A ‘pagan drink’? A cure for cancer? The history of coffee is full of surprises | Jonathan Morris

LLast week, a study was published showing that people with colon cancer who drink coffee – quite a lot of coffee, two to four cups a day – are less likely to have the disease return. Experts have said that if results from further studies hold up, coffee could be prescribed to cancer patients on the NHS. That coffee has an effect on human functioning is indisputable – but whether that impact is beneficial or harmful has been the subject of debate since Sufi mystics began consuming the drink sometime in the mid-15th century.

The indigenous peoples of the Kaffa forests of southwestern Ethiopia collected berries from wild coffee plants that were shipped across the Red Sea to prepare the decoction known as qahwa, which Yemeni Sufis incorporated into their nightly religious ceremonies to curb their desire for sleep . When the mainstream Islamic courts ruled that coffee was not intoxicating, its consumption became widespread among Muslim populations in the Middle East and the Ottoman Empire.

Coffee was initially mainly seen as a kind of medicine. Turkish merchants brought coffee to Venice, where it was prescribed for digestive system disorders. It looks like it came in small drinks and was drunk cold. Europe’s first coffeehouses appeared in London in the 1650s, when Pasqua Rosée opened its premises to merchants from the nearby Royal Exchange. By 1663, there were 82 coffeehouses registered in the City of London, whose customers were attracted by the bizarre health benefits claimed for the new drink.

According to a widely reproduced handbill used by coffeehouse owners, the drink “closes the opening of the stomach and strengthens the heart within…it is very good for aiding digestion…quickens the mind and makes the heart light.” It is good for sore eyes… and for headaches.”

Its most attractive feature, however, was that ‘it will prevent drowsiness and fit you for business, if you have occasion to look, and therefore you should not drink of it after supper, unless you intend to be vigilant, for it will be three or four hours’ sleep.” For merchants who lived by their wits, doing business over stimulating coffee dishes was preferable to trying to maintain concentration while drinking the small beer sold in taverns. Despite the warnings on the handbill, many coffeehouses remained open well into the evening so that trading and networking could continue.

Coffee shop in Soho, London, 1954. Photo: Hulton Getty

Not everyone was won over. The 1674 Women’s Petition Against Coffee claimed that “excessive use of that newfangled, abominable, heathen drink called coffee… hath so fornicated our husbands, and so paralyzed our gentler gallants, that they have become as impotent as age and as sterile as that doctor where that came from. It is said that the unfortunate Berry is brought”. The petition’s call for men to resume drinking ‘Lusty Nappy Beer’ and ‘Cock-Ale’ to avoid being ‘Cuckolded’ by dildos suggests that the petition was likely filed by tavern owners and not by women who protested against the hanging of coffee drinkers.

Negative advertising returned to prominence in the US two centuries later, when wellness entrepreneurs began attacking coffee as responsible for a new fashionable plague: nerves. Businessman CW Post turned coffee denouncing into an art form, helping him become a millionaire just seven years after founding a company in 1895 that produced Postum, a roasted wheat bran drink. Post effectively enlightened coffee drinkers through its advertisements’ references to such conditions as coffee heart, coffee neuralgia, and brain phage. One showed an overflowing cup and the text ‘the constant dripping wears away the stone – maybe a hole has been punched in you. Try not to drink coffee for 10 days and use Postum Food coffee.”

Ironically, Post was a secret coffee drinker, albeit an apparently self-loathing one whose periods of abstinence alternated with periods of binge eating.

Since the 1960s, massive longitudinal surveys of coffee drinkers have provided conflicting evidence of its impact. Early studies indicated a strong negative correlation with overall health, likely because they did not take into account related lifestyle choices – especially smoking. In 1991, the World Health Organization listed coffee as a possible cause of cancer, but in 2016 this status was reversed as more nuanced studies have shown that a greater number of positive outcomes are associated with drinking coffee.

Caffeine’s undisputed physiological and psychoactive properties may influence some of these outcomes, but many of them may also be related to the other hundreds of unique compounds packed into one cup. The high amounts of soluble dietary fiber present in brewed coffee may contribute to gut health, and coffee is high in antioxidants that are associated with protection against aging and dementia. Even a rogue 2018 California court ruling that required coffee roasters to put health warnings on roasted coffee because it contained the carcinogen acrylamide was soon overthrown by state officials on the grounds that the concentrations were so low that it was virtually impossible that drinking coffee alone could cause cancer. After being on the defensive for ages, perhaps it’s time for coffee professionals to dust off the handbills and channel their inner Pasqua Rosée.

  • Jonathan Morris is director of culture and environment research and professor of history at the University of Hertfordshire. He is the author of Coffee: A Global History. He works with a wide range of partners from the coffee industry on tailor-made heritage projects