What’s In Your Cup? Examining Coffee on Individual and Global Levels

In a time where many view a Starbucks coffee house as a sign of civilization, it is no surprise that caffeine is the most consumed psychoactive substance in the world.1 Around 87 percent of Americans consume caffeine on a daily basis, with 71 percent of the average daily intake of 193 milligrams coming from coffee in 2005.2 Today, the United States’ heralds coffee as its national drink, with the average American consuming three cups daily.3,4

With every cup of coffee, drinkers receive 80 to 150 milligrams of caffeine

With every cup of coffee, drinkers receive 80 to 150 milligrams of caffeine.3
Caffeine stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the fight-or-flight response and maintaining homeostasis.  When a food or beverage containing caffeine is consumed, it takes a mere forty five minutes for the effects to take hold.1 Once absorbed, 1,3,7-trimethylxanthine, the ingredient responsible for most of caffeine’s psychological effects, blocks the action of the neurotransmitter adenosine, causing brain activity to increase.3 At low doses, caffeine causes increased alertness, feelings of energy and increases one’s ability to concentrate.1 There may also be health benefits from long term consumption. Studies indicate that regular coffee drinkers may be less likely to suffer from ailments such as type-2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease and cancer.5

In higher doses, caffeine starts to cause problems such as anxiety, irritability, restlessness, nervousness, lightheadedness, diarrhea and insomnia.1,3 With a half-life of 2.5 to 4.5 hours, it takes some time for “caffeinism” to wear off.1 If the individual is taking other substances that affect the nervous system, such as birth control, asthma drugs or thyroid steroids, the effects last even longer.3

Unfortunately, many college students are all too familiar with the effects of too much caffeine. It is estimated that seventy one percent of college students consume caffeine on a weekly basis. Of these, seventy five percent displayed problematic symptoms, with over thirty two percent reporting caffeine withdrawal symptoms. Caffeine use was associated with less sleep on weeknights and more social, thought, and behavioral problems.6

Despite these effects, it is difficult for the scientific community to say that caffeine and coffee are dangerous. Researchers claim that caffeine dependence is “moderately associated with risk for a wide range of psychiatric and substance use disorders”, but the relationship isn’t necessarily causal.7 Caffeine is not classified as a drug of dependence.1 Consumer Report went as far to call caffeine the “criminal suspect who’s repeatedly pulled in for questioning, with the evidence always too thin to indict, but usually substantial enough to justify continued surveillance.”3

The United States consumes one fifth of the world’s coffee supplyThe United States consumes one fifth of the world’s coffee supply, equivalent to 40 billion dollars a year.3,4 In order to meet this growing demand, the global coffee industry has responded accordingly. Trade infrastructure between developing countries and developed countries increased, thanks to a centralized roasting industry and technological innovations that lead to better yields.The rise of the Starbucks empire increased the demand for “specialty coffee”, where retailers emphasize the quality of their product specifying the country of origin.8 In the year 2010 alone, coffee exports were estimated to be worth $15.4 billion US dollars.9 In the 2011-2012 fiscal year, over 131 million bags of coffee were produced.10 Today, coffee is the most valuable agricultural product and the second most traded commodity after petroleum.3,8

But too much caffeine isn’t healthy for the economy. The coffee industry boomed in the 1980s, resulting in overproduction and a depressed coffee market that still threatens workers and plantations across the world today.8,11 The massive earnings from the coffee industry are not distributed equally between the producing and consuming nations either. In 1980s, producing nations held 20 percent of the profits from the coffee industry, while the consuming nations held 55 percent.8 By the late 1990s, the gap had widened to 13 versus 78 percent.8 Today, the average coffee farmer receives a mere 41 cents per year for each coffee tree he maintains.11

The modernized coffee industry also contributes to environmental degradation. Every cup of coffee consumed requires nearly 1.5 square feet of growing space.3 In order to increase yields, many plantations switched from traditional shade-grown coffee production to sun-grown.12 Sun-grown production requires that the area is cleared of all other plants.12 The result has been massive deforestation. Of the top ten nations with the highest deforestation rates, seven of them are located in Latin America, a major location for coffee production.13 Sun-grown coffee requires larger amounts of pesticides to be used than traditional methods.12 This creates hazardous working conditions for many coffee growers, who choose not to wear protective clothing in the tropical heat.3 Runoff from the pesticides also enters the water supply, affecting ecosystems and communities downstream. The separation process, which frees the coffee bean from the pulp, also generates large amounts of waste which clogs river ways and robs aquatic life of oxygen.13

In order to deal with the growing “coffee crisis,” some companies have adopted alternative trade practices.8 The fair trade coffee movement is an effort to restore economic health to coffee producers. In the traditional laissez-faire economic method, coffee prices are driven downward as growers flood the market with their crops.In the fair trade system, growers are granted increased access to other coffee markets, allowing them to have greater control over how much their product is worth.14

In order to reduce the environmental effects of coffee production, more companies are supporting the organic and shade grown coffee techniques. Organic production requires that no pesticides or genetically modified organisms be used, and that sustainable methods of farming be practiced.15 Shade-grown coffee, otherwise known as traditional coffee, is a process where coffee is planted below or around other crops.12 This process has been shown to maintain the biodiversity of local ecosystems, and less, if any, pesticide use is required.12,13

It appears that coffee, like the caffeine that it contains, has been both a blessing and a curse for both drinkers and producers alike. By being more aware of coffee’s impact on the individual and the international level, hopefully everyone can indulge in a manner that is physically, economically, and environmentally healthy.


  1.  Acquas, Elio, Maria Antoinetta de Luca, SandroFeno, Rosanna Longoni and Lilia Spina. “Caffeine and the Brain: An Overview.” In Caffeine: Chemistry, Analysis, Function and Effects, edited by Victor R. Preedy . 247-267. Cambridge: Royal Society of Chemistry, 2012. Accessed October 29, 2012.
  2. Frary, Carol D., Rachel K. Johnson, and Mi Qi Wang. “Food sources and intakes of caffeine in the diets of persons in the United States.” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 108 (April 2008): 727. Accessed October 29, 2012. Doi: 10.1016/j.jada.2004.10.027
  3. Digum, Gregory and Nina Luttinger. The Coffee Book: Anatomy of an Industry from Crop to the Last Drop. New York: The New Press, 1999.
  4. Harvard School of Public Health. “Coffee by the Numbers.” Last modified 2009. Accessed November 3, 2012.
  5. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. “Coffee and Health.”  Mayo Clinic Health Letter 30 (June 2012) : 7.
  6. Anderson, Britta L. and Laura M. Juiliano. “Behavior, Sleep and Problematic Caffeine Consumption in a College-Aged Sample.” Journal of Caffeine Research 2 (2012)38-44.
  7. Gardner, Charles O, Kenneth S. Kendler and John Myers. “Caffeine intake, toxicity and dependence and lifetime risk for psychiatric and substance use disorders: an epidemiologic and co-twin control analysis. Psychological Medicine 36 (Dec 2006) 1717-1725.
  8. Goodman, David. “The International Coffee Crisis: A Review of the Issues.” In Confronting the Coffee Crisis: Fair Trade, Sustainable Livelihood and Ecosystems in Mexico and Central America, edited by Christopher M. Bacon, Jonathan A. Fox, Stephen R. Gliessman, David Goodman and V. Ernesto Méndez, 3-26. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2008.
  9. International Coffee Organization. “World Coffee Trade.” Accessed November 3, 2012.
  10. International Coffee Organization. “All Exporting Countries Total Production, Crop Years 2010/2011 to 2011/2012.” Accessed November 3, 2012.
  11. Talbot, John M. Grounds for Agreement: The Political Economy of the Coffee Commodity Chain. Lanham: Rowman& Littlefield Publishers, Inc, 2004.
  12. Seattle Audobon. “About Shade Coffee.” Last modified 2009. Accessed November 3, 2012.
  13. Natural Resources Defense Council. “Coffee, Conservation and Commerce in the Western Hemisphere: How Individuals and Institutions Can Promote Ecologically Sound Farming and Forest Management in Northern Latin America.” Accessed November 4, 2012.
  14. Fair Trade USA. “What is Fair Trade?” Last modified 2010. Accessed November 4, 2012.
  15. United States Department of Agriculture. “National Organic Program: Organic Standards.” Last modified September 10, 2012. Accessed November 4, 2012.
  16. Image Credit (Public Domain): Mark Sweep. “Roasted Coffee Beans.” Wikimedia Commons. Last Modified January 2005.
  17. Image Credit (Creative Commons): Mortefot. “Latte Art.” Wikimedia Commons. Last Modified January 2012.

Sara Stavile is a sophomore majoring in International Studies and Creative Writing at Emory University. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.