Now that the fall semester is underway, sleep deprivation is beginning to set in for students everywhere.
Most people in my morning classes stumble in just as the bells ring for 8am, bleary-eyed and holding a cup of coffee. The café in my school’s library is so suffocatingly crowded in between classes that harried workers can barely keep up with the demand. But that doesn’t stop overworked, rushed students — some of whom say things like “My coffee addiction is so bad,” or “I’m trying to cut back” — as they apologetically fill their travel mugs to the brim. Not just students, but many fervent coffee drinkers, seem to feel that their caffeine habits are out of control and damaging.
I’m not sure where this idea originated. Maybe it’s because we classify caffeine as a drug—one that has addictive properties at that—and a drug addiction is nowhere to be found on Oprah’s Ten Tips for a Healthier Lifestyle. It could be that medical experts have advised against excessive caffeine consumption in certain cases like for pregnant women, people with existing health issues and drinking it right before bed.
It is true certain people have negative reactions to caffeine, and drinking coffee right before bed could disrupt sleep (Is this news to anyone?). Caffeine can be addictive, and some people just don’t like the idea of being reliant on a substance. But other than the hazards mentioned, there are virtually no health risks associated with coffee consumption.
Some people infer that because caffeine is a stimulant, it’s probably bad for one’s heart. That’s an intuitive line of thinking, but actually, people who drink moderate amounts of coffee are at the lowest risk for cardiovascular disease. Higher coffee intake seems to generally correlate to lower incidence of all cancers. It has also been known to prevent Type 2 diabetes, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s.
These health benefits correlate to moderate coffee drinking and up to around 10 cups per day. Furthermore, coffee’s effect on mood, cognitive functioning and wakefulness is well documented and not to be understated. This is not to say that everyone should be downing gallons of coffee every day before they can even think of living past the age of 30. Other lifestyle choices are far more important to overall wellbeing. “But,” as Aaron Carroll of the New York Times writes, “it’s way past time that we stopped viewing coffee as something we all need to cut back on.”
This might be surprising information to some, but it seems less so in light of the rich and multicultural history of (what turns out to be) the whole world’s favorite drink. Coffee was first discovered in Ethiopia, in a region called Kaffa. Legend has it that a native goat farmer named Kaldi fed coffee beans to his goats and observed that the animals became hyperactive and wouldn’t sleep.
He tried them for himself, as one would, and liked the taste and energy boost it gave him, so he integrated coffee into the diet of his tribe. No one knows for sure if this is true or exactly when it was, but a physician wrote about coffee for the first documented time around 900 A.D. The first coffee plantations were in the Arabian Peninsula in the 15th century.
Then, the Ottoman Empire spread the plant throughout the Arabic world, where it served as a replacement for alcohol, which is prohibited in Muslim tradition. From there it spread quickly throughout Europe and has long been one of the most sought after commodities. This is a ridiculously condensed version of a long and far-reaching story, but it gives an idea of the common appeal of coffee. Now, it’s practically a cultural universal.
American coffee-drinking culture is often associated with our workaholism. We drink cup after cup merely to stay awake and keep up with the demands of classes and jobs. Dunkin’ Donuts’ slogan “America runs on Dunkin” summarizes this attitude. The whole world drinks coffee, but only America runs on it. We don’t drink more coffee here than people in other countries do, though; we’re not even in the top ten coffee consuming nations.
It’s just that the way our culture treats coffee equates it to a drug to be used rather than a beverage to be enjoyed. Most people who drink coffee do it almost just to get through the day. They value quantity over quality and speed over enjoyment. We have Starbucks drive-throughs and Keurig machines so we can access our coffee as quickly as possible. It’s well known now that these methods are producing disastrous amounts of waste, but coffee-drinkers seem unable to stop.
Contrarily, in Europe and many other parts of the world, coffee is enjoyed in a café as a relaxing and social activity. Café culture is such that people strolling along a sidewalk can stop at one of many cafes, order a drink and sit and linger for hours. Sure, we have coffee shops like that in trendy areas of the U.S., but it wouldn’t be uncommon to see most people in an American coffee shop hunched over staring at their laptops, typing furiously so they can finish their work before the baristas kick them out for closing.
Starbucks can pretend to imitate an Italian café with their fancy-sounding lexicon, but coffee in Italy doesn’t actually have a dizzying array of styles, sizes and flavored syrups — there are only a few basic options. And if you went to Europe and ordered a cup of coffee “to go,” you’d risk being laughed out the door. The concept of taking one’s coffee and bringing it somewhere else doesn’t exist for them.
So in reality, Starbucks and the rest of American coffee culture is more like an overdone and misconstrued appropriation of real café culture. Since Americans use coffee solely as a tool for productivity—that is to say, problematically—it makes sense that they would have a troubled relationship with their consumption of it. They feel guilty, perhaps for relying on it. But I’d argue that the negativity comes from our culture’s lack of an outlet for simply enjoying a hot espresso over conversation with friends or a captivating novel.
Criticizing such a widespread aspect of our nation in favor of something so quintessentially uppity as European café culture may seem pretentious, and I am certainly not claiming to be “above” anything I’ve described. I could single-handedly keep my local Starbucks in business, and I go through K-cups as though I have a personal vendetta against the planet. Every culture is different, and it’s fine for the U.S. to develop its own customs surrounding coffee. It’s important, however, to keep in mind that it’s ok — beneficial, even — to enjoy coffee. The real harm is our own shame inducing ideology.
Don’t apologize for drinking three consecutive cups. You’re merely engaging in a practice that spans centuries and thousands of miles to link millions of individuals in a shared luxury of life.