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Caffeine, health and quacks on the internet.

Stop EVERYTHING!! Somebody is WRONG on the internet!!!!

The husband is groaning at me again because he knows full well a RANT is forthcoming. This time, someone with a book to promote, posted some coffee-related claptrap on LinkedIn. Sadly, LinkedIn limits the space you have to write comments so I couldn’t do my righteous indignation justice on there, so it will have to go here instead.

The article (HERE) basically demonises caffeine. under the guise that it apparently stops you working calmly and productively. First of all, surely this depends a great deal on what your work actually is. In my day job, coffee is the ONLY thing that enables me to stay awake and focused, not because I’m tired but because my work is so tedious and repetitive. I fail to see how staying alert with your brain firing on all cylinders can ever be a problem in a work environment, unless you’re a yoga instructor or something. Excessive consumption can inevitably lead to hypertension, anxiety and insomnia, but then true excess of anything is never good for you. Caffeine is fine, as long as you are sensible about it. One commenter on the original article supports it, saying that she used to drink 20 cups a day and had all sorts of health problems. Go figure.

The article appears to be trying to argue that caffeine doesn’t actually improve your alertness; it claims coffee offers a short term, quick fix. You feel tired, you drink coffee, it wakes you up and peps you for a bit, but then it wears off, you feel “withdrawal” symptoms (largely psychosomatic in most cases, but also linked to dehydration, ie: headaches and migraines), then having another cup returns you to “normal” mode rather than giving you an actual boost again. This is a strong argument for (psychological) addiction, as it suggests that you’d need to drink more each time to get the same buzz effect. However, this is not in itself harmful. In fact, it is only unpleasant if you do ‘withdraw’ from caffeine. You’ll get the headaches and lethargy if you don’t have your morning coffee, but then, why shouldn’t you just drink it?

This study from the University of Vermont details what actually causes the withdrawal headache, but also, interestingly, shows how there is no net benefit of continued caffeine consumption, ie: you don’t get more and more and more alert by drinking coffee every day, it does it’s job, it wears off, rinse, repeat. The crucial bit here is IT WEARS OFF. The article appears to be trying to argue that being in a constant state of hyper-alertness, the adrenaline-charged fight or flight instinct is not good for staying cool, calm collected and focused at work – well, true, but you only get to that pepped up state through excessive consumption – in which case, you will also get the come-down and the withdrawal. A few cups of coffee to ease the tedium of a corporate office job do not have these effects.

Caffeine wakes you up by latching on to adenosine receptors in the brain. For a more technical explanation, try this article but in brief, adenosine is a chemical produced naturally in the brain that tells your body to rest. The adenosine molecules latch on to receptors in the brain, and suddenly you start feeling sleepy. Caffeine just gets in the way. Caffeine molecules are similar enough to adenosine molecules that they can attach to the adenosine receptors instead. When this happens, your brain never gets the message that it needs to rest, and so you don’t feel sleepy. As soon as your body processes and rids itself of the caffeine, the receptors are freed up, and adenosine can seep back in, and low and behold, you feel sleepy again. Caffeine therefore only inhibits the adenosine that is already there. If you are not tired nor sleepy to begin with, then the caffeine won’t misplace anything and you won’t automatically feel tired as soon as the caffeine wears off, and won’t get the withdrawal either.

This is all very short term. The cycle of adenosine displacement and replacement takes place over a period of a few hours at most. The article says nothing of the long term effects of caffeine consumption, most of which are highly beneficial. This study shows that long term caffeine consumption can protect against Alzheimer’s and dementia (particularly acute in women, apparently). This one suggests coffee reduces the risk of Type 2 Diabetes. Here’s one saying that it prevents prostate cancer. This one demonstrates how coffee acts as an antidepressant (again, particularly for women), and this one even goes as far as to say “Drinking Coffee Reduces Suicide Risk by 50%” (you can guess which of these is my favourite piece of click-bait!). All mightily good stuff. And yes, for the record, there are also many articles about coffee/caffeine being bad for anxiety, insomnia, high blood pressure, arrhythmia, kidney stones, other forms of diabetes, and osteoporosis. It’s all about balance. If you’re a stressed out, obese insomniac with brittle bones, then maybe you should leave it out, nd consult a doctor who didn’t write their thesis in the geography department.

My final problem with the original LinkedIn article is the claim that “coffee has a 6 hour half-life…Have a cup of joe at eight a.m., and you’ll still have 25% of the caffeine in your body at eight p.m”. Tellingly, there are no sources cited for that little gem.  In an average, healthy person, the body metabolises the caffeine in one cup of coffee in 2-3 hours, less if you have a high metabolic rate or if you have already built up a good tolerance to it. So, it’s only likely to prevent you from sleeping if you drink a cup within 3 hours of going to bed. This metabolism time doubles for heavily pregnant women though, and also stays in infants’ systems via breastmilk for far longer, so caffeine in late pregnancy and while breastfeeding is not advisable – unless of course, you are aware of how long it takes to process and don’t exceed that rate of consumption. If your body takes 3 hours to rid itself of the caffeine, then you can have a coffee every three hours with no withdrawal and no effects of excess either. As already shown, having the caffeine in your system is not in itself harmful anyway.

Yes, I do love my coffee and will defend it, and I dare say that makes me biassed. But I defend it with some verifiable evidence. I would love you to buy my coffee and even better,.buy my book, but the book is not really about caffeine or health benefits or lifestyle choices at all. Unlike the author of the original article. Grab a coffee, have a read and make up your own alert, happy, awake minds!

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Posted by on September 9, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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6 weeks AD – coffee and babies and fantasies

6 weeks AD (After Daughter) and most things are back to “normal”!

My normal coffee intake has resumed. Woohoo! I am a little concerned about how much caffeine actually makes its way into my breastmilk, but Miranda doesn’t seem to be complaining and there are no obvious ill-effects so I intend to ignore the issue. I did do some research into effects of coffee drinking on pregnancy (which can be summarised into “it just takes longer for the caffeine to break down in your body”) and most pregnancy magazines (those quality publications you get free from Boots, for example) tell you not to drink too much when breastfeeding either, but fail to tell you why. I assume it is because you get caffeine in milk – but there’s nothing to say that drinking diluted caffeine (natural lattes?) actually harms babies.

I am back to “testing” coffee shops too, and having too much of a coffee-based presence online, apparently. I got headhunted, of sorts! Very flattering. Someone google searched for coffee people in the north east, and with this blog, various links from the uni, my social network site addiction and my attempts at promoting Doctor Coffee’s Cafe, I take up a good proportion of the search results. It was about a Manager’s job going at Esquires coffee shop in Newcastle – nice salary, commutable from here, bloke sounded very genuine and friendly. It would have been great if I was able to work full time at the moment!! DOH. Managing coffee shops and 6 week old babies don’t mix, and no job is worth leaving her for at the moment.

Miranda in Esquires

Anyway, bloke said he’d “keep me in mind” if anything else came up in the future – which would be great given the inevitable dreaded post-uni unemployment is looming again. Just to make sure, I bundled Miri on a train up to Newcastle to approve the place. I’ve been to Esquires in Durham before, but apart from the nice penguins on the logo and the fact it has free wifi (unlike Neros!) I don’t remember it being anything special. I didn’t realise Esquires isn’t actually a chain though, it’s a franchise, and the franchisees get a lot more freedom so each Esquires is a bit different, again unlike the immutable Caffe Nero format. The shop in Newcastle is huge, right in the middle of the shopping centre and was pretty busy. I can see why the manager’s salary was so reasonable, that place must make a fortune!  (I did have a look at the Esquires franchises, and frankly, if I had that sort of money I’d set up on my own. Somewhere tropical. But obviously there are some success stories!). Nice enough place – bit cheaper than the other chains, iced Americano and filter coffee actually on the menu along with PROPER LOOSE LEAF GREEN TEA (my pregnancy-staple – woopedoo!). No one objected to me breastfeeding in there and the baby change was actually big enough to use comfortably. (two things I never used to check before!!). In some respects it was far less pretentious than most coffee shops – the staff were definitely “people who work in a coffee shop” rather than “baristas”. I was feeling cruel and asked for espresso, and it was actually a lot better than I thought it would be. It came in a tiny, but normal-shaped cup, just Miranda sized. She was not amused though. Esquires website tells me their coffee is a blend from Peru, Honduras and Sumatra (entirely Fairtrade… meh?) I tried some on filter and it was really really good, much better on filter than in espresso. So I was pleasantly surprised and sat there reading (about coffee – I had a slight book-buying accident again… groan…), absent-mindedly deflecting admiring comments about Miranda’s hair and fantasising for bit…

"Doctor Coffee and Daughter" has a certain ring to it!

My coffee shop fantasies are resurfacing again. (doesn’t take long!) Miranda has accompanied us out to do the Doctor Coffee van on the market already. I was dissuaded from putting up a sign with “Buy a coffee, get a free cuddle” on the pushchair… I am trying to get her used to the coffee shop environment, and I’ve been reading David Brandon’s “Life in a 17th Century Coffee Shop” to her so that she appreciates how good she’s got it now!! Esquires would have been a great ‘stepping stone’ to my own place – a chance to manage a coffee shop without the massive financial risks of opening up on my own, and hopefully that setup would have allowed me some autonomy. I don’t really want to admit it, but the Doctor Coffee van is not going to make my fortune – in fact, it is not really going to make a me living in the foreseeable future either. So, when Inevitable Post-Uni Unemployment does occur again, the most realistic option is to get a job that will allow me to save up for my own cafe, and run the van in any spare time I get. I haven’t yet figured out what happens to Miri in that situation though…..

What would be wonderful would be if a cafe just Arrived in my life somehow without major investment. The sort of thing that happens all the time…I was dreaming up a coffee shop expansion project – “Babyccinos”. A coffee shop for Mums and Dads combined with a sort of creche so that we can still get our caffeine fixes and relax for a bit, and small children can be amused at the same time, thus averting the incessant noisy crying of bored babies in Caffe Nero that Miranda has been contributing to recently. I fancied installing a ball-pool full of brown “coffee bean” balls for me and my friends babies to play in as well. It would be awesome. Sigh. Now where did I put my lottery ticket?
 
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Posted by on July 25, 2010 in Uncategorized

 

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My Dark Love Affair

I have a headache. I moan to Carl about this, but he is not impressed.”I don’t believe such a thing exists.” he says. This is because I have a caffeine headache, or rather, a lack of caffeine headache. I didn’t sleep particularly well last night, and this morning I had to get up unhealthily early for me, rush round trying to pack everything up for the weekend, and then leg it to the station to catch a (late) train at 8.14. I did not get time to make coffee. Further more, as a conscientious, perma-broke student and ex-Nero employee, I flatly refuse to spend £2.25 for coffee from Costa at the station. My body cannot cope with this.

My addiction may well be psychological, but the effects are very physical. My head hurts, there is some serious pressure on the top of my skull. I have little energy, I am pale (in fact, I am reliably informed that I look dead) and I am very irritable.
This never used to be the case. My parents drank tea by the bucketful and when I was a baby, they used to give me a luke warm bottle of milky tea every day. Possibly as a result of this, I have never touched the stuff since. But I never drank much coffee either. I spent most of my teenage years being healthy and guzzling herbal teas and water. I probably should have stuck to that! However, at age 17, I got the second most boring job in the universe -data entry. An entirely sedentary life style, parked in front of a black screen with green text, typing endless addresses in over and over again, eight hours a day. The most interesting thing to do all day was to get up and wander over to the monstrosity in he corner, press a series of buttons and receive a plastic cup full of brown powder with metallic tasting hot water poured on top.
Sometimes the powder still floated, or clumped at the bottom until poked by an enthusiastic plastic stick. And woe betide anyone who dared request ‘milk’ – more powder, onl sort of off-white in colour, and seemingly even less soluble than the brown stuff. This was, apparently, coffee. Nescafe instant vendor machine coffee to be precise. It was foul. But it was hot, it had caffeine in it, it required moving from my desk occasionally, and as such, it was the only thing that stopped me turning in to a brain dead corporate zombie, gradually losing form and melting into the chair, just becoming a giant pair of fingers welded to the keyboard….

I left that job after six months, having put on a lot of weight, got repetitive strain injury from the keyboard, and the beginnings of a caffeine addiction. However, I also had enough money to go to Peru for the rest of the year. Peru produces a small amount of truly excellent, high altitude arabica coffee, but such are the ironies of global capitalism, they export all of it, and getting hold of coffee in Peru is difficult and expensive. Nestle produce something called Ecco, which is ground, roasted wheat and chicory. When brewed, it is brown and looks like coffee. It has no actual coffee in it, no caffeine content, but if you ask for ‘cafe’ in Peru, this is generally what you get.In short, I went cold turkey.

On my return from Peru, I started university. I did a lot of different activities outside classes including various theatrical endeavours. ‘Show weeks’ were notoriously hectic and doing 16 hour days playing with lighting meant a lot of coffee was consumed. Meeting friends in coffee shops became almost ritualistic, and anyone who has ever endured lectures on cranio-facial morphology of early hominids and phylogeny of various primates, or even quantitative methods for social scientists will know that at some points, major caffeine boosts are a medical necessity.

After graduating with no other ideas about what to do with myself, I started working in cafes and coffee shops. It was from these that I started to really learn about coffee. I initially thought that working with the stuff, day in, day out would put me off, but this has never been the case! All the different strains and varieties, all the subtleties of flavour that can be produced, all the different methods of brewing, filtering or extracting, all is fascinating to me. I am by no means a world class barista, but I am at least relatively skilled in the art, and I intend to continue learning.

So I am now doing my Phd about coffee, about the links between quality and wastage about the political effects of such a globalised industry. I’ve learned so much about its ‘dark history’ that I am s self-confessed coffee geek.

Coffee increases blood pressure, can lead to hypertension and anxiety attacks, has been linked to colon cancer and now apparently doubles the chance of miscarriage. However, it also protects against cirrhosis and other liver diseases, is a good source of fibre,keeps you alert and stimulated and kick starts your metabolism. It is the second largest legally traded in the commodity in the world, and the industry as a whole, from farmers to baristas, employs a hundred million people all over the world. For me, its a welcome addiction, an obsession, a career and a wonderfully dark love affair.

 
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Posted by on June 1, 2008 in Uncategorized

 

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What the hell I think I’m doing

Even the words terrify me now. “Upgrade Proposal”. I have to write exactly what I want to do with this project, 4000 words, and then a panel interview to defend The Plan. I’ve still got a couple of months, but it is now becoming obvious that before I can convince other people that this is a good, plausible idea, I need to figure out once and for all what that idea actually is.

I’ve been faffing. Farting around with vaguely academic concepts and seeing how they could possibly be applied to my main obsession of the moment: coffee. I am employed to work on the Waste of the World project, which incorporates a lot of different themes, but focuses on reexamining what we think of as ‘waste’ in social terms. Our “team” – that is, Joby, Anna and I, are charged with research the concept of Food Waste. To me, this meant Coffee Waste.

There are a lot of different forms of ‘waste’ in the coffee industry. Physical waste on the plantations – what happens to coffee that doesn’t sell? What happens if the crops are diseased? What happens if the roaster screws up somehow? And then at the retailers – what about all the crap espressos trainee baristas make that cannot be served? Then there is all the branded packaging – most of it can be recycled, but generally isn’t.And even if you throw away your branded cup, is it somehow worth it if you have become slightly more aware of that brand? Storage packaging: if you don’t store it right, the coffee goes stale and you have to throw it. If you do store it well, you can’t recycle the foil bags…

And then there is the idea of waste of knowledge. An infinite and complex array of skills go in to this industry, everything from grading green beans, roasting to perfection, to baristas drawing rosettas as latte art on the top of our drink.. Does all the effort that’s gone in to making the coffee get wasted if the bored barista screws it up in the shop? And even if she gets it perfect, is all that expertise wasted on customers who come in for their venti, 1-shot decaf syruped-to-hell soy crappyfrappemockacino and then go home and drink instant?

Most significantly though, is trying to find whether or not all this waste, physical and conceptual, is actually necessary. If there is a demonstrable demand for high quality, speciality coffees in the UK, and if these specialty coffees inevitably create more waste to produce, then the waste is justified. However, if in the UK we are still clinging to our teapots and drinking Nescafe instant, or perhaps, going to Caffe Nero or Starbucks for the ‘lifestyle’ – buying in to the brand, for instance rather than the coffee itself, then the waste involved in this industry becomes meaningless.

How do I go about answering all these questions? The anthropologist in me is bouncing up and down going “Participant Observation!” “Multi-site ethnography!” I don’t know if human-geographers have other methods, but good ol’ PO sounds appealing to me. With emphasis on the PARTICPANT bit. I WANT to see what it’s like to pick coffee: I am going to a tiny co-op farm in Nicaragua, and a big commercial farm in Costa Rica. I would love to learn how to roast coffee professionally, so I am going to try and find an independent roaster and the one that supplies a big chain like Caffe Nero. Finally, I want to see if my own barista experience is ‘typical’ of the industry, and so I intend to compare the goings on in an independent cafe (hopefully, Gusto Italiano in Sheffield) and at a branch of Caffe Nero. Constantly comparing big and small, independent and commercial will, I hope, give a better all-round view of the industry…

So, I’ve got a lot of Ideas, and when I get really into this, I buzz… it’s exciting, I want to get on with it!! But, first, I’ve just got to translate all of the above into formal academic speak, then add in references and inteliigent sounding theory, and then timescales and costings and … aaaaaaaargh. Bureaucracy and academic prostitution!! aaaargh indeed! Sometimes, the fact that I have a certain responsibility to the uni to produce intensive, innovative, accessible and practical research is enough to crush any creativity and enthusiasm. I am Lost in Caffienation, again.

 
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Posted by on June 1, 2008 in Uncategorized

 

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All hail Kaldi, discoverer of the black drink of happiness.


Once upon a time, in ancient Ethiopia, Kaldi the goat herder sat, no doubt picking his nose or dreaming of that really beautiful ewe he saw in the market last week, or whatever 16th century goat herders usually did while sitting in a field full of goats.

This was no ordinary day, however. Today, the noise of frantic bleating drove Kaldi to get up from his comfy rock and check on his subjects. The goats were acting strangely; their already-mad yellow eyes were stretched wide and darting about uncomfortably. Some were dancing manically, to music no sober mortal could hear.. others were eating the ancient african equivalent of hot water bottles. The head Ram had just completed a phenomenally complex and ground breaking PhD thesis in a little over three hours, which sadly Kaldi didn’t even notice in all the comotion.

The centre of the bedlam seemed to be coming from a small shrub, with dark waxy leaves and bright red berries. Some of the kids were skipping round it excitedly, then taking large bites, chewing the tasty-looking red cherries.

Instead of rounding up the goats and sending them home for the night, possibly with mugs of horlicks and security blankets, as all good goat herders should, Kaldi decided to find out what all the fuss was about. Grabbing a handful of cherries, he chewed them slowly, wincing at the intensely bitter flavour. The cherries had small green seeds in the centre. These were good. You couldn’t chew on them, they were far too hard. Kaldi didn’t want to swallow them either; even he knew that goats could digest things far better than humans could. But sucking on the hard little green things was very pleasant. Not too bitter, just, nice. Exciting even. Yes, he could take to these. In fact, he was goingtogoandtelleveryoneallaboutitrightnow! Yes! He’druntothevillagerightnow and hemightevendoalittledancejusttocelebrate! Woohoo! Ow. now his head hurt. Butitsstillgood! yusyusyus!

Kaldi abandoned his goats, with no thought to their welfare, and bounced energetically off to the village, where he confidently ran up to the local Imam.
“Hey!” he panted, “Igotthese aaaaaaamazing beans! They’re brilliant! you can chewtheredbits and suckonthegreen bits and they make you wannadanceandsingandstuff!”

The Imam gave the manic fool a whithering look. Having mentally slowed down that sentence, he eventually patted Kaldi patronisingly on the head, and calmly told him he must be possessed by an evil spirit. The red cherries were obviously designed by the devil to tempt gullible souls, and therefore must be disposed of accordingly.

Kaldi ran home, fuming, humiliated and nursing the world’s first caffeine come-down. The goats could not sympathise. The small, seldolm used walnut thing that rattled about behing their yellow eyes seemed to be aching. This was far too much for your average cloven lawnmower to comprehend.

The Imam, however, in an act of incredibly fortunate but righteous stupidity, threw the cherries on to the fire. They cracked and popped, and turned a deep, shiny brown colour. The resulting aroma was intoxicating, almost like luxurious incense. This couldn’t possibly be the work of the devil. The beans must be divine, and the resulting drink a gift from God himself…

Ok, so this is an example of artistic license rather than historical integrety, but you get the general idea! And I much prefer this version of events.

 
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Posted by on August 5, 2007 in caffeine, coffee, Ethiopia, goats, Kaldi, legend, Yemen

 

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