Let’s start from the beginning. When were you born?
I have always existed, but it hasn’t always been easy to spot me. I have tried to hide, and I’m rather good at it, because I’m flavorless, with a hint of bitterness. In Germany, the first people to notice me were a poet, Goethe, and a young doctor, Runge, who exposed me in 1819.
What do you look like?
As an extract, I come in the form of a paste, then if I am centrifuged I turn into an odorless white powder, rather like corn flour. I melt easily in hot water but I’m less easily soluble in cold water. Under the microscope you can see the shape of my long, flexible, prismatic crystals with irregular edges.
Where do you live?
Everyone knows me, because I am in coffee.
But you can also find me in tea, in green tea, in chocolate, and in cola-based soft drinks. I am also in Guarana, which is extracted from a shrub growing in South America.
What was your first encounter with the world like?
To begin with, in Abyssinia, the nomads used the coffee cherries as a food and not as a drink. They prepared small morsels by mixing the cherries with animal fat. Nobody knew me then, but the Ethiopians’ ancestors realized that I gave them energy on their long journeys.
What happened when you arrived in Europe?
I reached Europe in the early 1600s, with the first batches of coffee. Just think, the “black beverage” was thought to be medicinal then, and there were times when it was deemed harmful. Fontanelle, a gentleman of over 100 years of age, remarked that coffee “is a very slow poison, to which I myself am witness.”
Have attitudes towards you improved over time?
Not completely, even in the eighteenth century people had many doubts about me and about coffee: Gustaf III of Sweden commissioned a doctor to carry out an experiment with twins, to assess the effects coffee has on health. One twin had to drink tea all the time, and the other had to drink coffee. Both the doctor and the king then died. The twin who drank tea passed away at the age of 83, some time before his brother.
On the subject of coffee, how much of you is there in a cup of espresso?
Before answering that question, I need to say one thing, and that is that there are two species of coffee plant: Coffea arabica and Coffea canephora, better known as Robusta.
Arabica and Robusta differ both biologically and in how much caffeine they each contain. I leave between 50 and 90 mg in a cup of espresso made with Arabica coffee, and between 105 and 160 mg in a cup of Robusta espresso.
What is your relationship with man like?
I don’t build up in the organism, as I am easily transformed. I have a half life of about 4 hours: this means that half of me is metabolized and used in a short space of time. I’d like to point out that my half life depends on the individual: for example, smokers consume me more quickly, while pregnant women digest me more slowly.
Is it true that a high consumption of coffee can create an addiction?
Binges are always harmful, and that’s true of any food or drink. Coffee does not create addiction and, therefore, there are no withdrawal symptoms if consumption is stopped. Heavy consumers (more than 5-6 cups a day) who decide to give coffee up, may experience a slight headache which lasts one or two days at most.
So is caffeine bad for you?
There is no research to show that caffeine is bad for you. Many studies point out that caffeine acts on the central nervous system, improving a person’s level of attention and giving them a sense of psychophysical well-being. I do advise an adult, though, not to consume more than 450-500mg of caffeine per day, which is equal to about 5-6 cups of coffee.