Coffee is a complex and controversial global commodity, one with significant economic, social, environmental and human health impacts. There’s a lot more going on in that mug than just a boost of energy in the morning.

The coffee plant originated in modern-day Ethiopia, but was not roasted and consumed as a highly caffeinated beverage until the 15th century in Yemen and then Saudi Arabia. From there, coffee spread around the Middle East and North Africa, through Turkey and eventually into Italy and the rest of mainland Europe.

Brazil is now the world’s largest producer of coffee, followed by Vietnam, Colombia, Indonesia, Ethiopia and India. The two cultivated coffee plant species, arabica (botanical name coffea arabica) and robusta (coffea canephora) are now cultivated around the globe. Coffee is now one of the world’s three most consumed beverages (water is the most consumed, and tea is either closely in front, or behind coffee consumption, depending on the source of statistics).

The arabica plant is typically regarded as the producer of higher quality coffee beans, while robusta grows in a wider range of climates, altitudes and soils and is less susceptible to pests and diseases. Arabica is more cultivated than robusta, as it tends to have a smoother and more aromatic flavor profile than robusta, which is more full-bodied and bitter. Coffee is very high in caffeine, which itself is a “psychoactive” drug, albeit a legally sanctioned one and the most consumed psychoactive drug in the world today (other legal psychoactive drugs, or “psychotropic substances,” include alcohol and tobacco, while illegal psychotropic substances include cocaine, amphetamines, heroine and the now only occasionally illegal cannabis plant from which marijuana comes).

Coffee is metabolized differently by each individual, and its risks and benefits depend greatly on the amount consumed and what it is consumed with. Caffeine also is known to occasionally interfere with certain medications, such as antidepressants and thyroid medications. Despite some of the controversies surrounding coffee, numerous studies have demonstrated health benefits connected to its consumption in unsweetened form. From helping memory to preventing parkinson’s disease and dementia, to increasing metabolism and helping to reduce the risk of certain forms of cancer, moderate coffee consumption appears to be recommendable for a large portion of the adult population.

One meta-analysis study showed a connection between consistent coffee consumption, including decaffeinated varieties (and also tea), and the reduction of risk for developing type 2 diabetes, and there are several other research studies that support those findings. For those wanting to sweeten their coffee, in order to receive more benefit than harm it is best to use unrefined sweeteners such as raw and organic honey, raw cane sugar and possibly plant-derived alternatives such as stevia.

Specific nutritional values of coffee that lead to many of these above benefits, include very high antioxidant content, B-vitamins, as well as minerals such as potassium, magnesium and manganese. As far as environmental and social impacts, coffee is very controversial. Since it is a huge global commodity crop, coffee plants tend to replace many fruits and vegetables around the world that are cultivated for local consumption, in order to export and fulfill global demand for coffee beans. Even more tragically, global demand often encourages the cutting down of virgin forests to plant coffee and other commodity crops. On the bright side, most coffee plantations around the world remain relatively small in scale, and often are part of diverse polycultures, as opposed to crops like soy and corn, which are standardized commodity crops planted in vast ecologically destructive monocultures.

Resources and Further Reading

Coffee, Decaffeinated Coffee and Tea linked to reduced risk of developing type 2 diabetes:

A study of young to middle-aged women in the US who consume coffee showed lowered incidence of type 2 diabetes:

Another study that shows the benefits of coffee in helping to prevent type 2 diabetes:

A nice rundown of coffee’s potential risks and benefits published by AARP:

A summary of nutritional content and health benefits of coffee:

Some history and context about coffee:

Some general coffee information: