May 24

Coffee, Tea, for Me?

6  comments

I grew up drinking tea, not coffee. This will, no doubt, come as a shock to my kids or anyone who has known me only as an adult; unlike many of my peers, I didn’t begin drinking gallons of black coffee to stay awake to study in high school or even in college. I drank plenty of Lipton tea, but no coffee.

From the time I was about 11 or 12 years old, my dear sweet mother awakened me every morning by gently opening my bedroom door and softly calling “Tea Time” at which point, I would stumble to the breakfast table and down a couple of cups, hot, sweetened with sugar, and softened with cream. Like the English, my mother felt that whatever ailed you, tea was the best medicine. Headache? Cup of tea. Queasy stomach? Cup of tea. Cold or flu? Cup of tea. Broken heart? Cup of tea.

(I’ve gotta admit it’s by far more pleasant than my Great Aunt Nell’s remedy for everything, which was a dose of Milk of Magnesia. )

No, it wasn’t until I was a junior in med school–on my feet from early morning until late at night, no time to eat, up all night on call–that I learned to even tolerate coffee, much less like it. But I soon saw the lay of the land. Every ward desk/nurses’ station in a hospital has a coffee pot going 24/7/365. For a small donation to the coffee kitty–then a buck a week–one could imbibe limitless coffee all day and night. Where I trained, at least, tea could only be had down in the cafeteria (in the hospital basement and a long schlep away) at a cost of nearly a buck a cup. Coffee was hot, cheap, and available. I acquiesced at work; at home, I stuck to tea.

But then, something subtle and mysterious occurred. I found I actually liked coffee, that I actually looked forward to getting to the ward to get a cup of it. Bit by bit coffee drinking supplanted my tea habit and a true coffee junkie was born. Nowadays, I’m rarely seen without a cup of coffee in my hand.

The switch brought with it an unexpected benefit. From a habit developed in childhood, I heavily sweetened my tea. Back in the good ole days, the only artificial sweetener commercially available in cute little packets was saccharine, which I’ve never been able to get used to, so it was nothing but the full-strength white crystal for me. Since I prefer only cream in my coffee, switching saved me a ton of calories. Although, I made the change more as a matter of economics and convenience than taste, the swap from tea to coffee helped me tame the evil sugar fairy.

But then, history notes that I’m not the only one who adopted coffee out of economic necessity. The American colonies, which were founded by a bunch of tea drinking Englishmen, made the switch as a political statement against the excessive cost of tea. To counter the unfair taxes imposed on tea by King George, the Continental Congress declared coffee the national drink of the colonies and drinking it became a patriotic duty. Their political statement forever changed the way America wakes up–well that and a famous little shipboard tea party in the Boston Harbor, but that’s another tale.

At the time, coffee was fairly new to our shores, although there’s disagreement on exactly when and how it came. Some accounts claim Sir John Smith (of Pocahontas fame) introduced it upon his arrival circa 1600; other stories recount that in 1723 a Frenchman stole and transplanted one lone coffee plant into the fertile soil of Martinique, from which stock allegedly sprang an estimated 90% of the new world’s coffee trees. (Interested readers can find more interesting coffee factoids, as I did, by clickinghere and here.)

However it occurred, suffice it to say, that by some means, it got here and within a century or so, took the place by storm, which seems fast until you compare it to the rise of Starbucks and with it a love affair with coffee that has some folks worried. A large contingent of people (I am not among them) believes–or at least wants us to believe–that coffee is responsible for every imaginable human ill.

Such vilification is nothing new in the history of coffee drinking. In the 1600s, the Catholic pious sought to have coffee banned as being a ‘devil’s brew’, requiring papal intervention to save it; in 18th century Germany, women were forbidden to drink coffee because it was thought to render them sterile, in modern times it’s been fingered as a possible cause of everything from breast cysts to colon cancer. But times change, and when coffee has been examined under the bright light of reasoned scientific inquiry (not indicted from the shadowy realm of epidemiologic guilt by association) it has usually come away clean. The most recent research even points to pronounced health benefits from coffee drinking, namely reduction of risk for diabetes, colon, breast, and other cancers, and Alzheimer’s disease.

A recent news article by Michael Granberry, entitled “Is there a health problem when your coffee cup runneth overtime?” beautifully lays out the pros and cons of our national fascination with Starbucks and the debate that rages over whether coffee drinking is a good thing or a bad thing. To read it in its entirety, clickhere.

Since my conversion, I have loved the stuff through thick and think, through bad press and (now) good. Perhaps, they had it right in the 15th Century, when Ottoman Turkish law decreed that a woman could legally divorce her husband for not providing a proper daily quota of coffee.

So fire up the machine, honey, and make mine a double, will ya’? I haven’t quite had my quota today.


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  1. Your entry is a little surprising to me in a way. That is, almost everything I’ve read has said that caffeine is, in one way or another, bad for you. I think I remembering reading that it causes a spike in a chemical similar to adreneline or something like that, and that that can cause early aging. I’ve also read that it’s an addictive substance (hence the same suffix as nicotine) and that it’s not good to become dependent on it to get a wake up in the morning, etc. Now I realize I don’t remember you or Mike mentioning it at length in PPLP, so what would you be your general take about caffeine?

    COMMENT from MD EADES: Caffeine is a mild stimulant that works by activating c-AMPpretty much like the theobromine in teas. There’s no doubt that it’s also mildly addictive. For some people it’s a problem and they should avoid it; for most it’s pretty harmless. To my knowledge, try though many have done to indict caffeine on a score of health issues, good research hasn’t borne out the claims.

    Coffee has over 300 different antioxidants; a recent study has shown that Americans get more antioxidants from coffee than from any other single food source. There is at least some speculation that some of the benefits attributed to coffee only accrue from caffeinated coffee–that the decaffienation process destroys some of the good things. So for myself, I drink my first two cups fully leaded and the balance throughout the day and evening as decaf.

  2. Great article….

    Im a coffee drinker too….
    And…I have benefitted greatly from the Protein Power books…

    However, my question….is there an amount you would consider excessive? I drink one venti Americano with half and half a day….

    Thanks!!
    COMMENT from MD EADES: I personally drink 2 fully leaded double Americanos each morning and then go to double decaf Americanos during the day and evening. IMHO, I think you’re fine.

  3. I also grew up on tea. It was necessary to “doctor” it, because inevitably, my mother ended up boiling it on the stove and bursting the tea bags (then it had to be watered down and strained).

    The coffee we had was either from a perculator (remember the see-through knob at the top with the coffee sputtering around?), or (heaven forbid as I think of it now) – INSTANT.

    I started by adding sugar and cream to it (probably the only way to make it palatable), but during high school, cut back on the sugar, and then, with a lactose intolerant spouse and child, cut out the milk, as well (if I drank milk/cream, he got sick from breast feeding).

    Years passed, and I drank most things that resembled coffee, not realizing that there was indeed a difference.

    We were transferred to the West, and was introduced to coffee shops, and I developed a taste for the differences in coffee brews. I was amazed. It wasn’t the watery, gritty, bitter concoction that I knew and loathed. It had aroma and each coffee house/cafe had their own particular flavour. I became a “coffee snob”, preferring one type/roast over another, and scoffing at the thought of choosing another.

    I bought a coffee mill and fairly traded beans, and was in “coffee heaven”, brewing it to my satisfaction.

    We’ve since moved. There are very few places here that serve a really good cup of coffee. There is ONE Starbucks in the city (possibly even the Province). There is one place I can get semi-decent beans, and I usually buy a variety and make my own blend for home.

    I’d go back to loose tea, which I discovered out West as well, but that’s nearly as difficult to come by as a good cup of coffee (and we won’t even consider decaf – most places here will actually offer you instant if you want decaf!!)

    COMMENT from MD EADES: Back in the dark ages when Starbucks was a mail-order coffee bean retailer only, we bought their beans and ground them fresh daily to make pots of dark, robust French pressed coffee at home and learned to savor the flavors, acidities, and intensities of their various beans. There were not coffee bars or specialty stores back then and you could only get them shipped in–a method that remains valid today and which would solve your access problem. I still love and prefer the flavor of Starbucks’ coffee and now buy espresso roast (caf and decaf) at my neighborhood Starbucks to use in my Starbucks Athena Barista espresso machine at home. That way I can get great tasting, fresh coffee with a perfect crema every day right at home. I highly recommend either espresso or French pressed coffee as the best in flavor and taste.

  4. Thanks for the info. Just one more question. Upon resorting to coffee for the caffeine to keep me up at work today, one of my co-workers said that it’s linked to increased weight gain because coffee causes more cortisol in the body. Your husband spoke on cortisol in a couple blog entries of his during July and the effects of it, and I believe you wrote about it in PPLP. Is there any concern there? At first I felt it seemed a bit of a reach, and I read some stuff about it online, but I thought I’d go ahead and ask a doctor about the subject 🙂

    COMMENT from MD EADES: Caffeine is a mild stimulant, it’s true; it works through turning on the cyclic AMP system through which we produce energy. No doubt it can become mildly addictive. As a mild stimulant, I suspect it could–if drunk in huge amounts–result in some significant release of cortisol, which can cause weight gain (particularly central body fat stores.) A little bit of caffeine (a few cups a day) has been shown to be beneficial (as I mentioned in the blog) for warding off a variety of serious illnesses. Going overboard might prove harmful; possibly it’s weight gaining effects occur more because the liver has to deal with the caffeine (as it has to do with many hormones, medications, alcohol, toxins, etc) which takes up its time, leaving less of its capacity for doing other necessary activities. I chose to limit my caffeine to the first two cups in the morning and go decaf the rest of the day. It took me a while to “get off” my habit of drinking caffeine throughout the day and into the evening, but once I suffered through some days of headache and somnolence, I found I no longer needed the boost.

  5. I second the recommendation of a French press pot for great coffee. I used to spend a fortune at the Starbucks in my building because the coffee supplied by my firm (Starbucks Sumatra) is pretty much undrinkable and gave me nasty heartburn. Maybe it’s the commercial drip brewing system they use, who knows? Anyhow, one day I was at Costplus and spotted a tiny French press that makes one perfect cup of coffee, purchased it and have never looked back. I will say that coffee made in the French press seems to produce a cup with a lot more caffeine than other methods. I can only have one cup a day or I get the jitters, something that I have never experienced with coffee made any other way. One thing I have to have, though, for my coffee is straight cream. Half & half and milk just water it down too much for me and render it virtually undrinkable. I even have little glass vials to carry my cream in when hubby and I go out to breakfast.

    As for all the hoohaw about coffee/caffeine being so bad for us, all I can say is my relatives drink the stuff all day long and live to be a ripe old age with all their mental abilities intact. In fact, my great-aunt (who lived to be 98) considered my grandmother, who was in her late 80’s when she passed, to have “died young.” Perhaps it was the homemade donuts that Grandma was so fond of dunking in her coffee that did her in.

    COMMENT from MD EADES: French pressed coffee is higher in caffeine than espresso, but I’m not sure if it’s higher than drip. Could be. The biggest problem with drip coffee is that it’s usually left to sit on a warmer and become stale and burned–or old and cold. French pressed coffee is full of robust coffee flavor–even the decaf. Maybe you should try using part decaf.

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