blasko

posted on

May 13, 2024

Wine has about 400 flavor notes. Coffee has over a thousand.

This is just one of the many facts I learned from a coffee roaster I once knew.

Articles about coffee contain conflicting information. One article recounts the many health detriments, blaming coffee for everything from digestive upsets to declining memory to accelerated aging to mood changes and hormonal imbalances. 

Yet another article extolls its virtues — aids digestion, detoxifies, keeps one alert, uplifts mood, improves memory, boosts immune function, and slows visible aging. 

Each article is accompanied by numerous footnotes referencing studies to support their position. 

So which is correct? 

Erring on the side of caution, I used to recommend avoiding coffee. Now I say enjoy it, but know your roaster. 

If it meets certain criteria, coffee is a superfood. To find a good coffee, here are a few questions to ask your local roaster:

Question: How often do you buy coffee beans?

Desirable answer: Every six months or less.

Rationale: To maintain valuable nutrients and prevent oxidation, coffee beans must be roasted within six months of picking.

Question: Are your coffee beans hand-picked?

Desirable answer: Yes.

Rationale: Most mass-produced coffee is machine picked. The machine is indiscriminate, picking ripe berries as well as ones that haven’t ripened. Coffee berries ripen at different rates on the same plant. Only the ripe ones should be picked, leaving the unripe ones for another day. This is important because the immature coffee bean inside the berry imparts an unpleasant flavor, and has a negative effect on digestion.

Question: Do you use arabica or robusta beans?

Desirable answer: Arabica.

Rationale: Arabica beans grow at high altitudes, in the shade, near the equator. They develop more complex flavors and are more expensive to produce. Flavors are borrowed from the trees and plants that provide their shade, as well as minerals in the soil where they’re grown. For example, coffee grown near cocoa plants or vanilla plants will have chocolate or vanilla flavor notes. Coffee grown among citrus plants will pick up citrus flavor notes. Coffee grown next to cinnamon or cardamom plants will absorb spicy flavors. Robusta beans, on the other hand, are grown as a mono-crop on plantations. They have a bitter flavor. They are not grown alongside other trees or plants, and after repeated planting and harvesting the soil becomes depleted, so they do not develop additional flavors. They are less expensive to produce and yield more beans per acre than arabica plants. Robusta beans have far more caffeine than arabica beans.

Question: Are your coffee beans organic and fair trade?

Desirable answer: Yes.

Rationale: Most mono-crop coffee is heavily sprayed with pesticides, is chemically processed, and often workers are exploited. Organic and fairly traded coffee is not laden with pesticides, is processed without using harmful chemicals, and provides more equitable conditions for farmers and workers.

Question: Are the berries dried outside in the sun, and brought inside at night?

Desirable answer: Yes.

Rationale: After picking, coffee berries must be dried before they are removed from the bean (seed) before roasting. Rather than drying via heat or chemicals, the natural means is drying them in the sun. If not brought inside at night, the berries will collect moisture and develop mold. This negatively impacts flavor and health properties of the coffee.

General suggestions:

Buy whole beans rather than ground coffee. Once ground, oil inside the beans is exposed to air and quickly oxidizes and rancidifies. It should be brewed immediately after grinding. Whole beans should have a dull mat finish, not a shiny oily finish. Oil outside the bean indicates that oil was forced out, either by high heat, by refrigerating or freezing, or simply by sitting on the shelf too long. 

Store your beans in a cool, dry, dark place. When you grind the beans, the powder should pour out freely without sticking to the inside of the grinder. Clinging is a sign that the coffee is not fresh, or was roasted at extremely high temperature.

Experiment and taste-test different blends and roasts, and see how many flavors you can detect. A skillful roaster knows how to bring out different flavors by length of roasting time, roasting temperatures, and rate of cooling. It truly is an art. You might ask them about it. But don’t expect them to give up any secrets!

I hope this brief primer serves to release any hesitation about whether to restrict consumption of a beverage you enjoy. FYI, you can find high-quality, locally roasted coffee at Polyface.

May you be deeply nourished.

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