Coffee Myths: Part 1

Was coffee discovered by a goatherd? An illustration for an article by Gwilym Davies in Standart magazine



Although the coffee industry has changed a lot over the last decade, with specialty coffee cafés coming to dominate cities across the globe, we nevertheless still carry with us some myths from the past. Some of these are unhelpful—popular misconceptions that propagate incorrect information and negative ideas about coffee—while others are not popularly believed, but rather recognized as stories that serve a function, offering simple explanations of complex links and systems. Let’s explore ... 

Title for an article about coffee myths in Standart magazine, voted 2019 best coffee magazine by

Coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world, after oil

An illustration of people trading coffee by Rachel Presky for Standart magazine

This ‘fact’ will just not go away! Many prominent coffee people, scholars, and authors have disputed the claim, but it still gets repeated time and again. Even Starbucks expressed this statement to the United States government at a Senate hearing in 2017! 

If you take a little time to investigate this claim, or look a bit deeper into the primary sources, it turns out to not just be a little wrong, but actually way off the mark, both for the amount and the value of trade. To bury this myth once and for all, we’ll use numbers from the Observatory of Economic Complexity (oec) at MIT, which has compiled multiple trade sources and UN data to expertly visualize complex links in straightforward forms—think of the oec as a sophisticated version of Kaldi.

The only true part of the statement is that oil is the most traded product in the world (in 2017, $792 billion of crude petroleum was traded, with $573 billion in refined petroleum). You won’t find coffee second on the list, but rather occupying a humble 107th position, with $30.4 billion traded in 2017. Even if we were to restrict the list to agricultural products, the myth still wouldn’t hold up. Soy is the most traded agricultural product (and 44th overall, at $58.1 billion), followed by wheat (77th overall, at $42.6 billion). Even palm oil is ahead of coffee, being the 97th most traded product in the world, with a value of $33.2 billion.

Given these indisputable facts, I have no idea how this myth persists. Specialty coffee is all about traceability, and getting away from the notion of coffee as a commodity; the longer we perpetuate this myth, the more importance we assign to coffee’s status as a commodity, and the less we focus on more human perspectives towards farmers and the environment.

Title for an article about coffee myths in Standart magazine

Coffee dehydrates you

Does coffee dehydrate you? An illustration for Standart magazine about coffee mythsAs far back as 1928, Eddy and Downs conducted a study on the diuretic effects of caffeine that was widely cited, and never challenged effectively for 80 years. This led to the widespread belief that coffee is a diuretic, and something that negatively effects your fluid balance.

More recently, however, better designed and more specific studies have disputed the view that coffee dehydrates you. Maughan and Griffin (2003) comprehensively reviewed the literature, and concluded that ‘coffee does not pose a detrimental effect to fluid balance. The advice provided in the public health domain regarding coffee intake and hydration status should therefore be updated.’ Subsequent research has supported this view, and though the data are varied, I cannot find anything that leads me to believe that coffee will dehydrate you. There are two issues here that have contributed to this variation in data: the facts that coffee is different to caffeine, and that tolerance levels of caffeine are important in relation to its effect as a diuretic.

Firstly, although coffee contains caffeine, the results of studies of pure caffeine cannot be directly compared to those of coffee because the latter contains many other interacting compounds such as potassium, polyphenols, chlorogenic acids, and of course lots and lots of water. A diuretic is something that increases the body’s production of urine, but just because something is a diuretic, it will not necessarily dehydrate you; it depends on how strong a diuretic it is, and how much water is consumed along with it. Even when some studies do find that coffee has a mild diuretic effect, it is not enough to counterbalance the total fluid intake, given that coffee is mostly water. Filter coffee averages around 98.7 per cent water, while an espresso works out at about 90 per cent. Even in a ristretto, there will be no less than 85 per cent! And, if you add milk into the mix, the percentage of water will be even higher.

Secondly, people who do not consume coffee frequently may find that when they do drink it, it acts as a more efficient diuretic. According to Killer et al. (2014), high amounts of caffeine increases urine levels in people who have not had caf- feine within the last four days, but they found no difference in fluid levels among those who consume medium amounts of caffeine.

The literature supports the notion that coffee does not dehydrate—in fact, it does so to such an overwhelming extent that it can be hard not to draw the same enthusiastic conclusion as Grandjean (2000), who claimed that ‘the diuretic effect of the caffeine is too small to measure’. 

Title for a coffee myths article by Gwilym Davies of Prufrock cafe for Standart magazine

Coffee was discovered by a goatherd

Was coffee discovered by a goatherd? An illustration by Rachel Presky for Standart magazine

One useful coffee myth is the origin story of how humans discovered that coffee could be consumed. According to the story, Kaldi, an Ethiopian goatherd, noticed that his charges would become frisky and filled with energy after eating the red cherries from a certain bush. Curious, he took the cherries to a local holy man who—depending on the version of the story at hand—either ate the cherries and used the resulting energy to stay awake throughout his night-time prayers, or at first disapprovingly threw them into a fire, but changed his mind after smelling the roasting coffee.

Of course, this origin myth is not likely to be factually true, but as a simple story, it serves to make comprehensible what would otherwise be a complex web of links between geography, rural life, and religion, all of which played a part in the early cultivation and spreading of coffee. The story itself might not be literally true, but the sentiment it conveys is.

On the other hand, there are some myths that make coffee seem important, but contain no truth whatsoever, and we should not repeat untrue ‘facts’ just because we feel they lend credibility to our industry. It is important to challenge both the misconceptions we don’t like, and those that are favourable to us. Coffee must not rest on a foundation of lazy and incorrect statements, particularly because there is no need for it to do so; there are plenty of useful and above all true facts and positive emotions that can be used to promote coffee.

Coffee myths run deep into all areas of the industry, and encompass topics from the biology of the plant to processing, roasting, and barista techniques; past mistakes and theories are still disturbingly prevalent.

Some of these myths have crept into recent developments in the industry; they can take hold quickly, and are passed around through the informal global coffee network and misinformed (if well-intentioned) social media posts. While the coffee industry matures, we must do our best to alleviate its growing pains by calling out misinformation. We must think like Kaldi—take whatever topic is under dispute to a source of authority, and acknowledge their conclusions. And if the truth prevents growth, well, growth will just have to take a back seat.