Coffee drinking is an integral part of our culture, and more coffee is consumed in the US than any other country (however, on a per capita basis we are not even in the top 10, with the Netherlands averaging 2.5 cups per day per person compared to 1 cup in the US).
The effects of coffee on health have been a focus of a number of large research studies. In the last two years, a report in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings indicated a higher mortality rate with coffee consumption, while another from the National Institutes of Health published in the New England Journal of Medicine reported the opposite findings. What could lead to such disparate results?
I had the opportunity to spend time this week with Dave Asprey, a bio-hacker and manufacturer of coffee. He has a book coming out on optimizing your performance, and coffee is one of his strategies.
However, I learned there might be an issue with the presence in coffee of a toxin from fungi, called ochratoxin A. This could be a factor that explains why some people may feel good and some bad after drinking coffee. Also, perhaps this is why some studies show benefits and others show harm from coffee, based on variable levels of the toxic mold.
I did my reading and I learned six important facts about molds in coffee that I want to share with you.
1. Ochratoxin A is produced by two fungi and can be found in foodstuffs, including coffee. It's described in scientific literature as a neurotoxic, immunosuppressive, genotoxic, carcinogenic, and teratogenic topical polluter of human foods. Well, that doesn't sound so tasty, does it?
2. Ochratoxin A can damage kidneys in all mammals, acutely and over the long haul, and in some countries has been linked to human kidney disease.
3. The EU established a limit on the amount of ochratoxin A permitted in foodstuffs, but there is no limit in the US. There's some concern that contaminated beans are preferentially shipped here and end up in our grocery stores in lower priced coffees.
4. Roasting coffee beans may destroy ochratoxin A, but there are conflicting reports.
5. The safest way to avoid ochratoxin A would be for coffee manufacturers to purchase green coffee beans free of the toxin and were rapidly dried to avoid mold growth. There is no labeling to know if this occurs.
6. There are no routine measures of ochratoxin levels in coffee purchased in the US, but higher-end coffee shops indicate they are confident that this is no issue in their coffee, particularly organic producers.
What does all this mean? Is this much ado about nothing? Or something?
Like so many aspects of our food chain, there is incomplete information. I wouldn't sound the alarm yet, but I recommend being a coffee snob, or a qualitarian. Ask questions and do your research when you buy coffee. I buy my coffee from a high-end shop close to my work that only has organic beans. Without a doubt, though, ochratoxin A is nowhere near as great a health risk as the huge amount of sugar and unhealthy fats routinely added to coffee. Furthermore, drinking coffee in plastic cups strikes me as crazy.
Until we have more data, I will continue to believe that if money doesn't buy happiness, it does buy coffee, and that's pretty close.