Date: May 2005

Column/Title: The New Health Beverage Made Even Healthier: Health-Enhanced Coffees

Author: Kenneth Davids

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The unusual coffees in this month's cupping are the offspring of two trends. The first is the discovery that coffee has as much right to claim membership in the surprise-it's-good-for-you club as do long-time club members green tea and red wine. The second, converging trend is the popularity of hybrid beverages that combine familiar ingredients with substances ranging from vitamins to medicinal herbs in an attempt to convince buyers that these often odd-tasting beverages in strange-shaped containers will help them take on the world with more energy, less weight gain, better attitude, etc.

The still unfolding transformation of coffee from dietary villain to fitness drink, loaded with antioxidants and documented health benefits, must come as a surprise to coffee drinkers of my generation, still used to defending our favorite beverage against the attacks of herbal tea drinkers leering smugly at us from over their mugs of thin-bodied stuff smelling like a cross between deodorant and dead leaves.

Coffee's transformation from health suspect to a position somewhere between health-neutral to strongly health-positive is too complex to summarize here, but it started with the discovery that in long-term studies that connect dietary and other habits to incidence of disease and mortality, regular coffee drinkers often fared better, not worse, than non-coffee drinkers in certain categories, ranging from suicide (fewer coffee drinking nurses committed suicide than those who didn't drink it) to decreased risk of colon cancer.

About the same time laboratory researchers identified the presence of substantial amounts of antioxidants in coffee. One well-conducted study, for example, concluded that the average cup of coffee generates four times as much antioxidant activity as generated by the same cup of green tea. At this point, some researchers began to look for possible links of coffee to disease prevention rather than disease cause. The results of this new research are still coming in, but at this point the scorecard looks rather good for coffee, with coffee consumption associated with reduced risk of certain cancers, Parkinson's disease, hepatic diseases, and kidney stones. For a summary of potential benefits from a pro-coffee perspective, go to www.coffeescience.org. For a more detached survey of coffee health issues, log on to the European site www.cosic.org. As for health risks of coffee drinking, nothing at all has been proven against coffee when consumed at a level of four or fewer cups per day. (When considering this guideline, however, remember that we are talking 5-ounce cups, not 20-ounce grandes. For espresso drinkers, this guideline would translate to about four to five shots of espresso per day.)

So how is the specialty coffee industry, always looking for a new opportunity for product differentiation, responding to the good news about coffee and health? This month's review counts the ways.

First, claim that your roasting process retains more of the goodness in coffee while muting acidity, the sensory property that most often drives newcomers away from coffee. This is the strategy pursued by this month's Puroast samples. According to Puroast, its very long roast process with almost no convection through the roast chamber results in 33 to 40 percent less acidity while presumably preserving all the other good stuff in coffee that, according to the Puroast bag copy, makes coffee - a "natural cure" to life's daily struggles."

Cafe Sunrise makes no claims about acidity, but advertises that coffee roasted by its "Healthy Roast" process retains 100 percent of the antioxidants naturally occurring in the bean." This claim is based on a process that soaks the green beans before roasting in a liquid that absorbs and preserves antioxidant polyphenols that may be lost during the roast. This antioxidant-charged liquid is then used to cool or quench the same beans after roasting, presumably restoring the antioxidants held in the liquid to the roasted coffee.

A second health-oriented marketing strategy is to offer a coffee that is a regular coffee promising all of the newly uncovered potential health benefits, but a regular coffee with the troubling acidity reduced through treatment of the green bean before roasting. This treatment is performed in Germany, and consists of removing the waxy outer layer from the green beans by steaming. Reduced-acidity coffees from the Johann Wulff collection and Hevla Coffee are reviewed here. (A health conundrum: If chlorogenic acids are among the acids removed by the German acid-reducing process, then the antioxidant properties of the coffee may be impaired, given that chlorogenic acids are among the more prominent antioxidants cited as present in coffee. Just a thought.)

The most radical approach to boosting coffee as a health beverage is to follow the lead of many other new beverages and attempt to make coffee even healthier by adding other healthy ingredients to it.

What other ingredients? In the case of the new Caffe Botanica line, calcium is added to create a "Strength" coffee, ginseng to create an "Energy" coffee, and the herb Echinacea to make a "Health" coffee. The "Go Joe!" coffee from Jeremiah's Pick in San Francisco also follows the ginseng strategy, although it complicates the recipe by making the ginseng component a whole cocktail of ginsengs from five different origins. Finally, Gano Cafe, a soluble or instant beverage, combines coffee with the extract of an Asian medicinal mushroom called Ganoderma Lucidum, which purports to enhance the coffee with a variety of health benefits.

Given the sensory risks, I was surprised that only two of these substance-enhanced coffees were outright unpleasant: The calcium-infused "Strength" coffee from Caffe Botanica displayed a mouthfeel like chalk and a finish like Bufferin, and the mushroom-enhanced instant Gano Cafe was sour, bitter and utterly lifeless.

However, the other coffee-plus entries offered plausible, interesting cups. The echinacea added to the Botanica "Health" coffee didn't seem to influence the flavor of this decent, well-roasted coffee one way or the other. More surprisingly, ginseng resonated fairly well both with the dark-roasted decaffeinated beans of the Caffe Botanica "Energy" coffee and the Jeremiah's Pick "Go Joe!" I can see some sensory advantages to combining ginseng with coffee, given the difficulties I had choking down straight ginseng teas and suspensions during my alternative lifestyle years.

We visited the acidity issue in coffee in some detail in our December 2000 Low-Acid Coffees article and reviews. During this month's little follow-up survey of acid-reduced coffees I ran into a couple of pleasant surprises. With the dark roasts from Hevla Coffee and Johann Wulff, reducing the acidity of the green beans by treating them also appeared to reduce the bitterness and astringency that so often constitute the downside of dark-roasted formats. As for the acidity reduction through roasting strategy, slow roasting did reduce the acidy sensation in the Puroast samples, but didn't seem to treat the rest of the sensory profile very well. The Cafe Sunrise samples were pleasant, interesting coffees, but my experience suggests they could be even better without the impact of the "Healthy Roast" procedure, which I assume is the cause of the cardboardy or woody undercurrents shadowing these cups.

Among these entrepreneuring efforts at coffee healthmanship there were some pleasant sensory successes as well as a couple of resounding sensory duds. Nevertheless, it's hard not to conclude that if coffee is indeed as health-enhancing as it now appears to be, then we might be better off simply picking a good one, roasting it sensitively and enjoying it in its naked glory, without doing peculiar things to it like steaming it or roasting it in a sealed drum or adding things to it.

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