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As you wait in line at your favorite shop, the bevy of coffee choices can be overwhelming, what with espressos, lattés, cappuccinos, flavored types and standard drip. But today’s options go beyond that. Increasingly, conservation-conscious consumers also have their pick of organic, shade-grown, and fair-trade. And with over 60 percent of Americans drinking at least one cup per day—up 5 percent since 2015, according to the National Coffee Association—many consumers are thinking about which coffee to buy and why.
While we can’t help you choose between bitter and sweet—that’s simply a matter of taste—we can give you the facts about how different growers produce your favorite cup of joe, and how that affects its health benefits.
Coffee farmers in Africa, Asia, and Latin America often do not make enough money to cover production costs; working conditions on medium and large plantations can be very poor; and the use of child labor is common. In Kenya, for example, 30 percent of coffee pickers are below age 15, according to Oxfam International. Frequently, workers are also subject to unreasonable “picking” quotas and often do not receive the minimum wage.
In Guatemala, a combination of climate change and the recent pandemic have driven production costs so high that many farmers can’t make enough to cover their costs—despite the fact that their arabica beans are prized by some of the largest chains in the world, including Starbucks.
There is some good news, though, as sales of fair-trade coffee have continued to increase. Fair-trade coffee guarantees a minimum fair price for beans, allowing farmers a better standard of living. And while fair trade comes at a cost, a growing number of java junkies are willing to pay the few extra dollars for a pound of joe to ensure coffee growers a better standard of living.
As recently as 1971, nearly all coffee was grown under shade trees. But as new sun-tolerant hybrids that produced higher yielding crops became available, many growers cut down their shade trees. The result: more coffee, but also an increase in pesticides and chemical fertilizers with a corresponding decline in bird species due to habitat loss.
Shade-grown coffee requires little or no chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides. Birds that live in the trees of shade-grown plantations provide natural insect control for coffee plants. Shade trees also help maintain soil quality. As a result, shade-grown plants can produce crops for up to 50 years, whereas sun-grown plants produce beans for 10–15 years. In addition, shade-tree beans mature more slowly, which increases natural sugars and enhances flavor. At $10–$15 per pound, the price of shade-grown coffee reflects this difference.
More often than not, shade grown coffee is organic, according to specialty grocery store coffee buyers. Which is a good thing because non-organic coffee is sprayed with more chemicals than any product—besides tobacco— consumed by humans. Coffee that is certified organic, however, is grown without the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, ensuring the health of the soil, forests and farmers.
In many instances, cooperatives carry a variety of certifications to capitalize on the growing demand. Global sales of organic coffee increased by 16 percent in 2020 to $6.6 billion worldwide.
The Antioxidant Punch
As for coffee’s health benefits, there’s evidence that coffee is America’s No. 1 source of antioxidants, so it’s no wonder that researchers are linking coffee drinking with a reduced risk of several chronic diseases. In recent decades, some 19,000 studies have examined coffee’s impact on health. The results are as eye-opening as a shot of espresso.
- After evaluating data on more than 120,000 people, Harvard researchers reported that those who increased their coffee consumption by more than one cup per day lowered their risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 11 percent. Conversely, people who decreased their coffee consumption by more than one cup per day saw a 17 percent increase in their risk of developing diabetes.
- Coffee’s beneficial effects on Parkinson’s disease are also well established. Several studies show that people who regularly drink caffeinated coffee are one-fifth less likely to develop Parkinson’s.
- A cup of java can also decrease your chances of developing liver disease, according to a study of more than 494,000 people in the United Kingdom. And among those who already have liver disease, coffee can help to slow down its progression.
- What about heart health? You guessed it. Coffee has that covered, too. According to an analysis of studies of more than 21,000 Americans, led by the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical School in Aurora, people who drink one or more cups of caffeinated coffee per day have a lower risk of heart failure. And deaths from heart disease were also lower among coffee drinkers.
If that all sounds good to you, there’s little reason not to reach for a second (or third) cup of java in the morning. The only caution: People who have irregular heartbeats should stick to decaf, since caffeine may aggravate this condition. Caffeine may also raise blood pressure temporarily, so people with hypertension may need to restrict or avoid it.
For the most part though, research shows there’s little harm and potentially real benefit in partaking of America’s morning wake-up call. And, if you choose triple-certified varieties (organic, fair-trade, and shade-grown), you’ll be doing your part to protect the environment, keep the rain forest healthy and support humankind.