The Science of Coffee

If you attended the SLA Chemistry Division’s session last year in Denver, you may remember the delightful presentation on the science of beer. (If you were not there, you can find my summary on this blog.) This year, the subject was the science of coffee (very appropriate for Seattle given the preponderance of coffee houses in the city!), and it was no less interesting. Professor Joe Vinson from the University of Scranton, Scranton, PA, is actively involved in coffee research, and he provided us with many fascinating historical, chemical, and biological facts about coffee.

Coffee has been drunk since before 800 BC, and it became a commodity to be traded in about 575 AD. The first coffee house was founded in Istanbul, and the phenomenon rapidly spread westward. Americans became large drinkers of coffee as a result of the Boston Tea Party, and its popularity spread rapidly. In the military, Admiral Joe Daniels outlawed alcohol on ships, so a cup of coffee became known as a “Cuppa Joe”.
Coffee is the second most widely traded commodity in the world today (after oil), with an estimated 1.4 billion cups a day being consumed. The biggest consumers are Scandinavians. Traditional coffee consumption outpaces decaffeinated and other varieties by far, although consumers are now switching more to gourmet coffee and are getting more of it outside the home—a trend started by Starbucks.
The plant is a small tree native to Africa and grows mainly in tropical areas. It bears red “cherries”, each containing two beans. It takes 600,000 beans to fill each 132 pound bag, and 4,000 beans/pound of roasted coffee. During the roasting process, 800 chemicals are formed, one of which is caffeine. The same stimulants as are found in coffee are also in tea and chocolate, although to a lesser extent. Coffee is the main source of antioxidants in foods and beverages; 40% of the antioxidants in the average American diet come from coffee. Caffeine improves cognitive function after a single dose; it produces a positive mood, and decreases perceived fatigue. Even the odors are beneficial; a recent study has shown that typing accuracy and speed increased after smelling coffee, and smelling coffee may help ease stress.
You don’t need to worry about consuming coffee. Studies conducted under the auspices of the American Medical Association show that “moderate coffee drinkers probably need have no concern about their health relative to their caffeine consumption, provided other lifestyle habits are moderate as well,” which is good news for all those coffee drinkers out there.
Don Hawkins
Columnist, Information Today

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