Staying healthy in Japan

Features Health - February 20th, 1987

by Elyse M. Rogers 

COFFEE AND CAFFEINE

Lately caffeine has been in the medical and health news. Coffee, made from the bean of the coffee tree (coffea arabica if you want to be technical) accounts for most of the caf­feine that we consume daily. And that amount can be considerable.

Some statistics are interest­ing. About one third of the world’s population regularly drinks coffee, with Americans leading the pack. Half of all American households buy some form of coffee, and coffee-drinking Americans average 3 1/2 cups a day. Rut the number of Americans who drink coffee is decreasing. In 1950, 77.4% drank coffee; in 1985 only 54.9% imbibed. At the same time,   the   number of coffee drinkers in Japan is growing.

The price of coffee has un­doubtedly affected consump­tion, at least in the U.S. In 1950, the price per pound averaged $.75 versus $2.67 in 1985. The sharpest increase in coffee prices occurred in 1975 when a frost hit the Brazil coffee crop (Brazil currently supplies 30% of the world’s coffee), sending the average price for a pound of coffee skyrocketing to $3.47 from $133.

In Tokyo we can buy Amer­ican Hills Brothers coffee at National Azabu for a hefty ¥1,784/ 1b. (¥1,450 for 400 grams) or buy special blends that run motto takai ¥300-800 per 100 gms. That translates to U.S. $11.66/1b. for the Hills Brothers and $8.88-523.67/ 1b. (at ¥153 = $1) for special beans. Instant coffee (Nescafe Gold Blend) sells at ¥1,050/ 100 gms.

HISTORY OF COFFEE

The history of coffee is as interesting as current statistics. There’s a legend that says it was discovered by an Arabian Prior who wanted to stay wakeful during long nights of prayer.  He  reportedly  heard about a nearby goat herd that frisked and gambled through the night after eating the ber­ries of a local plant. So, he got some of the berries steeped a brew, and yappari—coffee!

On the other hand, anthro­pologists spoil that tale by tell­ing us that Stone Age people knew about the stimulant effects of caffeine and brewed liquids with it.

At any rate, whenever or wherever drinking coffee be­gan, it’s been popular through­out history. King Louis XIV built France’s first greenhouse to house the delicate evergreen coffee shrub. And after the Boston Tea Parly in 1773 when our forefathers protested the tea tax levied by King George III. Americans have preferred coffee over tea. As a further irony, the American Revolution was plotted in Boston’s “Coffee Houses” which quickly became popular after the tea supply began steeping in the waters of Boston harbor.

HEALTH IMPLICATIONS OF COFFEE/CAFFEINE

The history of coffee and caffeine may be fascinating, but what we’re concerned with today are the health implica­tions. Let’s look at some of the medical problems where caf­feine is suspect:

1) Caffeinism. This is a fancy medical term for “coffee nerves” or chronic caffeine intoxication. It’s estimated that it takes an average consumption of about 150-200 mgm of caffeine to produce a stimulant effect (that nice “lift”) in a typical adult (about the amount contained in one or two cups of coffee). More than 200-750 mgm of caffeine (depending on the individual) can produce an
“excessive effect” which may produce jitters, nausea, increased blood pressure, headache, heart palpitations, diarrhea, insomnia etc.

Although caffeinism isn’t really serious on a short-term basis, it can be if it becomes chronic. In addition the condi­tion is often mis-diagnosed. Over the years, coffee addicts have gone to doctors complain­ing about vague symptoms which neither the patient nor the doctor attribute to coffee consumption. Indeed, some victims of caffeine have been diagnosed with “Anxiety Neu­rosis” only to have their mental symptoms disappear when their caffeine intake was reduced or eliminated.

2) Coronary heart disease. Although the studies have been conflicting, there is concern that coronary heart disease might be more prevalent in those who drink lots of coffee or caffeine-laced drinks. For example, a Johns Hopkins Study concluded that a person who drinks five or more cups of coffee a day is three times more likely to develop coronary heart disease as the person who drinks no coffee at all. On the other hand. Dr. Lynn Rosen­berg at the Boston University School of Medicine says her own studies have established no link between coffee and heart attacks. Obviously more de­finitive scientific studies are needed in this area.

3) Fibrocystic Breast Disease. This is a condition of the breasts characterized by benign cysts. Women who have very painful, swollen breasts during their menstrual periods are usually found to have fibro­cystic breasts, but in only one type of cyst development is there an increased risk of breast cancer. For women this risk category (and others who wish to rid themselves of the discomfort of the benign conditions), eliminating caffeine in the diet has been suggested. In 1979 Dr. John Minton M.D., Ph.D. at Ohio State University reported that fibrocysts disappeared in 80% of women who eliminated caffeine from their diets.

Recently, new evidence has made any definite link between caffeine and fibrocystic breast disease uncertain, but most authorities still advise cautions caffeine use for those who have the condition or a predisposi­tion to it.

4) Behavioral Effects on Children. Caffeine intake in children has been of concern for years. When I was at university we were told in uncertain terms that “caffeine stimulates the immature nerv­ous system” which was con­sidered a “no no.” It made such an impression on me that our children were never allow­ed cola drinks or coffee bever­ages until age 7 or 8. And, lest you think I was a bit of a nut, let me assure you that many of my physician friends from the same era had similar rules for their children.

Currently, caffeine and child­ren is a hot topic. The question is related to how much caffeine intake is too much. Children, because of their size, often have intakes of caf­feine that are three to four times the levels of adults (based on milligram of caffeine per kilogram of body weight). Surprisingly, studies show that the highest intake occurs in children in the 1-5 age group.

Children rarely drink much coffee, but they do drink soft drinks that either have natural or added caffeine. The long term effects of high caffeine intake in children are not known, but experts believe that at the very least such children develop symptoms like jumpiness and insomnia, similar to the adult’s “coffee nerves.”

5) Other conditions. A myri­ad of other problems has been linked (although not finitively) to coffee and/or caffeine: pancreatic cancer, ulcers, agoraphobics (a panicky fear of outdoors) and birth de­fects.

COMMON SENSE IN CAFFEINE CONSUMPTION

For those of us who enjoy coffee and other drinks that contain caffeine, what should we do? Should we throw away the coffee mug and switch to miso soup (very salty), or re­place the Coca-Cola bottle with Perrier (very expensive)?

I don’t really think so, un­less you’re one of those un­fortunate individuals who has a particularly bad reaction to caffeine or who have a condi­tion where caffeine is suspect. For most of us, moderation is the key. For, as with alt drugs, effect is related both to time and dose. In other words, drinking 21 cups of coffee at the rate of three a day for a week is considered a safe or moderate dose.

However, if you took that same 21-cup dose and drank it all in one day, or even over two days that would be another story. (Although I’ve known many who have (or had) that ten-cup-per-day habit.) Aiming for a daily intake of no more than 300-350 mgm of caffeine is what experts are suggesting.

Since caffeine is contained in other drinks, it’s not only coffee one should use in mod­eration. Tea, cocoa, soda pop and non-prescription drugs should be included too.

AMOUNTS OF CAFFEINE IN PRODUCTS

It’s hard to avoid caffeine if you don’t know where it is or in what amount. For that reason, the following chart might be useful:

Product Caffeine (in milli­grams)
Coffee (5 oz/150ml)
Drip 146
Percolated 110
Instant 53
Decaffeinated 2
Tea (5 oz/150 ml)
One minutes brew 9-33
Five minute brew 20-50
Cocoa and chocolate hot cocoa (wate rmix—6 oz/180 ml) 10
Milk chocolate bar (1 oz/350 ml) 6
Soft drinks (12 oz/350 ml)
Coca-cola 34
Pepsi cola 37
Mountain dew 52
7-Up 0
Hires root beer 0
OTC (over the counter) drugs (standard dose)
Excedrin (for pain) 130
Anacin 64
Aspirin 0
Dristan (cold/allergies) 32
Triaminicin 30
No-Doz (stay awake pills) 200
Dexatrim (daily dose-weight control) 200

So, if we want to cut down on caffeine we could start by bypassing the espresso and drinking the usui American coffee or briefly steeped tea at our local kissaten. And we could substitute a Hires for the Coke or Mountain Dew. Or, now that decaffeinated coffee is made by a safer process, it’s a good alternative to the “real stuff.”

I don’t know about you, but I’m delighted to know that if I’m just a bit careful I can stay healthy and still wake up to that wonderful smell of coffee.