Category Archives: Science

Health Watch: Caffeine & Babies

Tracked as a potential contributor to a low birth weight in babies, caffeine is among the 3,508 other things mothers are encouraged not to ingest during pregnancy. OK, we grabbed that number out of the air but it’s, like, a lot. (No brie? Really?! Inhuman.) But caffeine does function as an effective respiratory stimulant, and so has often been used during neonatal care in hospitals for newborns with respiratory issues.

That may end, however, if this recent Canadian study is corroborated. Scientists dosed infant rats with caffeine and then tracked how it affected them as they grew into adulthood. Comparison trends in the rats who had been dosed with caffeine in infancy showed signs of sleeping disorders as adults: reduced sleeping time, a longer time to reach the first stage of sleep and fragmented non-REM sleep. Additionally, the rats that weren’t treated with caffeine had higher breathing at rest than those that were treated with caffeine.

The study reviewers indicated that it is a cause for concern and there will likely be more testing to analyze and determine just what type of neurological and/or developmental effect caffeine has on babies. Since breathing problems are one of the main reasons newborn babies are hospitalized and a primary cause of their death, we hope that determining how caffeine therapy effects the developing brain and then figuring out alternate treatments if necessary is a fairly high priority.

And when they’re done with that, they should figure out how to get brie back on the expectant mother menu.

Coffee & Climate Change

Last November, we wrote about how the excessive rains in India were adjusting the forecast coffee exports from that country, and they have now reported a 21% decrease in exportable coffee during the 2008 – 2009 growing season. But it’s mostly about when the rains hit — they reported in June of this year that heavy summer rains will likely result in a 17% increase in coffee exports for the 2009 – 2010 growing season that begins on October 1st.

Because we’re working with an agricultural product, the flavor nuances and fluctuations created by the weather really do inform the more artistic elements of coffee overall. The ‘third wave’ of the espresso industry (which Eric from Seattle Espresso Machine Co. and Sam of Equal Exchange talk about in this video) was largely brought about by the ability to source very specific beans from estates around the world. Instead of buying huge blended batches of beans from an exporter, roasters started to go to the plantations themselves and trying different coffee beans, charting how they changed over time — sometimes the plantations produced an amazing coffee, other times they would maybe be just good or not-so-great.

Obviously, the specific plants and the altitude/growing style, as well as how the coffee is processed, will inform the flavor, but a big unknown every year is how the weather impacts the growing cycle. Similarly to how wine vintages are known for having a particularly good weather year, imbuing the grapes with the perfect balance of sugar and acids to make a great bottle of wine, the coffee cherries themselves produce different flavors every year depending on how the weather was in a particular region. This is why a blend you loved a few years ago may have changed in flavor over time — and why there is often a little bit more art than science involved with making really great espresso.

The Fair Trade/Direct Trade movements over the past few decades have helped bring about the opportunity to appreciate coffee on this very micro level, but while they have done a lot to contribute to the sustainable and cultural development of farming communities around the world, this excellent article by The Guardian outlines how contending with global climate change will require a more comprehensive, orchestrated approach. Last year, the rains hit India at the wrong time — a long drought resulted in intense flooding once the rains finally came — and this year they arrived at just the right time. That’s not always going to be the case; in fact, the global climate change projections indicate that this bust-then-boom weather is likely to increase.

Given that coffee is the top tropical commodity in the world, and given that most of the farmers who grow it already spend a few months of year in poverty — despite Fair Trade/Direct Trade/sustainable movements — this is not a pretty picture on the horizon.

Only 125 Shots to Go

With a quality espresso machine at your fingertips, you might have some concern that you may suffer from caffeine overdose. But how much is too much? While some studies have shown that a high caffeine intake can result in hallucinations, that state might not be one of concern for some of you out there…so here’s a more ‘scientific’ method: The Death by Caffeine calculator over at energy fiend!

Simply enter your weight and select your caffeinated poison of choice to find out what your lethal limit is. How many shots of espresso before we hear the angels’ gilded horns?

Don’t worry, we’re on it.

Not Your Average Cup of Joe

Intelligent coffee? Look, if we could get our coffee to do things like take out the trash and feed the cat, we’d be all set. Actually, that’s a little terrifying, strike that. We would, however, settle for it learning how to maintain its body temperature, but in the absence of that ability we’ll take the next best thing: A new ‘smart mug’ that incorporates a wax-like substance that can keep coffee (or any beverage, for that matter) at its optimal temp for 20 – 30 minutes! That’s right, no re-heating as you stumble through your morning.

Sounds like this is just out of the creation stages, however, so we haven’t been able to find any actual mugs for purchase on the US market, but we’ll certainly keep our eye out for them.

Another Feather in the Cap of Shade Grown Coffee

A recent report released by the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) indicates that climate change may cause an increase in the pest known as the coffee berry borer. ICIPE studied plantations in Colombia, Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia, discovering that the projected increase in global temperature would make sub-tropical regions more susceptible to one of the most devastating pests to coffee crops.

The solution? Revert to cultivating the plants as an understory crop beneath taller forest trees. This was the traditional method for growing the plants, and is how coffee plants are often found in the wild– the forest canopy not only protects them from direct temperature changes, but it also supports a host of wildlife which are predators of the coffee berry borer pest, among others.

In fact, this isn’t the first biological threat to coffee that has come as a result of moving coffee out from under the forest: Over a hundred years ago, the fungus known as coffee rust eradicated many of the coffee plantations throughout Asia, resulting in that region’s heavy adoption of alternative crops such as tea and rubber (the move in India and Sri Lanka to cultivate tea is largely responsible for its ongoing popularity in the UK). Historians have theorized that the voracious spread of this fungus was largely due to the deforestation practices that coffee plantation owners underwent in order to increase their available crop space. The fungus’ spores are easily transported on wind currents, and not having any protection to block the winds from affecting them resulted in a widespread blight.

ICIPE is recommending that coffee farmers transition to the traditional shade-grown method to limit the impact this pest has on their crops as the global climate changes. Growing coffee in this manner, however, decreases the available crop yield and so can result in more expensive products down the line. Whether or not larger plantations begin to adopt these practices before nature forces their hand remains to be seen.

Health Watch: Caffeine & Hormones

In yet another analysis of the long-running Nurses Health Study, researchers have found that caffeine appears to have an impact on the production of different sex hormones in women.

By analyzing the survey data provided by over 1,200 women and pairing it with hormonal testing done on blood samples taken throughout the duration of the study, the folks at Harvard Medical School have been able to correlate a higher intake of caffeine to a decreased level of estrogen in premenopausal women in the latter half of their menstrual cycles. Similarly, in postmenopausal women, they tracked higher levels of sex hormone-binding globulin, which is known to decrease different levels of estrogen and testosterone in the system.

But what these discoveries portend is unclear; unrelated studies have previously linked high caffeine intake and high levels of estrogen and progesterone to ovarian and breast cancers in pre-menopausal women, but if caffeine is reducing the hormone levels in this group of women, then why would it be a possible carcinogen? The study’s authors indicate that further research should be undertaken to make this relationship more clear.

Health Watch: Caffeine & Weight Loss

While we might find caffeine in myriad weight loss treatments — from wraps in the spa to popping pills to colonics (ouch!) — there is not a ton of reliable evidence that indicates it really is an effective method of weight management or loss. In fact, according to the Mayo Clinic’s nutritionist Catherine Zeratsky, many of the studies that have been performed on how caffeine impacts metabolism have been with animals or of a quality that didn’t create statistically viable evidence. In fact, studies involving decaffeinated coffee also showed some positive impact on weight loss, suggesting that something other than caffeine in coffee contributes to losing weight.

However, some of us have had anecdotal experiences with caffeine helping us lose weight, and Zeratsky says that effect could be attributed to appetite suppression, calorie burning or water loss. Keep in mind, however, that if you’re drinking your triple grande breve frappuccino, there ain’t no amount of caffeine that will balance that excess in caloric intake!

Health Watch Update: Caffeine and Alzheimer’s

Last October, we wrote about a study that indicated caffeine intake could help prevent Alzheimer’s because of its beneficial impact on the blood/brain barrier. Now, new evidence indicates that caffeine may not just protect against developing the disease, but it could also play a pretty serious role in reversing it!

Earlier this month, researchers released their findings that caffeine intake actually reduced the protein beta amyloid that, when found in sticky clumps referred to as senile plaque, is a sign of Alzheimer’s disease. The study involved 55 genetically altered mice that exhibited memory loss at the mouse equivalent of a 70 year old human. They gave half the mice about five 8 ounce cups of regular coffee per day in their drinking water. The result was that the group drinking coffee recovered their mental faculties and their memories were as sharp as other older mice who did not exhibit dementia to begin with.

Obviously, we’re not mice, so further research will need to be done on how this affects the disease in humans and whether or not suitable therapies can be developed to prevent and treat Alzheimer’s. But it’s very exciting, nonetheless, and gives us all the more reason to make another cup of coffee today. :)

You’ve Got Great Taste: Coffee Flavor Profiles

The world of coffee sometimes seems a little bit overwhelming — even to us! When we’re working with folks to pick the right machine to meet their needs or discussing the different coffee flavors inherent to different bean blends, we often hear the refrain that many people just want coffee to taste “good.”

Like any vague and subjective descriptor, “good” is defined differently by each of us, and how we achieve that “good” flavor is going to be similarly unique. Finding the blueberry or jasmine in a particular blend of coffee doesn’t have to involve pretension as much as it involves your particular sense of smell. Since flavor itself is defined as the combination of two sensory experiences — that of taste and smell — then your unique anatomical make-up regarding these two sensory systems will define your experiences of all foods, including coffee.

Continue reading You’ve Got Great Taste: Coffee Flavor Profiles

Java Jersey

Bringing new meaning to the phrase ‘wearing your food,’ Tawainese fabric manufacturer Singtex has developed a new cloth that utilizes waste coffee grounds as its basic fibers. Quite fascinating!

Identifying a rich waste source that is often headed straight to the land fill, the firm spent three years working on a way to use coffee grounds clothing manufacturing. The result was S.Cafe, an eco-friendly fabric (it’s renewed and it doesn’t require detergent to wash) that drys quickly, controls odors and provides UV protection. Heck, this sounds like the makings of the world’s greatest travel gear! We couldn’t find a distributor outside of Taiwan at present, but we’ll be keeping our eye out for one.