is coffee bad for your health?

Recently I ordered a mason jar of this simple home-roasted coffee - Heartbreak Coffee in Long Beach, CA - after coming across a photo of their packaging on Instagram. I was hooked by the packaging and when I went to their website and read about them, I was thoroughly motivated to place an order.

I have always like coffee, but more recently I have begun a love affair with it. I still don't drink it every day but I always enjoy it when I do. By coffee I mean a good 'ole cup of joe brewed any number of ways, an Americano, or whatever. I put less cream in my coffee than ever, as well, as I have come to really enjoy the taste of plain coffee. And, I think part of what I love about drinking coffee is the ritual. 

John has always loved the smell of coffee. He finds it impossible to resist picking up a bag for a good squeeze and sniff. Even though he has always loved the smell, he never liked the taste until recently. Not sure what changed his mind, but all of a sudden he started to actually like drinking the stuff.

He started frequenting Starbucks for a simple coffee that he typically added a hint of cream to. I next ventured into trying different blends and after a few months he could really tell the differences in bitterness and flavor.

He decided that he wanted to start making coffee at home and purchased a Bodum French press after doing research on the “best cup of coffee”. The correct brewing process took a bit of getting used to, but after all that practice he was disappointed with the results. Every coffee we selected from expensive to cheap turned out quite bitter. He had read that all he had to do to fix the bitterness was to buy 100% Arabica beans, but the results were the same and intensified when the coffee had a minute or two to cool off in the mug.

We looked around for home coffee machines that would produce the results we were interested in achieving, and we were sold on a Nespresso after getting a great sample at Williams Sonoma. He even purchased the milk frothing thingy to get the full effect.


All this coffee consumption made us wonder if it was actually unhealthy. These cups of coffee have been replacing 1-2 cups of what was normally just water. Questions arose like…Do coffee makers spray the same type of chemicals on the coffee plants and the beans as they do other crops? What if the coffee beans are GMO beans?

So our hearts have been breaking about coffee lately (see how I did that?) ... John and I started doing some research on coffee and it is not good news. It isn't so much that coffee itself may be bad for you in that it isn't the caffeine or anything like that. It is much worse.


Many Coffee farmers are small and their livelihoods are dependent on keeping their crops fungus and bug free. In many cases farmers are supplying their crops to organizations that don’t care about excessive pesticide use, and since farmers cannot afford to lose any crop they spray and spray more. This excessive pesticide use negatively affects the land and also has a tendency to pollute nearby water sources. What’s equally as harmful is the frequency and types of chemicals that are sprayed directly onto the coffee cherries before they are harvested. The US government has a ban on many dangerous pesticides, but coffee is primarily grown in completely unregulated regions overseas. That means that the pesticide-laden coffees are then shipped stateside into all of our local coffee shops and grocery stores.

It is actually quite difficult to uncover what specific chemicals are being used on the coffee that most of us drink. John spent a week researching this topic from all angles. There are all types of crazy pesticide classifications and acronyms, brands, and farming practices. What he did find, however, was an extremely interesting article from 1998 that sheds light on some of the industry practices that are likely still being used today. Obviously not all farmers are partaking and many US brands are enhancing their sustainable practices, but there is no way or really knowing who is doing what...

Here is an excerpt from the article:
"Insecticides fenthion, fenitrothion and malathion are just some in widespread use. farmers with larger areas practise minimal tillage using herbicides, which is cheaper than labour for manual weeding. For soil application the most widely used pesticide is Furadan (carbofuran), which is applied both to the seed bed (nursery) and the entire plot. One young farmer with several nurseries reported the death of 27 birds of four different species, after they fed on Furadan granules. The biggest problem facing farmers is post-harvest storage of grains, maize and beans. Weevils, the major threat, are brought into the empty stores in newly-harvested cobs and pods, and if no protective measures are taken can bring heavy losses. The main pesticide used is the Zeneca product Actellic (pirimiphos-methyl) and malathion dust. Most farmers do not know that some pesticides are banned, severely restricted or withdrawn from use. Farmers are aware of residue level problems, but do not see it as their problem. As one coffee farmer commented: "Why should I care? Nobody drinks coffee here. The 'Wazungus' (Europeans) bring in the pesticides let them have it back for consumption." 
"Many farmers use pesticides inappropriately, and on crops for which they are not registered. Metalaxyl registered for blight in tomatoes and potatoes is widely used by coffee farmers for the control of coffee berry disease. Farmers claim that Sevin (carbaryl), normally used for the control of fleas in chicken, goats, dogs and sheep, is a more effective control against green scales and leaf miners in coffee than specified products (e.g. copper oxide in coffee)-and are cheaper."
Read the full article here.
Below are some links to pesticides that are commonly used. Some are terrifyingly horrible! Malthion Dust, for example, is "chemically related to nerve gases developed during World War II" (Source link). Another pesticide called Furadan, also referred to as Carbofuran, can be fatal to humans at only a quarter teaspoon (!!!). Furadan is an extremely powerful endocrine disruptor in animals and humans and can lead to serious reproductive problems. "According to a study in 2004 exposure of rats to sublethal amounts of carbofuran decreased testosterone by 88%."(Source Link). Another "fun" pesticide called Chlorpyrifos has been studied to decrease mental development in babies during pregnancy. It also causes developmental and autoimmune disorders.

Coffee plants are highly susceptible to borer insects as well as fungus which is why they are sprayed with such heavy doses of pesticides. After reading all this, we have to consider the potential effects of long term exposure especially if you are a chronic coffee drinker. What if you drink a known brand that happens to not care what their farmers spray on the plants? Another question that this brings up is: how the pesticides and herbicides react to being roasted over and over?


Since John started drinking Starbucks coffee he figured that he would dive a little deeper into the company's practices. A lot of this information was difficult to find, but he thought Starbucks might be a little more transparent.

Starbucks is one of the largest purchasers of coffee worldwide; they purchased a total of 545 million pounds in 2012. One of their primary goals is to ensure that 100% of their coffee is ethically sourced by 2015. They state that the cornerstone of their approach is the coffee and farmer equity practice or C.A.F.E “set to ensure coffee quality while promoting social, economic and environmental standards.” Suppliers for Starbucks are graded on around 200 criteria. The abridged criteria are under three categories; People, Planet, and Product and address the following categories:

  • Wages
  • Benefits
  • Education
  • Medical Care
  • Living conditions
  • Human Rights
  • Soil
  • Waste
  • Water use and conservation
  • Shade Canopy
  • Energy
  • Agro-Chemical Use
  • Wildlife
  • Equitable Payments
  • Green Coffee Preperation
  • Receipts/ Invoices
  • Cup Quality
  • Long Term Viability
  • Farm Traceability

The thing that John focused in on was the use of Agro-Chemicals or pesticides. Under the environmental leadership section of the Starbucks supplier grading scorecard, it states that Starbucks has zero tolerance for the use of specific forms of pesticides. Also if pesticides are to be used they need to be applied in a spot treatment first, and if that doesn’t work they are allowed to spray more liberally.

An excerpt from that section reads:

Farm does not use pesticides that are listed by the World Health Organization as Type 1A (Extremely hazardous) or 1B (Highly Hazardous) . They are however able to use class II (Moderately hazardous) or Class III (Slightly hazardous) pesticides. 
Pesticides are applied only on a spot‐application basis, depending on the type and severity of infestation. 
Pesticides are only applied as a last resort (after cultural and physical controls have failed).

A shortened list of these pesticides is listed here.

A full version of all pesticide classifications by the World Health Organization is listed here

You can read more of the interesting Starbucks supplier grading and inspector operations documents here.

Interestingly out of the 545 million pounds of coffee purchased Starbucks states that only 8.1% of it was fair trade certified and only 1.6% of it was certified organic (source link). I have seen a lot of fair trade logos on coffee bags (among other things) lately, and I think lots of people mistake fair trade to mean something about the quality or even the organic nature of a product - it does not. Fair trade has to do with sustainable business and farming practices, not about product quality or organic farming prcatices. For a refresher on all of those coffee-related certification logos and their meaning take a look here. After recently seeing the Rainforest Alliance logo on a few types of coffee at Whole Foods, I asked an employee there what it meant; they said it had to do with high organic standards. But in fact it's very similar to fair trade - where it differs is is that coffee must be grown under the shade of trees. It does also promote limited use of less toxic agro-chemicals, though.


This brings us full circle to the cute little Nespresso machine that now beckons our names each morning. Nespresso openly boasts their sustainability in working with the Rainforest Alliance and this is no doubt credible. The Rainforest Alliance website says "farms are permitted to use certain agrochemicals, they may only do so under stringent controls designed to protect people, wildlife and ecosystems."

The unfortunate thing is that Nespresso has a sneaky little secret, which is hidden in plain sight on their website: "We will distribute 220 million high-yielding, disease-resistant coffee plantlets to farmers by 2020"... Did I just hear that right? Disease resistant plants ... um, doesn't that mean genetically modified plants.

Just like any agro-chemicals, this stuff is quite nasty; and it's hard to get all the facts. The best bet to reduce any potential risk is to look into purchasing certified organic roasts. Whole Foods, for example, has quite a few that taste awesome and if you ask nicely they will even give you free samples!

If you own a Nespresso machine like us, there are quite a few refillable or disposable coffee pod solutions that you can purchase and fill with an organic coffee. John originally tried looking for a pre-filled organic capsule as it would be the most convenient, but they are really hard to find. There is a UK-based startup company named CRU that has raised money for an organic pre-filled Nespresso pod which we will be keeping our eyes out for. It looks like the pods will start shipping in March, but they may or may not ship to the US. For the time being, we purchased Capsul-in disposable (BPA Free) cups that seem to work well. The key is to get the finest ground organic espresso you can.

I wish we had better news, but there you have it. It's quite the dirty little coffee secret. We try so hard to eat healthy, organic, and non-GMO and then we guzzle coffee which is just as bad as the worst of it. This certainly changes the way we look at coffee and it is a little bit of a heartbreaker, but not really surprising either.


Thanks to my hubs, John, for all of his time and research like this; he really dove into this and meticulously researched it. He will be contributing to andCHLOE here and there with content like this from now on.  Let us know if you like it and/or what you think about more in-depth articles like this.

And, also, what kind of coffee do you drink? How do you brew it?

Note: I started off this post with a photo of a jar of Heartbreak Coffee that I ordered. I am not intentionally singling them out in any negative way. I have not talked to them about where they source their beans so I don't have any information on their particular coffee in terms of GMO, organic, non-organic, etc. I do love their packaging and the care they take when sending out coffee (see that hand lettered box!), though. And we really enjoyed the coffee; it was a delicious. They are super nice, too. I just didn't want to give the impression that I was singling them out as "bad" since I used a photo of their coffee on this post on why coffee may be bad for you.

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