If you’re anything like me, you need an instant dose of coffee to feel like a fully functioning human in the AM. Caffeine, preferably in a grande-sized cup, has basically become a prerequisite to modern life. And in the summertime, I’d gladly take mine iced — or via an IV drip. I’m not fussy.
But with all the conflicting reports out there about coffee’s effect on your health, you’ve got to ask yourself: is that latte actually good for you? Or what about, big picture, the environment? That’s a lot to unpack. So I talked to nutrition specialist Dr. Kristen Bentson (DC, MS, BCIA) to help make sense of all the noise.
“While drinking too much coffee isn’t a good idea (for that matter drinking too much water or getting too much of any one thing — no matter how good it is for you — is never a good idea), small amounts might actually provide a great deal of benefit,” she says.
Okay. So what benefits are we talking about here? According to Dr. Bentson, the phytochemicals (a fancy word for active compounds found in plants) in coffee can boost moods, enhance memory, increase metabolism, stabilize blood sugar, and improve longevity. You can even call it a mild antidepressant — one Harvard study found that drinking several cups a day promotes the production of feel-good neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, always a welcome rush when you’d rather hit the snooze button. Dr. Bentson sums this up with one word: “Bonus.” (Same.)
You can even call it a mild antidepressant.
Even haters are changing their tune. The World Health Organization just reversed its own 1991 findings that said that coffee was “possibly carcinogenic” and linked to bladder cancer, instead stating that your caffeine habit can, in fact, protect against several cancers as long as your cup isn’t above 149 degrees Fahrenheit (we’re all good — that’s tongue-burningly hot). Furthermore, according to The New York Times, a large body of research now shows your favorite brew lowers the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and neurological disorders.
There’s even evidence that coffee consumption is a boon to your microbiome, the community of beneficial bacteria, fungi, and viruses that live on and in your intestines. The more diverse your microbiome is, the better: these guys play a key role in mood, obesity, and the development (or prevention) of disease. And a recent study out of the journal of Science concluded that coffee, tea, and wine (!) are associated with healthier and more diverse bacteria in your gut.
But with all that good news, there’s got to be some catch. So here it is: drinking a lot of unfiltered espresso or boiled coffee has been linked to a mild increase in cholesterol, and can increase rates of heart disease in people with a specific genetic mutation, reports the Mayo Clinic. This specific mutation can be found in 54% of the population — so there’s a fair chance this could be you. If you want to be sure, at-home DNA testing kits like 23andme can clue you in on which camp you fall into.
Also, if you’re get migraines, you should be extra careful. “If you’re prone to headaches and migraines, chances are good you won’t be able to tolerate coffee,” Dr. Bentson warns. “It can also make you feel jittery, increase your blood pressure, stress your adrenal glands, cause insomnia, and in some people, it’s habit forming.”
If you’ve ruled out those symptoms, though, Dr. Bentson recommends you keep your coffee intake to at most two cups per day. That’s 16 ounces total, aka a Starbucks grande. Doable.
Now onto the eco footprint. With Americans consuming an astounding 400 million cups of coffee a day sourced from 52 different equatorial nations, the potential for environmental impact is massive.
With Americans consuming an astounding 400 million cups of coffee a day… the potential for environmental impact is massive.
One main issue is that more coffee beans than ever (41 percent of crops in 2010) are being grown in full sun, rather than shade. Traditional forested plots offer a habitat for native wildlife and support soil health, but without tree canopies, farmers must replace natural insect-killing birds and nutrient-dense roots by using more pesticides and fertilizers. These days, a typical coffee farm in Brazil looks less like a rainforest and more like an Iowa corn field — which speeds up climate change and contaminates waterways. Ugh.
If you want to minimize your impact, look for bags certified by the Rainforest Alliance, which dictates strict guidelines about shaded habitats and gives growers access to education and medical care, or the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, which ensures proper tree canopies for migratory birds and mandates organic certification. Fair Trade, meanwhile, helps farmers avoid exploitative exporters and earn a fair wage with a fixed minimum.
Need help finding a sustainable cup on the go? Choose a roaster who discloses their sourcing network and visits their own farms, like Intelligentsia Coffee, which tours its growing sites a minimum of once per harvest season and follows healthy environmental practices. Other good choices for the environment and workers include La Colombe, Allegro, and Verve.
So, yes. This does mean that your drive-through coffee fix is off the table (who knows where Dunkin’ Donuts is sourcing that caramel macchiato from). But brewing your own 16 ounces of joe a day is a small price to pay for that lovely morning (or afternoon) jolt, no? I, for one, feel a whole lot better about answering the Chemex’s siren call.