We love to drink coffee almost to the point of addiction. Amidst the lost jobs and the ravaged economy that is the legacy of the coronavirus one ritual that has emerged unscathed is an irrepressible attachment to our daily coffee. In an enlightening recent expose Adam Gopnik, a longtime journalist for the New Yorker magazine, unfurls the history that envelops our captivation and seduction by the world’s most consumed beverage. Towards the end of the last century coffee shops numbered in the hundreds in the USA, by 2013 this much hallowed establishment had sky rocketed to the tens of thousands.
From its origins as an aperitif with sexual overtones, coffee became a way to abstain from alcohol in the Islamic Middle Ages from whence it mutated into the coffeehouse which became the focus point for the enlightenment. It was only when it migrated to cultivation by the enslaved peasants in South America who were primed to cater for a burgeoning North American populace, indoctrinated by skillful marketing to desire a drink that would prime their productivity and bolster their energy, that it entered the domain of mass consumption. To the present day this system of exploitation has been maintained and expanded. Peasant labour in Vietnam with much environmental degradation supplies coffee to a global market alongside the coffee growers of South America.
Coffee is a rich substance with a number of compounds including powerful antioxidants that undeniably have the capacity to do us a whole lot of good. Whether this actually translates into easily accessible benefits is still up for debate. It can increase serotonin and dopamine, feelgood chemicals that is the brain’s point of attachment for cocaine, which explains the daily habit. To prevent Alzheimer’s and heart disease we need to drink at least four cups a day, most of us enjoy only two. To offset these benefits it also raises cholesterol (not if filtered, which the cappuccino is not) and homocysteine, both bad for the heart. Then there are the slow metabolisers, those who break down coffee inefficiently, whose blood pressures might go up and whose heart disease risk might increase if they consume this substance regularly.
Both bowel and prostate cancer might be prevented by drinking coffee, as might Parkinson’s disease and type 2 diabetes. Coffee is a stimulant which might help with weight loss. It reduces inflammation, a process that can be destructive if unchecked, but it can also compromise the immune system, highly undesirable while the coronavirus is a loitering presence. This is especially the case for those who get depressed after a coffee drink. The problem with all these subtle and insidious disadvantages is that watching George Clooney enjoy the sexual advantages bequeathed by a drink that appears to be embedded in our daily software would preclude us from caring about coffee’s dark underbelly.