Described as the irresistible bean, coffee has played a crucial role in society, and remains an integral part of society today – known for both its stimulating properties and its ability to bring people together.

The controversial bean

The discovery of coffee is ancient, with the first signs of coffee drinking appearing circa 1200 AD. The history of coffee is extensive, and the bean has always remained controversial – from the way we trade it, to the way we drink it, to the possible health benefits and risks associated with its consumption. Since coffee’s origins in Ethiopia and the spread of it over five continents, it has ignited revolution, controversy, creativity, commerce, and slavery along the way.

My Turkish coffee turning point

Arab conquerors brought coffee to Turkey in the 1500’s, Venetian traders carried it home to Italy about the mid-17th century and the first news of coffee in the new world came in the early 1600’s. When I was travelling in Turkey in 1997, I not only fell in love with the hospitality of a country (where on many occasions, my blond travel mate and I were the only women out and about in small villages or travelling on the bus system), but I became captivated with the Turkish carpets, food and coffee. Turkish coffee is unlike anything we serve in Canadian coffee shops. You only need a small amount to get the incredible taste and texture of this delicious drink. At that point in my travels, I realized the many powers of this irresistible bean.

LatteThe coffee break

The next time you are enjoying your coffee break alone or with family, friends, and colleagues, think about the journey the bean travelled to arrive in your cup. Today, coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world second to only oil and the number one food commodity. Coffee is cultivated in tropical and subtropical regions around the globe including Brazil, Vietnam, Indonesia and Columbia. It grows best in the shade of tropical rain forests, which offer a damp, cool climate.  The coffee industry has had its ‘fair’ share of triumphant highs and devastating lows throughout history.  Today, fair trade is a common term used in the coffee industry. The purpose of fair trade is to promote healthier working conditions and greater economic incentives for producers, since in many parts of the world there are no restrictions or labor standards and as such employers can provide cheap coffee with cheap labor costs.

Coffee and health

Have you ever wondered why some people can drink two cups of coffee before bed and fall asleep immediately, when others (including me) can only drink one cup early in the day to avoid symptoms of sleeplessness, nervousness and irritability?  Well it may be all in your genes.

Personalized health is the future of modern medicine (hopefully sooner than later).  By measuring people’s health comprehensively we can better tailor foods, diets, and treatments to prevent disease and improve health. Phenotyping is the revolutionary approach that will bring this to practice. This point needs to be considered when studying the relationship between coffee and health.

Research (very interesting work out of University of Toronto) has shown that individuals have different responses to coffee, which demonstrates that coffee consumption may be very effective for some and not favourable for others. The most studied bioactive compound in coffee is caffeine. Research has revealed the benefits of caffeinated coffee consumption can include: alertness, effectiveness as a weight loss aid; improvement in athletic performance and endurance; protection against type 2 diabetes and heart disease; and relief from headaches and other body pains. However, the negative side effects of coffee consumption are numerous including insomnia, nervousness, irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, irritability and increased potential for rheumatoid arthritis.

When faced with conflicting evidence like this, it is best to know how the benefits or side effects apply specifically to you as an individual. Recommended coffee consumption amounts on a daily basis should not be a public health message (Dr. Oz – are you listening?)!  It is also wise to remember that Health Canada recommends a maximum intake of 400 mg of caffeine per day, for the general healthy adult population.

Turkish Coffee Ice Cream with Dried Pomegranate Seeds

For a delicious treat to wrap up the summer, try this recipe via