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Coffee: The caffeine conundrum

Coffee: The caffeine conundrum

“What goes best with a cup of coffee? Another cup”—Henry Rollins. It’s an open secret that coffee drinking today has become all the rage worldwide. Over 2.25bn cups of coffee get gulped down daily across the globe. In America alone, 87 percent are near or full-on coffee nuts. “There is nothing like a ‘cup of steaming joe’ the first thing in the morning,” says an American friend of mine. “A cup of joe,” meaning coffee, is a derivative from a fusion of two slangs: java and jamoke. 

Coffee, also noted for its exceptional aroma, is exhilarating to your olfactory senses. Suppose lighter roasts give a fruity, flowery, or herbaceous whiff, and medium-roasted coffee beans smack of caramelized, nutty, spicy, or chocolaty flavor. In that case, darker roasts boast that bold, smoky, earthy nuance.

During the 1600s, the Dutch introduced coffee to Southeast Asia by planting coffee seedlings in islands like Bali, Sumatra, and Java. Ultimately, java became a generic expression for coffee but no longer referred to coffee from the Island of Java.

Some novel facts about coffee you probably didn’t know:

  • An Ethiopian Goat herder discovered coffee centuries ago.
  • Bees love coffee.
  • In 1938, a hermit, Hira Giri, brought coffee beans to Nepal from Myanmar and planted them for the first time in Nepal at Aapchaur in Gulmi.
  • Kopi Luwak, one of the most expensive coffees in the world, was first discovered in Indonesia by farmers while picking coffee cherries off their trees. The farmers accidentally ran into the coffee fruits swallowed and excreted by the Asian Palm Civet. The farmers separated the beans from the cat poop, washed them well, and roasted them to sell at an exorbitant price—a cup of Kopi Luwak coffee costs between $35 and $100 today.
  • The credit behind introducing coffee culture in Nepal goes to a Bhaktapur resident, Gagan Pradhan. The first outlet of Himalayan Java at Heritage Plaza, Kamaladi 1999, was his brainchild.

Some two decades back, coffee drinking in Kathmandu remained remote and looked like a privilege enjoyed by those in the know. Coffee drinking held an elite status, considered a cult amongst the elite. Today, Kathmandu and Nepal big cities are booming with coffee culture, revamping the urban lifestyle.

When the issue of coffee crops up, you are spoilt for choice with a horde of java blends the modern-day coffee joints serve, from espresso, mocha, cappuccino, latte, Americano, and a Frappuccino to mind-boggling flavor pairings, whether with ice-cream, choco-bits, rich cream, marshmallow, nuts, fruits, you name it. If the potpourri of toothsome flavors strikes you dumb, watching the barista knock up your blend with a flourish is nothing less than stimulating.  

On the flip side, nothing compares to the elegant simplicity of a regular black coffee when it boils down to its health benefits, as dressing your coffee with cream and sugar or the gamut of those fancier concoctions only poses a risk of negating the health benefits. 

Albeit an instant brew outstrips when it comes to cost and ease, the flavor and quality of freshly ground (Arabica) coffee beans stand second to none. There is, however, so much choice out there to ground coffee; each bean variety carries a unique zing. 

Coffee drinking has been, however, long the topic of debates and clashing feedback regarding its impact on health. And the primary reason for this controversy lies in its caffeine content. It's time to separate fact from fabrication and dig into this myth surrounding coffee consumption.  

From 1991 to early 2016, the WHO categorized coffee drinking as a potential carcinogen running a risk of cancer. That further fueled the fire and frustrating news for the java aficionados. But with the ensuing years, the science-backed and peer-reviewed studies came up with promising results for coffee drinking—more vital than ever and with salutary implications.

The newer studies highlighted that coffee, touted as a vehicle for caffeine detrimental to health, had a lot of sunny side. With time, for its potential health benefits, it breezed into a daily meal plan for most.  

In 2020, an article by Dawn MacKeen in the New York Times reported: “In moderation, coffee seems to be good for most people — that’s 3 to 5 cups daily, or up to 400 milligrams of caffeine.” With evident health benefits, the FDA (US Food and Drug Administration) also recommended 400 milligrams a day—four or five cups of coffee—as safe with no adverse effects.

Since coffee may slightly raise the heart rate, people may assume it could trigger or worsen specific heart issues, giving an unwarranted rap to coffee drinking. “But our data suggest that daily coffee intake shouldn’t be discouraged, but rather included as a part of a healthy diet for people with and without heart disease,” said Peter M. Kistler, MD, professor and head of arrhythmia research at the Alfred Hospital and Baker Heart Institute in Melbourne, Australia.  

"The overall evidence has been pretty convincing that coffee has been more healthful than harmful in terms of health outcomes," said Frank Hu, chairperson of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, in 2021.  

He further manifested that moderate coffee intake—about 2–5 cups a day—is linked to a lower likelihood of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, liver, endometrial cancers, Parkinson’s disease, and depression. It’s even possible that people who drink coffee can reduce their risk of early death. The updated findings even linked to a lower risk of coronary heart disease in coffee-drinking women.

With the higher incidence of colon cancer in men and women (1.3: 1 ratio), newer research has found that colorectal cancer is less likely to develop in coffee-drinking people. 

According to AHA (American Heart Association), “Just a couple of calories a cup, good old black coffee packs quite a punch. It wakes you up, boosts your metabolic rate and decreases the risk of some diseases.”

Let’s take a look at science-backed substantiation of coffee-drinking health benefits that seem to stack up: 

  • For its caffeine content, coffee nurtures your energy level, supports you in losing weight, and hones your mental focus. Regular intake of coffee helps improve mood, endurance, and performance during workouts.
  • Coffee came to be associated with a lessened risk of Type 2 diabetes and Parkinson’s disease. Another startling discovery surfaced that caffeine defended against or slowed down the process of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. (Source: British Heart Association)
  • Meticulous scientific studies further complemented coffee for its antioxidant properties, which protect our cells against free radicals, guarding against heart disease, cancer, and other chronic conditions.
  • Even higher consumption of coffee—caffeinated and decaf alike—may relate to low mortality. The regular intake of coffee worked wonders against the nervous system and helped discourage suicidal tendencies. 
  • Coffee drinking (black with no sugar or sweeteners) promotes cognitive function, enhancing memory, attention, response time, and creativity. 
  • Be it regular or decaf, coffee holds a protective guard for our liver. Advanced research and studies showed coffee drinkers were more likely to have liver enzyme levels at a healthy level than people who did not drink coffee. 

Caveat: To sum up, the goodness of coffee drinking unquestionably has busted a string of myths girding it. However, coffee lovers should also perceive caffeine as dangerous if consumed excessively. Inordinate caffeine input can lead to jitters, anxiety, and disintegrated sleep patterns.

So, temperance or moderation is vital to tuning coffee consumption into a healthy diet. Unless you are highly sensitive to caffeine, a few cups during the day should not affect your sleep pattern. However, avoiding coffee about six hours before bedtime is probably best. Always consult a healthcare professional for individualized advice and guidance.

While caffeine is not bad for senior adults, limiting coffee to no more than four cups a day is advisable. An excessive coffee intake stimulates the nervous system; it is likely to cause heartburn, anxiety, headaches, restlessness, dehydration, and elevated heart palpitations: Mayo Clinic.

Caffeine consumption is also linked with adverse effects on calcium metabolism, possibly causing diminishing calcium absorption in the body. Albeit, coffee drinking in moderation is of slight concern vis-a-vis bone degeneration, a natural biological phenomenon. 

However, coffee fads need to take calcium-rich food like dairy products, citrus fruits, fish, and nuts, to name a few, to negate the caffeine effect on our bones. (

Also, get yourself into a routine workout to pump those endorphins and strike a balance between your diet, including coffee, and a healthy lifestyle. 

References:  National Institutes of Health (NIH), American College of Cardiology, the Mayo Clinic, WebMD, John Hopkins Medicine, and others.

“The article is a testament to the author’s dedicated research on the potential benefits of coffee consumption, offering a wealth of valuable information that undoubtedly brings good news to coffee enthusiasts. It sheds light on a promising meta-analysis indicating a potential reduction in all-cause mortality, alluding to the positive aspects of coffee consumption. Nevertheless, it reminds us of the need for Randomized Control Trials (RCTs) to solidify these findings. This balanced and informative perspective allows us to appreciate the health-related possibilities associated with coffee, underlining the author’s commendable effort in exploring this topic.”—Dr Denis Shrestha, Senior Consultant Cardiologist, Critical Care Specialist

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the above text are solely research-based, not medical advice; the author solicits readers’ discretion and cross-references or consulting a healthcare provider for further confirmation. 

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