Some interesting facts about your morning Joe
OK, dear readers, here’s a question for you: How many of you are taking a psychoactive drug?
You’re probably all sitting there, shaking your heads and saying, no, not me. According to statistics though, up to 85 percent of those of you who are saying no are wrong, because the drug I’m talking about is caffeine and, unless you don’t drink any coffee or tea you’re absorbing it with every sip of your daily brew.
So, what exactly is caffeine and what effect does it have on you? Chemically it’s something called an alkaloid and it’s found in the wild in a wide variety of nuts and seeds. These plants produce it naturally as a defense against predatory insects and we of course get it from the coffee bean and to a lesser extent from tea leaves.
What caffeine does when we ingest it is it stimulates our central nervous system to reduce drowsiness and lessen fatigue. It does this by blocking a naturally occurring chemical in our bodies called Adenosine, which is what makes us feel tired and sleepy.
Caffeine keeps us awake, improves our reaction times and our ability to concentrate and its effects vary from person to person, depending on body weight and your resistance to it. It takes about an hour after consumption before it begins to affect you and, when it does, the stimulation usually lasts for about four hours, depending on how much of it you took in. On the darker side it can also cause insomnia, anxiety and diarrhea.
As drinking coffee became more popular in the 18th century, it was soon noted that drinking it late at night kept you awake yet no one knew why, because no one knew what was in it. To see how this was discovered we have to begin with a man called Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge, who was born in Germany in 1795.
Runge was a brilliant analytical chemist who began conducting experiments while still a teenager. At the age of 25 he discovered the effects of deadly nightshade on the pupils of the eyes and demonstrated this to another German, Johann Goethe, who was
a writer, a statesman and a scientist. As luck would have it at the time of the demonstration, Goethe had just received a gift of coffee beans from a Greek friend. Goethe was impressed by the demonstration and he proceeded to give Runge some of the beans to analyze. The young scientist did so and within a few months he isolated and introduced what is probably the most consumed drug in the world — caffeine.
As I said above, people loved the taste of coffee but many of them didn’t want to stay awake at night and so the search began for a way to remove the caffeine without affecting the taste of the coffee. Various methods were tried but it wasn’t until the early 20th century and yet another German that the answer was found.
Ludwig Roselius was the head of the company known as Kaffee HAG and in 1903 his company received a shipment of green coffee beans. While these were on their way to his factory, they had been accidentally soaked in sea water. They were dried and processed and it was found that most of the caffeine was gone, but the flavor remained pretty much the same.
Roselius immediately set his staff to find a way of repeating this effect industrially and, after several trials, they succeeded. The method they used was to steam the coffee beans in a mixture of various acids and then to use benzene as a solvent to remove the caffeine.
The first decaffeinated coffee was produced and put on the market but the problem was that benzene is not good for us and so other companies started to look for different solvents that would take the caffeine out without unwanted side effects.
Today almost invariably the decaffeination is done by specialist companies who use the green beans and then sell them on to coffee companies. Apparently if you try to decaffeinate roasted and ground coffee you end up with something that tastes very like old straw.
There are several methods used these days, the most common involving soaking the beans in water to which a solvent, most likely methylene chloride, which can also be used as paint stripper, or ethyl acetate, which is an essential ingredient of nail polish remover and is made from naturally occurring acetic acid, is added.
The soaking solution is used over and over again until it is saturated to ensure the coffee beans retain the coffee flavor and the FDA have said this method is perfectly safe for human consumption.
In addition to these there are two other known methods. The first, introduced in 1979, is called the “Swiss Water Method” which involves soaking the beans in water which is then passed through activated carbon to remove the caffeine. The second involves the use of liquid carbon dioxide under pressure but this one is said to be very expensive.
None of these methods can remove 100 percent of the caffeine, although they come close, so, as I said earlier, if you drink tea or coffee, even if it’s the decaffeinated sort, you are still absorbing some of the drug. Personally, I prefer my coffee and tea as nature made it. I don’t drink decaf and I switch to water or the occasional glass of wine in the evenings, which probably explains why I get tired and like to go to bed early.
Derek Coleman Is a part-time writer who Is a native of England and who now lives In Hurricane, W.Va. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.