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Coffee's Dark Side: Your Favorite Cup of Java May Not Be So Healthful After All

Coffee is one of the most-consumed beverages in the world and its estimated use spans 700 years. However, coffee processing has changed dramatically over the years to help serve the growing demand from the world's population. Consequently, dozens of steps (many harmful) are now involved in the growth of coffee beans and their processing. It's time to recognize the toxicity of conventional coffee beans and insist on organic sources for yourself and your family. Here's why.

Coffee is the second most traded product in the world after petroleum. Worldwide coffee production tips the scales at about 6 million metric tonnes. The average yield from one tree is the equivalent of one roasted pound of coffee and it takes five years for a coffee tree to reach maturity. Coffee growers must thus resort to toxic methods to ensure maximum yield from their crops including the use of harmful chemicals to ensure crops are free of insects and pathogens.

Recently, there has been a big push to promote the benefits of coffee. From fighting free radicals, to improving memory, diabetes, parkinson's, and even reducing cancer risk, there is plenty of studies touting the so-called miraculous health benefits of coffee. But are these claims true and non-biased or exagerrated claims with alterior motives? Some of the biggest promoters of coffee's health benefits come from the largest producers themselves such as those in Brazil.

However, there have also been a number of studies showing the detrimental effects of coffee on human health. Almost all publications rely on conventional sources of coffee for their studies.

Researcher Marie-Soleil Beaudoin has discovered not only that a healthy person's blood sugar levels spike after eating a high-fat meal, but that the spike doubles after having both a fatty meal and caffeinated coffee – jumping to levels similar to those of people at risk for diabetes.

Caffeine has recently been found to reduce muscle activity in the Fallopian tubes that carry eggs from a woman's ovaries to her womb. "Our experiments were conducted in mice, but this finding goes a long way towards explaining why drinking caffeinated drinks can reduce a woman's chance of becoming pregnant," says Professor Sean Ward from the University of Nevada School of Medicine, Reno, USA.

The amount of caffeine in just one cup of coffee could also be enough to harden a person's arteries for several hours afterward, according to a study presented at the European Society of Cardiology Congress here.

Another study suggested that heart attacks might be a risk for coffee drinkers with a common genetic trait that makes caffeine linger in their bodies.

A growing body of research suggests that caffeine disrupts glucose metabolism and may contribute to the development and poor control of type 2 diabetes, a major public health problem. The blood sugar fluctuations that a caffeine high produces can contribute enormously to cravings.

Coffee can cause the body to excrete calcium in urine. We don't want the body to rid itself of calcium because this can lead to osteoporosis. According to The Diet Channel, about five milligrams of calcium is lost per every six ounces of coffee consumed.

One of the Most Sprayed Crops in the World

The coffee plant is one of the most heavily sprayed crops. It's coated with chemicals, pesticides, and herbicides, nothing you'd want to be ingesting. These chemicals then leech into the ground water and make people sick in local areas where coffee is grown.

Even though many chemicals that have been found to be harmful to the environment have been banned or are strictly regulated in the U.S. or Europe, they remain legal to use in less-developed countries, including many countries that grow coffee. 

For instance, workers in these countries may be less likely to be well-informed about the dangers of the chemicals, less likely to be provided with protective gear, and less informed about proper application methods (see this abstract, for example).  These regions are also much higher in biodiversity and ecosystem complexity, increasing the risk to the environment.

Here are just some of the more common chemicals used on coffee farms to control major pests and pathogens:

Endosulfan (brand nameThiodan) — used against coffee cherry borer. Does not dissolve readily (but does degrade) in water and sticks to soil particles, so may take years to completely break down. Its breakdown products are more persistent than parent compounds. It is toxic to mammals, birds, and fish. Effects the central nervous system, and in animals causes kidney, testes, and liver damage. Class II (moderately hazardous).

Colombia has considered endosulfan worse than the coffee cherry borer. In that country, more than 100 human poisonings and one death were attributed to endosulfan use in coffee during 1993; more than 100 poisonings and three deaths were reported in 1994.  Here is an article on endosulfan.

Chlorpyrifos (brand name Dursban). A broad spectrum organophosphate used against coffee cherry borer and coffee leaf miner. In the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency banned most household uses in 2000.  It is a contact poison.  It has caused human deaths, and has been linked to birth defects. It is extremely toxic to birds, freshwater and marine organisms, bees, and other wildlife.  It can bioaccumulate and effect bird reproduction. Class II. A recent report on exposure and risks (especially to children) of chlorpyrifos from the Organic Center is here.

Diazinon (brand name Basudin).
Used against coffee borer. Not very toxic to mammals unless inhaled, it is nonetheless highly toxic to wildlife and beneficial insects, and acutely toxic to birds.  In the U.S. where it is still commonly used on turfgrass, diazinon has caused the second largest number of total known incidents of bird mortality of any pesticide. Class II. Another profile here.

A systemic organophosphate insecticide used against leaf miner.  In the U.S., restricted use due to its high toxicity to mammals by all routes of exposure.  It is also highly toxic to birds and fish. Secondary exposure and poisoning occurs after birds feed on insects that have consumed residue-laden plants; these insects are impaired by the disulfoton and are easier for birds to capture, compounding the problem. High levels of toxins can be attained in this manner and has resulted in avian mortality in connection with disulfoton use.  It is delivered in granular form, which poses the threat of runoff and contamination of other crops when applied on slopes, on which coffee is often grown. Degrades or is metabolized by plants into harmful compounds that are very persistent in the environment. Class 1a, extremely hazardous (highest toxicity). Another profile here.

Methyl parathion (a.k.a. ethyl parathion, parathion). Organophosphate used against leaf miner. One of the most toxic pesticides,  highly restricted in U.S. Very toxic to birds when ingested or through skin exposure.  Also highly toxic to animals and fish. Persistent in soil and will bioaccumulate.  Areas sprayed with this chemical should not be entered for 48 hours. It is banned in Indonesia and restricted in Colombia, but Pesticide Action Network reports that there is evidence that methyl parathion is not used safely in Central America and is regularly misused in developing countries. Class 1a, extremely hazardous.

Triadimefon (brand name Bayleton). Copper-based fungicide used to against coffee rust. Only slightly toxic to birds, little is known about its effect on humans, but it is a
suspected that there is potential for reproductive problems with chronic exposure.  It has been found to induce hyperactivity in rats. The major concern is that long-term use of this and other copper-based fungicides is copper accumulation in soils, such as been found in coffee farms in Kenya and in Costa Rica.  Copper toxicity has been found in other crops grown in these soils, and copper impacts other biochemical and biological processes in soil, and little is known about long-term effects in tropical ecosystems. The primary metabolite of triadimefon is triadimenol, which is Class III (slightly hazardous). Another profile here.

Cypermethrin. A synthetic pyrethroid used against coffee cherry borer. Generally low direct toxicity to birds, but ingestion via contaminated insects causes mortality in young birds.  Extremely toxic to fish other aquatic organisms, and should not be applied any place where it may drift into water.  Class II.

Decaffeinated coffee goes through additional processing where caffeine is removed with chemicals. Conventional decaffeinated coffee often has more chemicals that regular.

Where Should You Buy Your Coffee From?

There is a lot of money in the coffee industry, but very little goes to the growers. The price of coffee is set by global commodity markets. The forces at work in these markets are skewed by the interests of a few huge multinational food companies. These forces are completely out of the control of growers. As a result, coffee prices fluctuate from prices that can sustain the lives of growers near the poverty line in good years to below the price of production in others. The lives of these growers are uncertain and marginal.

The notion of fair trade is to by-pass the global coffee distribution chain and define another kind of trade. Trade that provides stability to the growers by offering credit, establishing long term trading relationships, and establishing minimum prices that enable a decent life to growers.

Long term relationships give coffee farmers and their families confidence in their future. With this confidence children can go to school believing that they will have the opportunity to complete their studies. Access to credit enables growers to band together in co-operatives and invest in alternate processing and storage facilities and establish their own export companies that deal directly with importers into North America, Europe and Australia.

The benefits of this method of distribution are just as profound to the end consumer: because the beans from the single origin are not mingled with others from the country, the quality and uniqueness of the single origin are maintained. This means that the growers become rewarded for the quality character of their particular crop and that gives them incentive to continually improve. In this process, growers shift from labourers to connoisseurs and the end consumer here in North America is the ultimate beneficiary. Win-Win

What To Look For

Coffee should be brewed within 4-6 weeks after roasting. The industry standard shelf life is 1 year. Over 70% of coffee importers do not follow these protocols far exceeding the time range for sales and stock.

Whatever you do, stay away from your local coffee shop, Starbucks, McDonald's or any other conventional chain that does not insist on using organic sources with certified credentials. Check your labels and ensure you are purchasing organic certified products.

Organic coffee is one of the choices you could resort to especially if you are searching for high quality and the best coffee blends. This is fast becoming a favorite among coffee aficionados because of its high end and awesome taste and aroma. Moreover, coffee lovers who are health conscious at the same time find this coffee choice the most remarkable one.

There are renowned coffee beans and brands for organic java which are trusted by countless coffee lovers around the world. Green Mountain: Fair Trade Organic, Sprouts Farmers Market and Tom Thumb (Safeway): O Organics European Blend are just few of the brands established in the market today.

The best way to help our migratory birds is to purchase certified Bird Friendly® coffees. Rather than being grown on land that has been cleared of all other vegetation, Bird Friendly® coffees are planted under a canopy of trees that provide habitat for birds. In addition to being shade grown, Bird Friendly® coffees are also organic, meaning they're grown without the use of chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers that poison the environment. See what Kenn Kaufman says about Bird Friendly® Coffee on his blog.

The Rainforest Alliance has a broad social and ecological mandate that spans many sectors including agriculture. Coffee is one of the agricultural crops targeted by Rainforest Alliance programs. The coffee certification program is aimed at ensuring that coffee workers are paid fairly, treated with respect and that the crop they tend does not contribute to soil erosion, water contamination and forest destruction: the Rainforest Alliance seal means that both social and environmental values are respected.

If possible, ensure your coffee sources are Fair Trade Certified, or if produced on a plantation, that workers' rights should be guaranteed and independently monitored. This includes social justice and environmental sustainability: all coffee should be certified organic and shade grown where applicable. Fair Trade USA and Fair Trade Canada are two examples.



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