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Robin Friedman : author and journalist

The java jive

Chances are you’re addicted, but you sure aren’t the only one

By ROBIN FRIEDMAN | The Allentown Times | November 25, 2005

What can brown do for you?

A lot. That morning cup of oomph delivers much more than just a java jolt.

Fact is, coffee has four times the antioxidants of green tea, providing a powerhouse of perks that include lowering your risk of diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, colon cancer and liver cancer; stopping a headache; boosting your mood, concentration and endurance; even preventing cavities!

Chances are, as you’re reading this, you’ve already had your cup of coffee, you’re sipping a cup of coffee or you’re about to get a cup of coffee.

Chances are also good you appreciate the finer differences between a latte, espresso and cappuccino, you’re absolutely fanatical about your cuppa customs and you’ve invested in paraphernalia to promote your habit.

You’re addicted, my caffeinated friend.

But you’re not alone.

Second only to crude oil, coffee is the planet’s second most popular commodity. (And you thought prices at the pump were high? Are you aware of how much you paid for that domed-lid-styrofoam cup of Joe this morning?)

“If I could get it as an IV drip, I would,” says Steve Wogaman, executive director of the Allentown Symphony Association, which runs the Allentown Symphony Orchestra and Symphony Hall. “It’s my drug of choice and I’m happily addicted.”

As befits a concert pianist, Wogaman joyfully launches into song about it: “If I can’t have my coffee break…something within me dies! That’s from How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” (Wogaman drinks four cups a day.)

While enjoying coffee regularly may certainly be described as a habit, experts are undecided on whether coffee actually classifies as addictive, since it’s not associated with the severe withdrawal symptoms of drugs such as heroin, cocaine or even nicotine. Yet, skipping coffee almost always causes headaches and lethargy, all symptoms of caffeine withdrawal.

“I get massive headaches if I don’t drink coffee,” says Frank Steslow, executive director of the Da Vinci Discovery Center of Science and Technology (three to four cups a day). “I don’t know anyone who doesn’t drink coffee.”

With over 400 billion cups consumed every year, coffee is Earth’s most popular beverage, employing 20 million people worldwide.

“A few years ago, I felt like I was addicted to both coffee and sugar,” says Randy Helm, president of Muhlenberg College. “So, I gave up both, and for two days, I thought I was dying. But, then, I felt great.”

Helm sticks with black decaf today, still a source of morning comfort.

“If I couldn’t have my coffee, I’d probably wander the house looking for my coffee pot,” he says. “I might not even know why I was wandering the house. I’m a creature of habit. I make coffee and let the dog out.”

Helm’s morning ritual also includes choosing a special mug.

“I’ll use my Hillel mug if I’m feeling religious; my Vassar Dad mug if I’m missing my son; my Yankee Doodle Diner mug if I’m feeling nostalgic and my yellow mug if it’s gloomy outside and I need cheering up,” he says.

The average American, by the way, consumes 3.4 cups of coffee a day.

“It’s such a part of my life. I can’t imagine starting my day without it,” says Rudy Ackerman, executive director of the Baum School of Art and president of the Allentown Arts Commission (three cups, black).

Dr. Steven Marks, president and chief executive officer of the Lehigh Valley Zoo, says his two cups a day (milk and sugar) “get me moving at 100 miles an hour.”

“I brew it at home, but if I’m running late, I’ll buy it. I try to avoid the office coffee — it’s mud,” he says.

Although many offices pick up the caffeine tab for their employees, Helm says, “It’s a nice, warm feeling going down, a comforting smell, a nice hot drink in the morning, but it’s not a major factor in my happiness. I’m a naturally happy person. If offices want their employees to be happy, they should give them Prozac.”

Discovered in an Ethiopian rain forest centuries ago, coffee has a rich and troubled history, spawning revolutions, spurring deforestation, enriching some, impoverishing many.

In colonial America, it was the beverage of patriotic choice following the Boston Tea Party, and, from the earliest days of the republic, our military forces have exploited its superhuman powers.

“It revs me up like the engine of a car,” says Father Bernard O’Connor, president of DeSales University (decaf, two to four cups, skim milk, no sugar). “My system is sensitive to caffeine. I feel the effect within minutes.”

Despite its fame and fortunes, though, coffee has suffered an enduring image problem, bearing the slurs, smears and slander of a seductive, addictive, brain-altering vice just above smoking, gambling and hitting the bottle.

The happy truth, however, is that your favorite brew is much more than a caffeine fix. Recent studies find coffee contains hundreds of pain-relieving and antibacterial compounds.

That doesn’t mean you can sip with impunity-you know what happens when you have too much. But it’s good to know your daily ritual might actually be doing more than getting you going in the morning.

A study of 8,000 Japanese-American men over three decades determined that those who did not drink any coffee compared to those who drank coffee every day were five times more likely to develop Parkinson’s disease, a neurological disorder that causes trembling, faulty coordination and difficulty with speech.

Experts believe caffeine increases the amount of dopamine, a key neurotransmitter, in the brain; Parkinson’s occurs when levels of dopamine go down. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke studied 77,000 women over two decades and concluded caffeine had the same positive effect on women.

Is coffee a health food? There’s no simple answer, but the science has been stunning, to say the least. At the absolute minimum, coffee needs to update its bad-boy image to match the goody-two-shoes facts:

“It’s nice to know my habit has benefits,” says Christine Oaklander, director of collections and exhibitions at the Allentown Art Museum (two cups, milk, sugar-substitute). “We’re all trying to do too much, so we reach for stimulants, be it a candy bar or coffee. But I’m sure if it was very unhealthy, we’d switch to something else.”

Carol Pulham, provost of Cedar Crest College, likes the “little bit of extra alertness” she gets from coffee (one cup, skim milk, no sugar).

The myths surrounding coffee’s origins are steeped in legend. According to one story, coffee was discovered in Ethiopia hundreds of years ago by a goat herder named Kaldi, who observed his goats acting unusually frisky after eating berries from a bush. Curious, Kaldi tried the berries and was soon as hyperactive as his herd.

Monks who heard about this amazing fruit discovered it could help them stay awake for their prayers. They dried the berries so they could be transported to distant monasteries.

In Turkey, coffee beans were roasted for the first time, crushed and boiled in water, a crude version of what we sip today. The Turks were the first to adopt coffee as a drink, often adding spices such as clove, cinnamon, cardamom and anise. Once in Europe, coffee spread quickly.

“A good cup of coffee can turn the worst day tolerable, provide an all-important moment of contemplation, even rekindle a romance,” writes Mark Pendergrast in Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World.

For the price of a tall latte over here, Pendergrast notes, coffee workers in South America receive a day’s wage. Coffee, he writes, is “rife with controversy.”

“The world would be a sad and lonely place without coffee,” Wogaman says. “The only way I wouldn’t have my coffee is if a colossal, catastrophic emergency threw me out of bed so fast I’d have no time to make it, but then I’d have adrenaline instead. I had a leak in the ceiling over my Steinway piano a few weeks ago, and I spent the whole morning in the driving rain. That’s the only time it would ever happen.”

“When I buy a car,” he adds, “The cup holder really matters a lot. It’s an important design factor.”

Abraham Nemitz, president of the Network of Young Professionals (four cups, black), likes the culture of coffee.

“There’s a social value to having a fun place to hang out in a setting that doesn’t involve alcohol,” he says. “Coffee houses are like the community’s living room; come sit down, do your work, meet people. My hope for Allentown and all of the Lehigh Valley is to have a flourishing coffee house scene.”

Hey, Starbucks, are you listening?

* Staff Writer Robin Friedman (one cup, milk, sugar-substitute) can’t start a day without coffee.