Coffee’s health benefits stand the test of time

Mainstream medicine is slowly catching on to the many health benefits of drinking coffee.

But it’s been a long time coming.

For decades, mainstream medicine considered coffee drinking a vice or a crutch. They even tried to find some link between coffee consumption and a higher risk of various illnesses. I remember seeing the headlines in the early 1980s when statisticians trumpeted an “association” they found between coffee and some forms of cancer.

But after months of breathless excitement among the nanny state public health experts, a more careful analysis revealed the association with cancer was limited to only certain kinds of decaffeinated coffee, which are exposed to chemical solvents to artificially remove the caffeine. In the ensuing decades, they never found any other evidence about the harms of coffee. But not from lack of trying, of course!

More recent, modern research shows drinking natural, caffeinated coffee offers many health benefits. I attribute the benefits to coffee’s hundreds of natural constituents in addition to caffeine itself. In fact, as I reported yesterday, one new study found men and women who drink two-to-three cups of coffee per day cut their risk of developing colon cancer by more than half. Of course, other studies show drinking coffee regularly also prevents dementia, heart disease, and other chronic diseases.

It makes sense drinking coffee has stood the test of time…

Coffee rises out of ancient world

Coffee arose from the Arabic world centuries ago. Arab mystics drank it as part of a three-course meal. According to legend, shepherds on the Ethiopian plateau made the first coffee drink with beans from the wild coffee plant.

The earliest cultivation of the coffee plant happened in Yemen, where they gave coffee the Arabic name “qahwa.” Qahwa originally meant wine, and Sufi mystics in Yemen drank it to aid mental concentration and spiritual “intoxication” during chanting. (Like the famous “Whirling Dervishes” today.)

By the early 1400s, we know people drank coffee in Mecca, the capital of the Arabic world. A century later, people living in the port city of Mocha on the Arabian Peninsula drank it also.

Coffee houses soon started to appear around Cairo and at the religious university of Azhar. I see it as a natural progression, since Egypt was a more cosmopolitan society that predated Islam with the ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman civilizations. Coffee houses also opened in Syria, especially in the cosmopolitan city of Aleppo, and finally in Istanbul, the capital of the huge Ottoman Empire in Turkey, in 1554.

Culturally, men drank coffee in the ancient world. They gathered together in coffee houses where they talked, listened to poets, and played games like backgammon and chess.

Religious authorities try to ban coffee

Religious authorities saw these coffee houses as an intellectual and social meeting place that rivalled their mosques. So in Cairo, Istanbul and Mecca, they attempted to ban it. Learned teachers investigated whether the effects of drinking coffee resembled the effects of drinking alcohol, which — of course — Islam forbids.

But all attempts to ban coffee failed, despite even the imposition of the death penalty during the reign of Ottoman Murad IV (1623 – 1640).

Eventually, coffee spread to Europe. Some people incorrectly assume it came to Europe from the Americas, together with chocolate and tobacco. Indeed, coffee became popular in Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries at the same time that many new foods came to the continent after the exploration into Africa and the Americas.

But coffee actually came to Europe through the Middle East via two routes: the Ottoman Empire in Turkey and the original port of Mocha. Some scholars believe the intellectual and social stimulation, together with the caffeine itself, contributed to the new, original ideas discovered by natural scientists and philosophers meeting at the popular coffeehouses and helped bring about the “Age of Enlightenment.”

In colonial America, coffee became an alternative to tea, which the British Crown taxed heavily before the revolution of 1776. It may have likewise stimulated and contributed to the discussions and ideas about the “rights of man” that eventually led to the American Revolution itself.

Today, farmers grow coffee plants in hot climates all over the world — in sub-Saharan Africa, South America, Indonesia, and Vietnam, which give their names to different varieties.

Fortunately, you don’t have to be a Sufi mystic on the one hand, or suffer persecution by politically correct health experts, to enjoy all the benefits of coffee today.