Dear Curious Aztec,
How many pounds of coffee are consumed annually in the United States? —@jtjordon via Twitter
Approximately 12 million pounds*. But that’s not a terribly satisfying answer, is it? Let’s dig a little deeper into our country’s coffee habits.
One of the most frequently asked questions about coffee, says San Diego State associate professor of nutrition Mee Young Hong, is whether it’s bad for you. It turns out that’s a complicated question to answer.
The psychoactive substance that people crave in coffee is, of course, caffeine.
“We don’t know the maximum dosage of caffeine that can be considered healthy,” Hong told me, as I sipped a cup of coffee I’d brought to the interview. “We do know that studies have shown that having up to six cups a day doesn’t cause any death.”
Death? I sipped more cautiously. Hong’s statistic sounds a little scary, but what it really means is that studies have shown that drinking up to six cups of joe per day isn’t likely to increase your chances of dying. Or in other words, people who drink that much don’t appear to die any earlier or more frequently than their less coffee-addicted peers.
It’s exceedingly rare, but there are a few documented cases of people dying from caffeine overdose. However, their caffeine levels were found to be much, much higher than even the most diehard, just-hook-the-coffeepot-up-to-my-IV java junkie could consume via coffee alone. These cases typically consist of people ingesting an enormous number of caffeine pills. While your typical 8 oz. cup of coffee contains around 50mg of caffeine, caffeine pills can contain much higher dosages. A 2005 case study out of the New Mexico Department of Health estimates that it would take about 5g of caffeine to kill an adult, or more than six gallons of coffee.
But what about other health concerns? Coffee does induce a number of physiological effects in the body, Hong said, including accelerated heart rate, increased blood pressure, and increased diuresis (that is, having to go).For people with certain heart conditions or who are dehydrated, drinking coffee might pose a danger.
A more indirect health concern isn’t the coffee itself, but what people put in it. Many people, especially younger folks, drink their coffee with lots of added cream and sugar—think iced caramel mocha cappuccinos and triple-venti frappes. A cup of black coffee has a negligible number of calories, Hong said, but these sugary, creamy caffeine confections can contain upwards of 400 calories or more, essentially adding on a non-nutritious meal to the drinker’s daily diet. And that spells trouble for a nation already struggling with an obesity epidemic, Hong added.
But over the long term, coffee in and of itself hasn’t been found to pose any danger to healthy adults, Hong noted. Whew, I thought.
In fact, many lines of research point to coffee having several health benefits, Hong said. Most notably, moderate coffee intake has been linked with a reduction in your chances of contracting type 2 diabetes. Coffee is also an antioxidant, which some studies show could reduce the risk of cancer and other diseases, although Hong cautions that pouring non-dairy creamer into your drink can cancel out this benefit.
“If you’re a coffee drinker, then enjoy it in moderation,” she said.
As for Hong herself, she’s partial to green tea. To each her own.
*My math is as follows: Reliable coffee-drinking data is available only for people ages 18 and over, of whom there are about 236 million in the United States. Now, recent data from the National Coffee Association suggests that 54 percent of American adults are regular coffee drinkers, and their average comes out to around three 8 oz. cups per day. American adults therefore drink about 382 million cups of coffee every day. A 1-lb. bag of coffee will make approximately 32 cups, so we can roughly estimate that over a given year, Americans will consume 11,947,500 pounds of coffee. Your Curious Aztec has contributed more than his fair share.