We love coffee, and chances are so do you (read about Adrienne’s love of her daily coffee ritual here). The taste, the energy boost, the cultural experience, the comforting routine — for so many reasons, coffee is an important part of many people’s daily life. The bad news is that the way coffee is grown and processed can be harmful to your health and the environment. The good news is that by making some informed decisions and choosing organic coffee beans, you can still have your morning cup without compromising your health in any way. Read on to learn about the risks conventional coffee can pose (including pesticides in coffee), the benefits of organic coffee, facts about caffeine, our recommendations for the best organic coffee shops, and more.
First, Some Health Facts About Caffeine
Before we get into the specifics of different kinds of coffee, we’ve got to acknowledge something upfront: coffee is a drug. It contains the stimulant caffeine, which activates the central nervous system, giving you that lovely buzz (or jitters, depending on how you metabolize it) and helping you stay alert through 8AM conference calls. But too much caffeine, as with any drug, can have serious negative consequences, including:
Have you ever gotten jittery and high-strung after having too much coffee? Turns out that’s not just in your head. Though caffeine works on a physical level, not a mental one, the reaction it causes in your body triggers your fight-or-flight response, which creates a sense of anxiety for many people.
Caffeine changes the way your body processes insulin, lowering your insulin sensitivity so that you process sugar less efficiently, meaning if you pair a caffeinated drink with a sugary breakfast pastry, cereal, or even a smoothie or bar, you’re making it harder for your body to break down that sugar.
The stimulating effects of caffeine start about 15 minutes after consumption. Caffeine has a half life of about 5 hours, meaning if you have a 150 mg of caffeine, at 4pm, you still have 75 mg of caffeine in your system at 9pm. So even if you’re only drinking a little bit of coffee, if you have it too late in the day, you could be in for a restless night.
Who can relate to this one? Your colon is a muscle, and since caffeine stimulates muscles, it induces peristalsis (the contractions that help you digest food) in your colon. This can result in unpleasant tummy troubles, like loose stools or diarrhea.
Caffeine can cause a spike in blood pressure, whether you have hypertension or not. It’s not totally clear why this happens, but doctors think it might be because caffeine blocks a hormone that keeps your arteries open wide.
Fortunately, most of the negative health outcomes listed above only come into play when you’re drinking coffee in excess. The Mayo Clinic claims that consuming under 400 mg of caffeine each day is safe for the average adult. Remember each human body is SO different — body size, how your body metabolizes coffee, and other health issues you may have (like adrenal fatigue, insomnia, or anxiety) should all come into play when deciding how much is too much — and that different types of coffee have varying amounts of caffeine.To give you a frame of reference, an average 12-oz cup of coffee has 200 mg of caffeine, a grande black coffee from Starbucks has 330 mg, and a single shot of espresso has 65 mg.
What’s more, even if you cut out caffeine completely, coffee itself might pose some health risks: both caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee can increase levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol. Oof.
On the other hand, there’s some research to suggest that caffeine might have a positive impact on your health. One study showed that drinking three cups of coffee a day can reduce your risk of liver cancer by 50%, while results from another study indicated that four cups could cut your risk of throat or mouth cancer in half. Caffeine has also been associated with a lower risk of suicide in adults, as well as improved long-term memory.
None of these studies on caffeine’s benefits are conclusive, but they do suggest some potentially good news for those who love a little caffeine boost. Still, it’s not a carte blanche to throw back shots of espresso — even these beneficial effects of caffeine only come when it’s consumed in moderation.
Finally, keep in mind that caffeine is found in all sorts of things besides coffee, such as chocolate, tea, cola, coffee-flavored sweets, and even certain candies and gums. It’s important to take into account your total caffeine consumption, not just coffee, to make sure you’re not going overboard.
Why Choosing Organic Coffee Beans Matters
Once you have the right amount of caffeine dialed in, it’s time to think about the kind of coffee you’re drinking. No, we’re not talking about light roast vs dark roast or a latte vs drip coffee — we’re talking about organic coffee vs conventional coffee. The word “organic” gets thrown around a lot, and it can sometimes feel unclear as to how much it really matters. But with coffee, the difference between conventional and organic is huge. This is where the method of coffee production comes into play, and where the benefits of choosing organic coffee beans becomes quite clear.
Conventional farmers use chemical fertilizers and pesticides to keep up with the high demand for coffee (up to 250 lbs of chemical fertilizers per acre!). This high chemical use is made possible — and impossible to regulate — because most of the coffee beans that the United States imports come from countries where there is little to no regulation of pesticide use. Which means that if you’re not choosing organic coffee beans, pesticides in coffee is something you should be concerned about.
The reason these farmers feel the need to rely so heavily on pesticides is because of where they’re growing the beans. Traditionally, farmers grew coffee in the shade, but it is increasingly being grown in the sun, which makes the process faster and cheaper. However, one of the benefits of shade-grown coffee is that the trees providing the shade also provide branches on which birds can land — birds that, in turn, pick off any pests and parasites that might be attracted to the coffee plant, acting as natural pesticides!
When coffee is grown in the direct sun, there are no branches, and so no birds, which means that farmers need to apply a hefty amount of pesticides to keep destructive bugs at bay. What’s more, coffee beans grown in the shade are naturally fertilized by leaves that fall off the trees and enter the soil. Absent those leaves, farmers need to add chemical fertilizers. Both of these factors mean that coffee grown in the sun — which accounts for most of the coffee out there — is laden with chemicals. In fact, the FDA ranked coffee beans as the #8 most chemical-contaminated food.
Why should you care about pesticides in coffee? Well, for one thing, exposure to pesticides has been linked to a ton of health issues, including:
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Birth defects
- Food allergies
- Memory loss
- Parkinson’s disease
This list makes the benefits of organic coffee pretty clear, right? Fortunately, seeking out organic coffee beans and looking for the label “shade-grown” lets you avoid these harmful chemicals. And while finding organic coffee beans at large national chains might still be difficult, there are an increasing number of large and small coffee shops where you can get a chemical-free cup of joe.
Also note that if you drink decaf, it’s especially important that you choose organic coffee beans! This is because there are two ways of decaffeinating coffee — water-based and solvent-based — and in the latter, a chemical called methylene chloride is used. This chemical had detectable levels in numerous decaf brands, which is pretty scary given that it’s the active ingredient in paint thinner and a carcinogen! Thankfully, you can rest assured that organic decaf coffee beans don’t use this process, so you’re safe.
The Best Organic Coffee Shops
More and more local, independent coffee shops are sourcing organic coffee beans. If you live in a major city, you likely have a number or cafés with organic coffee beans within spitting distance. But if you don’t live near one, or if you’re traveling, a number of national chains do offer organic coffee. Next time you’re in a pinch and looking to get a cup of organic coffee while you’re out and about, look for one of these chains:
Note that not all of the coffee offered at these establishments is organic, so be sure to specify that you want organic coffee when you order — and prep yourself for potential disappointment, because not every location of the above chains offer organic options! You can always call ahead to confirm they carry organic coffee beans to ensure you don’t leave empty-handed and in dire need of your morning boost.
If your local coffee shop doesn’t have organic coffee beans, don’t give up! Ask an employee or manager if they’ve considered stocking organic or shade-grown coffee, and let them know that you’d order it if they did. Once a coffee shop knows there’s a demand for something, they’re more likely to provide it. But in the meantime, we do our best to only frequent coffee shops with organic options. Not only does this help us avoid pesticides in coffee, but it also means we’re supporting mission-driven establishments like organic coffee shops that value the planet and your health.
The Best Organic Coffee Beans for Making Coffee at Home
Brewing a pot of coffee at home is a great choice, not only because you save money and help the environment by not using one of the coffee shop’s paper cups (though really, you should be bringing a thermos anyway…), but because you have total control over the quality of your beans. Still, the number of different organic coffee brands to choose from can be totally overwhelming — a good problem to have, but still kind of stressful when you have to choose!
Luckily, we’ve done a lot of vetting (and sipping!) organic coffee brands to make it easier for you. Here are some of our favorite organic coffee bean choices:
- Birds & Beans – shade grown!
- Grumpy Mule
- Higher Ground Roasters
- Pura Vida Coffee – shade grown!
- Rise Up Coffee Roasters
Give a few of these a try to find the one that fits your taste the best!
The WellBe Takeaway: The Bottom Line on Organic Coffee Beans and Your Health
Trying to make a decision about what kind of coffee to get before you’ve had your coffee can be tricky, we get it. And if you’re feeling bleary-eyed and eager for that caffeine jolt, we understand the temptation to just order a cup of whatever’s closest, no questions asked.
But we’ve done the research, and it’s clear that the kind of coffee you buy, and the amount you drink, has a major impact on your health (and the planet). Luckily, we’ve made it simple for you to make informed choices by breaking down everything you need to know about conventional vs. organic coffee beans, and giving you our best organic coffee recommendations. Here are the key takeaways on the topic:
- Coffee is a drug. It contains the stimulant caffeine, which activates the central nervous system. Caffeine has been shown to have both positive and negative impacts on your health, but the important thing is to consume it in moderation and pay attention to how you feel afterwards, both mentally and physically.
- Conventional coffee contains tons of chemicals. This is largely due to the fact that it’s cheaper and quicker to grow coffee beans in the sun, which requires farmers to use lots of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Additionally, most of the coffee in the United States comes from countries where the use of these chemicals is unregulated.
- The chemicals that make their way into conventional coffee are a big deal, because they can lead to tons of health issues, from cancer to birth defects to Alzheimer’s.
- Choosing shade-grown, organic coffee beans protects you from the chemicals and health risks described above, and is also much better for the environment (and the birds!).
- Certain national chains, and many independent coffee shops, stock organic coffee (refer to the list above for our recommendations of the best organic coffee chains), but it’s important to specify that’s what you want. If your local café doesn’t have organic coffee, ask them to stock it!! You might help spur positive change.
- Buying your own organic coffee beans lets you control what you’re drinking (plus save some dough!). The list above includes the organic coffee brands we love.
If all of that is still too much for you to remember before you’ve had your morning joe, we’ll put it in one sentence for you: Organic coffee beans let you enjoy your morning coffee habit without compromising your health.
Now that you know what coffee to drink, what about what you put in your coffee? Check out our guide to the healthiest and unhealthiest coffee additions to make a smart choice next time.
Do you have a favorite organic coffee brand? Let us know in the comments below!
1. Alexey Orlikov, Ivan Ryzov. Caffeine-induced anxiety and increase of Kynurenine concentration in plasma of healthy subjects: A pilot study. Biological Psychiatry, Volume 29, Issue 4, 1991, Pages 391-396.