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When Panic Attacks
When Panic Attacks

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Good Eats: Fuel for Better Living

Dangerous Grounds

By Jessica DuLong

Now I am an avowed coffee fiend, but even my bad days don't usually involve more than four or five cups. Need I tell you how excited I was to see that the study's magic number was six?

It hit me while I was standing in my mom's kitchen. Bleary-eyed, I was chipping through the icebergs in the freezer, digging for coffee. Mom walked in just as I struck gold and she watched me scramble to get the grounds from the bag into the machine.

"You should be careful with the coffee," she said. "You've got high blood pressure on both sides of the family, you know."

"Yeah, but my blood pressure is fine," I replied.

"Well, so was mine ... until all of a sudden it wasn't."

I paused, finger hovering over the 'on' button, thinking back three years to my mom sighing over the telephone. The doctor had just told her that she would have to take a pill every day for the rest of her life.

The drugs she takes to control her hypertension come with a warning label that reads: Do not stop taking this medication suddenly. Yet, how could I tell her that for me, coffee isn't optional?

Taking heed

For the most part, I do all the right things; I exercise regularly, I don't smoke and I eat a nice balanced vegetarian diet. In fact, it was flipping through this month's Vegetarian Times that I came across the headline "Bad Brew?" just two days after my visit to Mom's.

It felt like the gods were colluding to send me a message.

The piece was about a study recently published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Dutch researchers had shown that drinking unfiltered coffee could increase the risk for heart disease.

So, of course my first question was, what does this mean for me? I had to do some digging. First stop: research.

Beaker brew

As with all things scientific, this coffee study tested some highly particular circumstances. In the name of science, sixty-four volunteers drank the equivalent of approximately six large cups of unfiltered coffee a day for two weeks. Then they were tested for homocysteine, an amino acid that has long been associated with increased risk for heart disease.

The results showed that in two weeks, the volunteer's homocysteine levels had increased by ten percent. Okay, so let's break this down.

First, were they drinking what I drink? Nope. The key word is 'unfiltered' (a.k.a French press) and I, like most American coffee drinkers, use a filter. Relief.

Next, I checked the quantity. Now I am an avowed coffee fiend, but even my bad days don't usually involve more than four or five cups. Need I tell you how excited I was to see that the study's magic number was six?

To try to learn more, I emailed the lead researcher, Marina Grubben. A true scientist, she clung to the details. When I asked if she could tell me what cosmic implications this study might have for frequent coffee drinkers, she merely restated the results from the lab report and declined to offer any big picture analysis.

"We served strong coffee in a large quantity," she wrote. (It must have been — six volunteers ducked out of the study, one citing heart palpitations and tremors.) "Overall we do not exactly know what the population based effect is with less strong and a lower amount of daily coffee intake."

A hearty dose

This just wasn't the sure-fire answer I was looking for. Surely, the American Heart Association (AHA) would have insight on whether or not my favorite sipping drink was going to make me end up a daily pill popper like my mom.

I tracked down Richard Stein, M.D., chief of cardiology at Brooklyn Hospital Center and AHA spokesperson. "The whole issue of coffee is fascinating," he said. I sat hanging on the phone, poised and ready for a revelation.

Instead what I got was, "Studies have gone back and forth. There's no definitive answer."

Dr. Stein did, however, offer one interesting tidbit. The culprit in the rise of hypertension-inducing homocysteine was coffee brewed French style, but ironically, compared to the US, the French have low rates of heart disease.

When in doubt go commercial

Though his voicemail said he was on the road, Ted Lingle, executive director of the Specialty Coffee Association of America, didn't hesitate in calling me back.

No doubt, as head of a 2,300 member non-profit trade association of gourmet coffee retailers, roasters, growers, importers and exporters which aims to "foster coffee excellence within the trade," Lingle is always ready to talk coffee.

When I approached him with my question — is coffee bad for me? — Lingle knew just how to respond.

First, he invoked history. "The issue with coffee is caffeine. Caffeine is a naturally occurring substance. Consumers have had exposure to caffeine for 3,000 years."

Then, he explained it was just a matter of 'all things in moderation.' There are lots of substances we ingest that "if we go overboard it could cause problems in our physical structure," he said, citing eggs and red meat as examples.

It was all making sense. Then, out-of-the-blue, Lingle hit the raw nerve. "Coffee is not a drug," he said. "There is no addictive property to it."

I had to stop him there. "I consider myself a coffee addict," I said. "I go to bed at night dreaming of my morning cup. Coffee is my first thought when I wake up."

"What your body is telling you is there's no reason to stop," he explained. "Coffee gives you pleasure — probably the smell even more than the taste. It's not an addiction, it's simply that you enjoy the experience."

"But, what if I told you that instead of coffee it was alcohol I couldn't stop thinking about?" I asked. "Would that be the same?"

"How many cups of coffee a day do you drink?" he asked.

"Oh, usually no more than four cups," I said. "Usually two or three in the morning, then another one or two later in the day."

"I think if you went to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and said that, people would say, 'Why are you here?'" Lingle replied.

I could have stopped there. But the fact was, I was beginning to lose confidence in my source.

"Are you hypertensive?" I asked.

"You mean do I have high blood pressure? Yes, I do," he responded.

"Do you worry about drinking coffee, then?"

"No, not at the two to three cups a day level. If I were at twenty cups a day, maybe."

I wanted to believe him. He seemed so sure. Then, just before he hung up, he called out, "Keep drinking that coffee!"

Funny how getting the answer I wanted felt like little more than a palliative.

Jessica DuLong is a managing editor at savvyHEALTH.com.

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