Thursday, June 8, 2017

Life according to Rachel: Coffee first

I was in the park taking a walk last week, and I ran into my friend, Rachel. Rachel is a fellow mom, and also a major force in brand marketing, vlogging and blogging at Truly Rachel about motherhood, fashion, lifestyle and DIY. To say the least, Rachel is dynamic.

Rachel is high energy. It's true, she’s smart, but I know one of her secrets to being so successful and healthy. Take a look at her shirt and you’ll know too.

"BUT FIRST COFFEE" (I liked the shirt so much I was tempted to ask her for it on the spot.)

Rachel’s all about good coffee and lots of it. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that she and I are pretty evenly yoked when it comes to sipping the dark brew and enjoying the roasted green bean.

Fortunately, it’s making us healthier. In fact, coffee is now known to decrease the risk of various types of cancer, in addition to cirrhosis, Alzheimer's disease. diabetes, and even suicide.

I’ve put together an infographic showing how many cups of coffee you need to drink in order to enjoy certain health benefits.

Next up on this blog, I will be discussing new research showing the link between coffee and a decreased risk of hepatitis C. So I'm going to keep this short, because I’ve got to get back to work.

But first: COFFEE. 

Saturday, May 27, 2017

The best part of wakin' up is Folger's in my cup. Really?

Admittedly, my blog has been moribund lately, compromised by the rapid rush of one ‘real life’ event after another. Nonetheless, I’m still drinking lots of coffee, and I feel better than ever.  But because of a recent coffee-related epiphany, I felt compelled to blog---so thanks for being here today.

First let me just say, coffee by any other name is---coffee. After all, regardless of the brand, the chemical structure of coffee remains intact, along with the healthy polyphenols and other cholinergic acids that contribute to coffee’s healthy effects.

That’s a good thing, considering the fact that I am an avid coffee-drinker, who happens to now be on a considerably more rigorous budget than before. In fact, if you asked me a year ago if I would be writing a blog post praising Folger’s, I would be highly doubtful.

But crazier things have happened.

Folger’s is good. Is it worth waking up for? Yes, it is. Plus I have to wake up anyway. A year ago, Folger’s was some random brand with red packaging found next to Maxwell House. It was the thing you drank at restaurants that served coffee not as a gourmet, $5.00 per cup of perfectly brewed espresso and milk beverage, but as just coffee.

Now, however, I see that the world is bigger than Starbucks, Peete’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, and the little indie coffeehouses sprinkled throughout my town (Montclair, NJ). Had I seen that earlier, I could have a lot more savings. Not that I don’t still love Starbucks, but it’s a treat, not a daily ritual---at least for now. And given what I’ve learned, even when I am no longer so tightly budget-bound, I doubt that I will start brewing Starbucks at home because of what I’ve learned in the last 3 months.

I unwittingly chose the #1 brand

I did some research about what other people think about Folger’s. Numerous surveys from the last five years consistently show that Folger’s is the #1 brand in terms of home brewed ground coffee. Its dark roasts are considered reliable and even aromatic---and the price points are perfect for the budget-minded and those with discerning parsimonious instincts.

Earlier this year, SmartAsset ranked Folger’s #3 of five in its list of the top five cheap home-brew coffee brands, while a 2013 Bloomberg Business Week survey showed that Folger’s had a whopping 15.6% market share, compared with Starbucks’ meager 3.3% share.

The same article extrapolated the cost differential between drinking a six-ounce cup of coffee every day for a month---Folger’s versus Starbucks. A massive $25 difference, assuming you only drink six ounces per month. Now extrapolate that out to the average consumption in the U.S., which is 3.3 cups per adult. The cost savings is already moving towards $100, a startling $1,000-plus difference every year.

The Power of Branding the Green Bean

Branding, one of the buzzwords of the twenty-teens is at the heart of the question: “Why am I happy drinking Folger’s when for so long Starbucks was my one-and-only coffee brand , my deepest desire, my everyday habit, my much-needed fix…?”

Because. Branding.

According to Leonard Mlodinow, author of How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior,brand preference is influenced by the confluence of various explicit (the need for coffee) and implicit (the impact of branding on ‘warm and fuzzy’ feelings located in the brain’s ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VPMC), factors. That’s the area of the brain that’s impacted by repetitive exposure to brand images, taglines and commercials. Price is also considered an implicit factor.

The idea of brand differentiation and loyalty as a psychological construct versus a reality is further reinforced by the business side of coffee sales. The corporation Smucker not only owns Folger’s, but it also owns Café Bustelo and has distribution rights to Dunkin’ Donuts ground coffee in supermarkets.

Same owners, different brands, different target audiences. Branding 101.

The upside of externally imposed thrift

So whatever you call it---thrift, being on a budget, spending less, or whatever, the reality is that one has to spend less money, be more mindful of resources and focus on value above brand consciousness. But there is an upside, as many philosophers and leaders have pointed out.

As Calvin Coolidge said, “Industry, thrift and self-control are not sought because they create wealth, but because they create character.” A sentiment expressed more than a millennium earlier by Cicero, who said: “Cannot people realize how large an increase is thrift?”

And so, as I embraced a ‘less is more’ approach to life out of necessity, I have gained in many ways---I’m much better at money management, grateful for home-brewed coffee that I can afford and enjoy and I’m leaner and lighter from having fewer lattes at night. So, thank you, Folger’s. You truly are worth waking up for. 

Thursday, January 12, 2017

How much coffee is too much?

If faced with the question, “How much coffee is too much?” many people would rephrase the question:

“Can you ever drink enough coffee?”

The answer, of course, is that how much coffee a person should drink is a completely individual matter. However, the science shows that the most profound clinical benefits of coffee, including living a longer life, don’t kick in until daily consumption hits the three-to-four cup per day level.
In general, the benefits start to drop off at five cups per day, and by day six, the law of declining marginal utility is in full effect.

A group of researchers decided to take on the ‘how much is too much’ issue by conducting a retrospective population-based study.  The data was extrapolated from the Aerobics Center Longitudinal Study.  The team looked at roughly 40,000 subjects between the ages of 20 and 87. Results were published in Mayo Clinical Proceedings. 

The results showed that 28 cups of coffee per week was the absolute threshold for healthy coffee consumption---at least in people under 55. The results were baffling.

What about all of the data from well-controlled, statistically rigorous studies showing that drinking coffee significantly reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes, various types of cancer, depression, Alzheimer’s disease and even gout.

After re-checking their assumptions, the scientists looked more closely at the data, especially the data from the 1970’s. Their goal was to check for confounding factors, meaning things that might skew the data like smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol excessively. Unfortunately the original data set was skewed with coffee drinkers, who also smoked cigarettes---but this confounding factor was not factored into the analysis.

Clearly by age 55, heavy smokers were already starting to die off. So it seems that coffee is beneficial across the board, though there are people who are not constitutionally suited to consume coffee. They are in the minority, but you know when you know. One thing, however, is 100% certain. Smoking cigarettes should be in the ‘never do this’ category.

Here’s to a lot of coffee drinking in 2017!

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Why we need coffee now more than ever---and why not add a little cardamom?

This post is intentionally short.  Sometimes less is more---and in this season of everyone weighing in on everything, I’m going to stay on-topic.


Although the economics of coffee have a political dimension, coffee itself is not political. You either drink it or you don’t.

There are lots of ways to drink coffee. Perhaps you like skim milk, whole milk or cream. Perhaps you take your coffee black. Perhaps you prefer lattes and cappuccinos. Or maybe you just like a nice shot of espresso---or two or three.

Caffeinated or decaf. The choice is yours...

2016 has been challenging on practically every existential level---from numerous deaths of well-known and beloved people, to an extremely contentious election in the U.S., to natural and man-made disasters and a surge of refugees due to what the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, called, “the biggest humanitarian and refugee crisis of our time," which is happening in Syria.

Syrians are born coffee drinkers. It's part of their culture. In fact, it was Syrians who introduced coffee to Turkey in the 1500's. Turkish coffee is actually Syrian coffee. 

Interestingly, one of the things that makes Arabic coffee so good is the inclusion of cardamom in the brew---often crushed and mixed right in with the ground beans.  We’re used to cardamom in baked goods that have a slightly savory taste, as well as cardamom in chai---but cardamom in coffee. Well, if you haven’t tried it, it’s worth trying.

Right now, 30 million Syrians are either displaced, in need of humanitarian assistance or on the move as refugees.  Regardless, people wake up every morning and have to somehow start their day. That’s why coffee is more important than ever. And isn't nice to have a safe place to drink it. 

It takes energy and drive to stand up to the myriad challenges of life---from the most severe problems, like being a refugee, or being under direct attack, to the stress of uncertainty that defines almost every aspect of life. Especially now.

Coffee: It’s one thing that people can hold on to in times of uncertainty. Hard to argue about that.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

The glorious truth behind the coffee-“I have to poop” meme

There’s a meme circulating on Facebook featuring a coffee cup with top-to-bottom writing as follows: “Ssshhh…almost…now you may speak…nevermind I have to go poop now.” For many people with morning coffee rituals, this about sums it up. You wake up groggy, get a cup of coffee and slowly come to life. And because coffee significantly increases intestinal contractions, due partly to theophylline, a well-known fat-burner, it often facilitates the morning de-bulking ritual often referred to as “taking a poop.”

Less diabetes and colon cancer
Intestinal cleansing is one of the benefits of coffee, along with another related benefit---decreasing glucose absorption, which contributes to coffee drinkers’ decreased risk of developing diabetes. According to a study conducted at the Harvard School of Public Health, drinking one cup of coffee per day decreases the risk of diabetes by 13%, while a four-cup-per-day habit literally cuts the risk in half.

And then there’s the positive effect of coffee on the risk of developing colon cancer. Last spring, results of a study conducted by Stephen Gruber, MD, PhD, MPH, director of the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center, confirmed what other researchers had already established. Coffee decreases the risk of colon cancer in a dose-dependent manner. With more than 9,000 people in the study, Gruber and his colleagues determined that drinking one or two cups of coffee per day decreases the risk of colon cancer by 26%, while drinking upwards of 2.5 cups increases that risk reduction---once again cutting the risk in half.

Another plus: Gruber’s findings are coffee-agnostic. It doesn’t matter if the coffee is decaffeinated or caffeinated; flavored or basic; French, Sumatran, Italian or any other origin. The results are the same. It’s the antioxidants, mainly the polyphenols, that confer this healthy benefit.

What to do about coffee’s negative effects 
So these are all good things---easy pooping, less cancer, the freedom to eat more sweets and dodge the diabetes bullet and coffee’s perk-up effect---are great. But like everything else, there are downsides to drinking coffee.

For people with gallbladder problems, such as gallstones, coffee can be problematic because it causes gallbladder contraction. Major risk factors for gallstones include obesity, cirrhosis or taking anti-cholesterol medications or hormone replacement therapy. Until these problems are resolved, most people with serious gallstones are directed by their physicians to not drink coffee.

In addition, people with ulcers or functional dyspepsia often avoid coffee because of its acid-producing component. However, not all coffees have the same physiological effects. In 2010, Veronika Somoza, Ph.D. from the University of Vienna in Austria, and Thomas Hofmann, Ph.D., from the Technische Universität Műnchen in Germany, presented their findings to the scientific community showing that dark coffee can actually be used to decrease acid production. 
Dr. Veronika Somoza

Dark coffee is easier on the stomach
That’s because dark coffees, such as French roast and espresso, contain more of the key ingredient N-methylpyridium (NMP). NMP is a byproduct of any coffee-roasting process, and in fact only becomes available when coffee beans are roasted. It seems counter-intuitive, but darker roast coffees are easier on the stomach than mild roasts----which also have more caffeine.

What this means is that the 40 million Americans who are currently avoiding coffee because of stomach-related problems can reconsider their dilemma and find a dark coffee brew that works for them. Bu the bottom line is that not everyone can drink coffee. If you can, be grateful---there are a lot of benefits to be had, and the ‘poop factor’ is a scientifically based reality.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Using coffee to combat SAD or why pumpkin lattes can make us happier in November

Who doesn’t love the fall? What’s not to love when turning leaves are providing a visual feast of saturated reds and yellows, and it’s absolutely fine to eat an apple cider donut once in a while? People put on their hiking boots, call in the chimney sweep and embrace the culture of harvest in all of its pumpkin-and-hayrides glory.

But there’s a downside for people who suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD). As the days get shorter, the lack of sunlight wreaks havoc on their serotonin and melatonin neurotransmitters. Roughly 6% of Americans suffer from SAD and another 14% experience the ‘winter blues,’ a less severe variant of SAD, but very real nonetheless.  

Seventy million Americans face a seasonal problem that wasn’t acknowledged as a real condition until 1984 when Dr. Norman Rosenthal, a clinical psychiatry professor at Georgetown, laid out the diagnostic criteria for SAD.  The DSM-V categorizes SAD as a modifier—“with seasonal pattern” to recurrent major depressive disorder. Common treatments include phototherapy, antidepressants and melatonin supplements. 

Wellbutrin X—the only FDA-approved treatment for SAD
The only FDA-approved treatment for SAD is Wellbutrin XL (bupropion), which was first marketed by GlaxoSmithKline in 1985 and is now available as a generic.  In placebo-controlled studies, patients who had been diagnosed with SAD were started on treatment between September and November. At the end of treatment in late March, 84% of patients were depression-free---an important outcome because one of the major concerns around SAD is that it will escalate into a major depressive episode.

Full Prescribing Information from the Food and Drug Administration is available here

Because SAD usually occurs at the same time each year, starting in mid-to-late fall and ending in spring, it makes sense to anticipate it. Best to deal with SAD early in the fall, because one day you will wake up and realize that the sun will be setting at 4 PM, and all you really want to do is stockpile cookies and rev up the Netflix.

Data: The coffee-depression connection
I’ve reported several times on the link between drinking coffee and decreased depression. Ten-year data from the Nurses’ Health Study showed that drinking 2 to 3 cups of coffee a day decreased the risk of depression by 15%, and a fourth cup led to even better outcomes. Another study with more than 86,000 women showed that drinking 2 to 3 cups of coffee per day decreased the risk of suicide by two-thirds.

However, it really doesn’t take 3 cups of coffee a day to help you feel better. According to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy ofMedicine in 2015, the amount of caffeine found in one cup of coffee can improve mood, decrease sleepiness, improve memory and make it easier to deal with stress. 

Coffee as stress reliever
The takeaway: Just grabbing a cup of coffee can help combat the onset of moodiness for people with SAD. I am not suggesting that coffee is a replacement for pharmacologic support---that’s something best dealt with by a medical doctor. However, all evidence points to coffee’s utility as a mood booster and as a way to combat stress.  

Caffeine has a well-known mechanism of action: By blocking adenosine receptors, it short-circuits the body’s sleep-activation mechanism. The same MOA is responsible for improving mood and memory, while also making it easier to handle stress---the bogeyman that can ruin lives. Coffee stops the body’s natural deterioration mechanisms from kicking in.

I drink coffee because I like it and I know it’s good for me, but around this time of year, my coffee-drinking becomes more intentionally utilitarian. I like pumpkins and little goblins, and doing leaf-decoupage projects with my kindergartener. But I hate getting the blues and it happens almost every year. This year, however, I’m ready. Drink up!

Monday, October 17, 2016

A fresh perspective on a five-year-old indie coffee house or why Java Love is still the bomb---By Megan Wilt

Life as a mom in Suburbia can be a bit cookie-cutter.  Life as a stay-at-home-mom in Suburbia can be nearly surreal in its fulfilled expectation.  This is not the 1950s and it’s the rare SAHM who prides herself on a Donna Reed-esque tidy home and nightly roast.  We are modern women living out vintage lives in a modern world. 

Thankfully, for those of us living in the Manhattan-adjacent burbs, there are a few more opportunities that keep us tied to the real world.  It is just a situation like this that draws me to our town’s stand-in for the water cooler – Java Love.  While I have often spent an afternoon sitting in the reclaimed comfort of burlap coffee sacks and beautifully collaged wood, the café thrives as a setting for an afternoon of shop-talk--- getting acquainted with a local friend in a way our busy lives and Facebook banter cannot provide. 

Unlike the ubiquitously-branded Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts stores scattered about town, Java Love tends thankfully toward the adult – no middle schoolers flooding the space with too-large backpacks and too-small manners while on a Pokemon quest.  Nor is Java Love the harbinger of one-size-fits-all milky lattes or burnt-tasting espresso.  Java Love is a real coffee house.  They pride themselves on all things local and roast their own beans. 

Java Love’s offerings are like the old wedding day superstition – something old, something new, something borrowed, something…well, nothing blue, but 3 out of 4 is all you need.  The demand for something old is represented by the reliably consistent quality of your basic espresso drinks.  Java Love has staff that understands the difference between a latte and a macchiato (hint: if you’ve been getting either at Starbucks, you will be surprised by the real thing).  The espresso is always bold and well-rounded and never, ever tastes burnt. 

The “something new” is brought to the customer by the imaginations of the young, hipster-esque staff with seasonal menus and carefully-considered recommendations.  They love to add a unique twist, such as a dash of cayenne powder, squirt of lavender or rose syrup, or using the flavor of almond milk to enhance a nutmeg- and ginger-spiced drink. 

All that said, the shop knows that there will always be someone stopping in for drinks made popular by the big chains, so they’ve also developed some borrowed concepts, like the ever-present pumpkin spice latte (or PSL, if you’re basic).  Admittedly, I tend toward the “something old” side when drinking espresso.  I like my coffee strong and simple.

While the child-free coffee shops are ideal, let’s be honest – the majority of us are in the burbs because we have kids.  Although Java Love is not popular with the roaming tweens and teens, families are welcome.  When Java opened its second location on Church St last spring, I found my children rejoicing right along with me.  We are no longer forced to visit Starbucks after dance class at Sharron Miller’s dance school or trips to the library. 

My 8 year-old daughter is a bit of a Java Love connoisseur, typically choosing a decaf espresso drink while working her way through the flavored syrup choices.  The baristas make sure her drink is never too hot.  My 5 year-old son, on the other hand, chooses between hot chocolate and the regionally-produced apple juice varieties stocked in the cooler.  Our suburban experience would be lacking something essential without Java Love around to provide a welcoming respite.  It feels much like the comfort of your own home, but coffee-stocked and mess-free and, therefore, much more enjoyable.