I have been drinking coffee for at least eight decades without knowing much about this delicious beverage.

Recently, however, I learned that those of us who consume two to three cups a day may have a lower risk of heart disease and dangerous heart rhythms. We may also live longer. This information was recently presented at the American College of Cardiology 71st Annual Scientific Session. The trends held true for both people with and without cardiovascular disease. The health benefits sparked my interest in coffee and here is what I learned.

The Name

The word “coffee” has roots in several languages. In Yemen, it earned the name qahwah, which was originally a romantic term for wine. It later became the Turkish kahveh, then Dutch koffie and finally coffee in English.

The Discovery

No one really knows how or when coffee was discovered although legend has it that one day in a highland area near an Abyssinian monastery, a goat herder from Kaffa named Kaldi was herding his goats. The goats began to jump around —almost dancing — and bleat loudly, which was strange behavior for his herd. Kaldi found that a small shrub (or a cluster of shrubs, according to some legends) was the source of the excitement.

Deciding to try the bright red berries for himself, Kaldi also felt the coffee cherries' energizing effects. Amazed at this discovery, the goat herder filled his pockets and rushed home to tell his wife. Calling the find "heaven sent," she advised Kaldi to share the berries with the monks.

Kaldi did not receive the warmest of welcomes at the monastery. One monk referred to his coffee beans as "the Devil's work" and tossed them into the fire.

According to the legend, the aroma that wafted up from the roasting beans caught the monks' attention. After removing the beans from the fire and crushing them to extinguish the embers, they attempted to preserve them in an ewer filled with hot water. This newly brewed coffee had an aroma that attracted even more monks.

Cultivation Worldwide

Coffee cultivation and trade began on the Arabian Peninsula. By the 15th century, coffee was being grown in the Yemeni district of Arabia and by the 16th century it was known in Persia, Egypt, Syria and Turkey.

European travelers to the Near East brought back stories of an unusual dark black beverage. By the 17th century, coffee had made its way to Europe and was becoming popular across the continent.

Some people reacted to this new beverage with suspicion or fear, calling it the “bitter invention of Satan.” The local clergy condemned coffee when it came to Venice in 1615. The controversy was so great that Pope Clement VIII was asked to intervene. He decided to taste the beverage for himself before making a decision, and found the drink so satisfying that he gave it papal approval.

Despite such controversy, coffee houses were quickly becoming centers of social activity and communication in the major cities of England, Austria, France, Germany and Holland. In England, “penny universities” sprang up, so called because for the price of a penny one could purchase a cup of coffee and engage in stimulating conversation.  

Coffee began to replace the common breakfast drink beverages of the time — beer and wine.

Coffee did have detractors as well, in 1517, Khair Bey, the new viceroy of the Mecca, forbade the drinking of coffee on the premise that it “led to riots;” and in December 1675, Charles II of England closed the country’s coffeehouses because he considered them “hotbeds of sedition and a breeding ground for subversive movements.”

Popularity

The coffee industry is enormous and has spread around the world. Today, 125 million people depend on coffee production for their livelihood, and coffee is consumed in every part of the globe. After tea and water, It is the most popular drink in the world with around two billion cups drunk daily.

Varieties

When talking about coffee, people are usually referring to the fruit from one particular species of tree: Coffea arabica. Arabica makes up most of the coffee produced each year, and it is grown in dozens of countries between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Tropic of Cancer.

It isn’t the only species of coffee, however. In fact, over 120 different species have been identified to date but only one other is grown in any quantity and this is Coffea canephora, a plant we commonly refer to as Robusta.

Constituents And Benefits

Besides caffeine, coffee beans actually have over 100 biologically active compounds that can help reduce oxidative stress and inflammation, improve insulin sensitivity, boost metabolism, inhibit the gut’s absorption of fat and block receptors known to be involved with abnormal heart rhythms.  

According to a recent report in Science Daily, the findings suggest caffeinated coffee is preferable across the board, and there are no cardiovascular benefits of choosing decaf over caffeinated coffees.  Decaf coffee did not have favorable effects against incident arrhythmia but did reduce cardiovascular disease, with the exception of heart failure.

Final Thoughts

The report in Science Daily, noted that while two to three cups of coffee per day is most favorable, people shouldn’t increase their coffee intake, particularly if it makes them feel anxious or uncomfortable.

Max Sherman is a medical writer and pharmacist retired from the medical device industry.  His new book “Science Snippets” is available from Amazon and other book sellers. It contains a number of previously published columns.  He can be reached by email at  maxsherman339@gmail.com.