Is coffee really bad for you?

The drink you know as coffee is based on the dried and roasted beans of the Coffea arabica or the Coffea robusta trees. Roasted, ground and then blended with boiling water, these beans make a dark, brooding brew that can focus attention, be the basis of a small business, be the basis of an enormous business, allow for endless posturing as to its presentation and, in the hands of some brewers, can remove the surface from a sealed road.

Every day, 3.2 million cups of coffee are served up in cafes and restaurants around Australia. Then, of course, there are the millions more cups that are stirred, filtered, percolated and brewed in homes. New Zealanders average 380 cups of coffee per year. Obviously, coffee holds an important place in many hearts, but what is your own love affair with the dark brew doing to you and how does your coffee choice affect the global community?

Coffee in your body

Caffeine from coffee is quickly absorbed into your bloodstream and is responsible for many, although not all, of the effects of coffee on your body. Coffee has had a negative reputation when it comes to health; some of that is warranted and some is not. There are some downsides to coffee consumption, but there are also some benefits, so let’s take a look at coffee in all its glory.

The good

The pages of the medical and scientific journals suggest coffee consumption can offer a range of health benefits.

Live longer: Research suggests that people who enjoy a few cups of coffee a day do tend to live longer, largely due to a reduced chance of dying from heart disease. This is despite the short-term rises in blood pressure that coffee causes and its negative impact on cholesterol levels. It may be the magnesium and antioxidant content of coffee that yield these heart-protective effects.

Brain benefits: The caffeine from coffee stimulates the brain areas associated with conscious mental processes. Thoughts become clearer and fatigue decreases.

Parkinson’s disease: Coffee drinkers are at lower risk of developing Parkinson’s disease, possibly because of a protective effect that caffeine has on the brain or because people with high dopamine levels (Parkinson’s disease results from a lack of dopamine in the brain) enjoy the effects of caffeine.

Dementia: People who are coffee drinkers at midlife have a lower risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease later in life compared with those drinking no or only little coffee. The lowest risk has been found in people who drink three to five cups a day, although this is higher than would be recommended in general.

Liver protection: Coffee drinking has been shown to offer protection against developing cirrhosis of the liver and also to reduce risk of developing liver cancer. It may be antioxidants and other substances in coffee that have this effect.

So coffee drinking does offer some health pluses but at the same time there is some bad news for coffee drinkers.

The bad and the ugly

The mentally stimulating effects of coffee last only a short time, 15–45 minutes. In the long-term, though, excessive coffee drinking can actually cause anxiety, insomnia and depression. This is because the caffeine from coffee binds to receptors in your brain that are normally occupied by the brain chemical, anandamide. This anandamide is a feel-good chemical and when caffeine blocks it the lack of good feelings can result in depressed mood.

The stimulating actions of coffee can also lift blood pressure although recent research1 suggests this only affects people who drink coffee very rarely. It seems that regular coffee consumption does not have this effect. An additional impact in terms of heart health is that coffee consumption can raise cholesterol levels. Coffee is also a diuretic, meaning it increases urination and causes the loss of many vital nutrients through the kidneys, including calcium, magnesium, potassium and phosphorous. Coffee also reduces absorption of iron.

Pregnancy is one state in which caffeine consumption must be closely monitored. Research has shown that more than 200mg of caffeine a day during pregnancy doubles the risk of miscarriage. So, while baby is on board, cutting coffee out or at least cutting back to one to two a day is a good idea.

The real negatives of coffee come down to its caffeine content. The approximate safe level of caffeine intake for all conditions is about 300mg a day. So, depending on your favoured type of coffee, and your other caffeine intake, you can calculate the number of cups you can safely enjoy. As a rule of thumb, two cups a day should be fine unless you are pregnant. So it is possible to continue to enjoy your dark brew if you take it in moderation.

Coffee in your cup

Having made your decision as to how much coffee you want to have in your life, if you are going to drink it you will need to decide how to have it. Jacqueline Arias, founder of Republica 100% Fair Trade Organic Coffee, says, “What makes a good cup of coffee is good-quality freshly roasted coffee, a great barista and clean coffee-making equipment, be it a plunger or an espresso machine. If one of these ingredients is missing then your cup of coffee will be diminished.”

Freshness of coffee is generally agreed as essential to coffee quality. Paul Golding is a qualified barista and Operations Manager for Toby’s Estate, an artisan coffee-roasting company based in Woolloomooloo, Sydney. He says, “Coffee stales quickly after grinding because of the huge increase of surface area that’s exposed to oxygen. Within five minutes of being ground the coffee is going stale.”

So your coffee is fresh, the barista is good and the equipment is up to speed, but what style will you choose? There is a bewildering variety of coffee versions available, so for the uninitiated here is a guide to a few of the more common options.


This is Italian in origin and is made by forcing hot, but not boiling, water through ground coffee. The fineness or coarseness of the grind will impact on the strength of the espresso.

Caffe latte

This is made by combining one-third espresso with two-thirds steamed milk.

Flat white

Another espresso-based coffee made by combining one-third espresso with two-thirds steamed milk.

“Wait a minute,” the keen-eyed among you are screaming. That means a latte and a flat white are the same thing. Well, almost. In fact, the distinction is quite subtle, about 6mm of microfoam, to be exact. Golding says, “A latte is served in a glass and has a thicker layer (about 10–12mm) of microfoam, giving a more richly textured drink. The flat white, a uniquely Australia/New Zealand thing, is served in a cup with only a 3–4mm layer of microfoam.”


Lamentably sometimes ordered as a “cup of chino”, this popular coffee is equal parts espresso, steamed milk and milk froth/foam topped with powdered chocolate.


From the Italian meaning “marked” or “stained”, this is an espresso delicately stained with a touch of milk froth.

Vienna coffee

Espresso with steamed milk, topped with whipped cream and chocolate powder.


One or two scoops of icecream with an espresso and perhaps a shot of liqueur poured over, so it serves as dessert. The word means “drowned”.

Drip coffee

Ground coffee is placed in a filter basket and hot water is dripped through it into a pot below.

Cafe au lait

This French style combines drip coffee with an equal amount of


What then of the ubiquitous denizen of many a pantry: instant coffee? Jacqueline Arias is quite clear on that topic. “Instant coffee is mostly made from poor-quality Robusta coffee beans that are cheap and have a very high caffeine content,” she says. “So it’s lucrative for coffee companies to use Robusta and, of course, very addictive for the consumer due to the high level of caffeine. When choosing an instant coffee, look for one that is made from Arabica beans. It will have a lower caffeine level and deliver a smoother-tasting cup.”

In the past, decaffeinated coffee had a similarly invidious reputation, but is that still warranted? Joshua Symons, from Global Cafe Direct, an organic, fair trade coffee provider, says: “Maybe the reason instant and decaffeinated coffees are seen as inferior is because they have gone through a process, usually involving chemicals and are therefore not pure. I would recommend organic versions of these types of coffees, and in the case of decaffeinated coffee to use Swiss water decaffeinated coffee.” In fairness, though, Paul Golding says, “There are several excellent-quality decaf coffees available from specialty roasters. Generally, they only fall down if they are treated as inferior in the cafe serving them.”

Thus far, our examination of coffee has focused on the personal aspects of the drink, but coffee also has global ripples in every cup.

Shady business

In its natural state, coffee grows on trees that are part of the diverse makeup of the rainforest. The coffee tree will usually be shaded by taller-growing trees and the canopy of the rainforest.

Coffee is commercially grown in Africa, Indonesia, Vietnam and South and Central America. Small plantations are also operating successfully in Australia. To keep up with global demand, coffee is frequently grown on cultivated land. This means clearing rainforest and planting coffee trees in rows where they get full sun. This intensive cultivation method has implications for both your tastebuds and your conscience.

It’s estimated that a coffee plantation will offer shelter to about 90 per cent less birdlife than coffee trees grown under a canopy. Aside from the impact on the birdlife itself, since birds are natural insect scavengers, this means an increased amount of pesticide that must be used on the plants. The coffee industry claims that any pesticide residues are destroyed in the roasting of the beans. Even if this is entirely accurate, the knowledge that the farmers must be exposed to these pesticides will prick the coffee-drinker’s conscience.

Victoria Schladetsch, from Global Cafe Direct, comments, “There are great reasons to choose organic coffee. First, organic is good for the environment, as organic systems aim to reduce dependence on non-renewable resources and often follow best practice in terms of managing the local environment and wildlife. Organics are also great for people, as numerous scientific studies have proven that organic products contain more nutrients than non-organic food, as well as containing no genetically modified ingredients.”

As far as enjoyment goes, coffee grown in the shade is thought to have a better taste because the beans take longer to ripen and develop full flavour when not in full sunlight. There is debate, though, as to whether organic coffee genuinely tastes better. As Paul Golding observes, “If you can taste the organic difference, it’s only because the organic certified coffee will be shade grown and therefore probably nicer than a technical ‘sun’ coffee relying on chemical inputs. You certainly won’t pick up any chemical flavours from a non-organic coffee.” As Jacqueline Arias says, though, “Knowing that what we’re putting into our mouths is chemical-free must surely make the coffee-drinking experience taste so much better!”

Fair Trade

According to Paul Golding, “Fair Trade is the issue of the new millennium. Fair Trade is an issue not just for coffee drinkers but for consumers in general.” To understand Fair Trade it helps to consider how coffee gets to you.

Coffee is often grown by small farmers in developing nations. For these farmers, access to market or price information is difficult and as a result they can become dependent on middlemen and receive smaller and smaller returns for their work. Fair Trade is an approach that seeks to ensure that growers are paid a fair price for their harvest. By purchasing products labelled and certified as “Fair Trade”, you help the growers develop their businesses and operate in the global economy.

Victoria Schladetsch spells out exactly what Fair Trade means for coffee growers. “Since the 1970s, the global markets have suffered from a price “race to the bottom”, meaning the prices for many of the key agricultural exports in Third World countries, including coffee, fell by up to 60 per cent. One farmer from Ecuador explained that, before his community was introduced to the Fair Trade system, he was being paid 60c a kilo of coffee, it costing him 80c a kilo to produce.”

As Jacqueline Arias points out, “Fair Trade ensures farmers are paid a guaranteed fair price that doesn’t go up and down like the open market. At the end of the day, no matter where we live — Sydney, Mexico, Timor or Ethiopia — we all want and deserve to be paid a fair wage for a day’s work.”

In Australia and New Zealand, annual Fair Trade coffee retail sales now stand at above AU$25 million. While the movement is just beginning here, these figures illustrate that many people are realising Fair Trade is a better way to go.

To find out more, go to the Fair Trade Association of Australia and New Zealand:

caffeine content

Beverage & Caffeine content

Espresso coffee (1 cup) 110–180mg

Drip filter coffee (1 cup) 75–140mg

Instant coffee (1 cup) 60–90mg

Instant decaf coffee (1 cup) 2–6mg

NB: These are sample figures only and caffeine content will vary depending on the beans and how the coffee is prepared.

Coffee alternatives

So what if you have weighed it all up and you don’t want to make coffee part of your life? What will you cradle as you chat with friends on a cool winter’s day? What will you order when you go to a cafe? Fear not. There’s a range of coffee alternatives available.


Here we are talking about everyday tea, the brew made from Camellia sinensis, and not herbal teas. It contains less caffeine than coffee (around 20–40mg per cup) and is available in thousands of varieties.


Herbal teas will not generally serve as a coffee alternative as they lack the strong and bitter taste that coffee is famous for. Dandelion root, however, does have a strong, earthy taste, contains no caffeine and is regarded as a liver tonic. Roasted chicory root also tastes good and has a reputation as a blood cleanser and liver support.

Nuts and grains

The ramon nut (Brosimum alicastrum) is a rainforest nut that, when roasted and ground, has a flavour often described as a blend of chocolate and coffee but it contains no caffeine. Roasted and ground hazelnuts and almonds also make a tasty brew. Soybeans are not usually thought of as a nut but, in fact, they are and they can be roasted and ground to make a pleasant beverage. Roasted barley is a grain often used as a coffee replacement, but many other grains can equally be used.

1. Uiterwaal, CSPM et al American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 85, No. 3, 718-723, March 2007

Terry Robson is the co-editor of WellBeing magazine, appears on SKY News and ABC radio and is a qualified naturopath.

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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