Coffee - a dark and potent elixir
People have enjoyed foods and beverages containing caffeine for thousands of years. It is perhaps one of the most well-studied substances we consume. Despite this strong controversy and debate continue. Coffee contains a complex mixture of substances, some of which are not affected by roasting.
Other compounds, particularly those related to the aroma, are actually produced by partial destruction of the green bean during roasting. Some coffee substances do not evaporate and provide the rich, bitter taste, including caffeine, trigonelline, chlorogenic acid, phenolic acids, amino acids, carbohydrates, and minerals. Others provide the aroma, including organic acids, aldehydes, ketones, esters, amines, and mercaptans. Although caffeine exerts many physiological and psychological effects, there are many other active components within coffee which affect your mind and body.
Of course it is caffeine, the alkaloid which comprises around 4% of the coffee bean which is its best known active ingredient. However, there are many members of the alkaloid family, including caffeine, theophylline, and theobromine, all of which are present in kola nuts, coffee, tea, cacao beans, mate and other plants. Although structurally related, these alkaloids have very different effects on the system, and are present in different amounts in different "medicinal" plants. For instance theobromine and theophylline, also present in tea and chocolate, relax the smooth muscles whereas caffeine stimulates the circulation, muscles and metabolism. Coffee is perhaps not best thought of as caffeine, as there are many other active substances which give coffee its unique range of medicinal actions.
After more than 19,000 scientific studies and centuries of human consumption, the safety of coffee and caffeine are still much debated, although the FDA still considers caffeine to be "generally recognized as safe". Such is our love affair with the "bean" that there are now countless claims that both caffeine and coffee are beneficial to human health.
Medical institutions of reputation claim that drinking 2-4 cups of coffee a day may lower your risk of colon cancer by 25%, of gallstones by 45%, of liver cirrhosis by 80% and of Parkinson's disease by 50% - 80%. No fewer than nine separate studies have shown that regular caffeinated coffee consumption may reduce the risk of Parkinson's Disease by some 50%- 80% in both mice and men. Parkinson's disease characterised by resting tremor or stiffness is caused by a reduced amount of dopamine in the motor centres of the brain, which caffeine may prevent or reverse.
Coffee can even reduce the incidence of asthma by as much as 25% due to the presence of theophylline which relaxes the smooth muscle of the airways. Another feather in the cap of the coffee devotee is provided by research which suggests that there are four times the level of anti-oxidants in coffee than there are even in green tea.
Coffee is also believed to be an effective anti-depressant, to have ergogenic (energy producing) properties and to improve memory. A cup of coffee contains an especially large quantity of anti-oxidant "polyphenols" such as chlorogenic acid (up to 8%) in its roasted form, whose strength is not diminished by decaffeination. Anti-oxidants are thought to counteract a number of degenerative diseases, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, cataracts, and disorders of the nervous system. Another anti-oxidant polyphenol called caffeic acid has also been found in coffee. Whilst the term anti-oxidant is much used it is seldom comprehended. Anti-oxidants, as their name suggests, have been found to effectively protect cells against oxidation (the addition of oxygen to molecules), which underlies the process of the slow internal burning within tissues that we commonly know as aging.
Indeed a veritable almanac exists for the purported health benefits of coffee, some of which are perhaps also worthy of mention. Just one cup of coffee, caffeinated or decaffeinated, helps prevent the formation of kidney stones by 10% possibly through its diuretic action in increasing the flow of urine and decreasing its concentration. Coffee is also alleged to reduce the risk of a number of cancers, most especially colon cancer (by 24% for four cups a day).
Drinking coffee may even reduce your risk of developing type II diabetes, characterised by a loss of muscle, liver and fat cell sensitivity to insulin or by a reduced production of insulin by the pancreas. A study of 17,000 Dutch men and women suggested that those who drank seven or more cups of coffee a day were half as likely to develop the disease as those who drank two cups or fewer.
Excellent news for the coffee industry, and also for heavy coffee drinkers, as scientists had previously suggested they were unusually sensitive to pain, prone to panic disorders and more likely to develop heart disease.