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5 things you should know about your cup o' joe

TODAY food editor Phil Lempert gives the scoop on the benefits of coffee.
/ Source: TODAY

The history of coffee is redolent with fable, saturated with myth, and couched in legends. Was coffee a known beverage during the 9th century in Persia? Did Egypt, Libya, and Abyssinia know coffee in the year 1000? Coffee historians are still debating. And, that's what makes the story of the bean as intriguing today as it was 50 years ago, and 500 years before that.

What we do know for sure is that the Ottoman Turks brought coffee from Yemen (or the Levant) to Constantinople in 1453, and in 1471 (some say 1475), the first coffeehouse, Kiva Han, was established. It exists today, with the same name if not the heirs to the founders, a small shop on a nondescript cobblestone street in Istanbul, formerly known as Constantinople. Kiva Han was a natural outgrowth for the surging popularity of coffee during the 15th and 16th centuries when thousands of acres of coffee trees were planted throughout the Arabian Peninsula and in Yemen and trade flourished, especially in Turkey and in Syria, where coffee lovers in Damascus started that country's first coffeehouse in 1530.

At first coffee, like tea, was used for its medicinal purposes; as enthusiasts became more and more adventurous with the bean, they segued from grinding the green bean to roasting it to its now-familiar luscious brown, then grinding it and boiling it with water to make coffee that is drunk in a similar style today throughout the area. The style is small cups of thick, rich coffee, water and grounds together, sometimes sweetened heavily, other times drunk for its edgy bitterness.

A good cup of coffee, no matter what technique is used to brew it, almost demands companionship, and in Kiva Han, men met to discuss the issues of the day, drink coffee "hot and black as the devil," play games, discuss business, and even listen to a poet or two. While it was men who sat in Kiva Han, it was the women who used coffee for "female troubles" and as an aphrodisiac. So serious was the claim that coffee was an aphrodisiac that Turkish men could be sued for divorce if they did not provide their wives with enough coffee, thus giving new meaning to "grounds for divorce."

The reputation of coffee was soon spreading outward like caravans of camels on the Arabian pathways. In 1650, Baba Budan, a Muslim from India, allegedly hid coffee beans in his garments and planted them in Mysore where India's premier coffee plantations still grow. Also in 1650, a Turk known as "Jacob the Jew" opened the very first coffeehouse in Oxford, England, and started such a huge trend that by 1698 London sported more than 2,000 coffeehouses covering more retail real estate than any other industry.

By 1848, many of these places had died off, as had many of its fondest patrons. The women, still denied access, turned to tea and elaborate tea gardens for socializing, and the British East India Company sailed the seas for the tea trade. Some of the more renowned coffeehouses became hotels, others taverns; still more simply shuttered their doors. The world of the London coffee house fell into the abyss of legend and memory.

Fast-forward to the United States where in the 2007 Starbucks, Dunkin' Donuts, Peet's and other coffee retailers have reinvigorated and upped the coffee experience, and created an entirely new generation of coffee aficionados.

Coffee is big business with sales at just under $3.5 billion, according to Nielsen. It's easy to go out and pay $4 for a good cup of coffee, but now you won't have to! Today's supermarkets are jammed with more than 460 different brands or varieties of coffees, and with lots of innovations taking place in coffee and espresso machines you might want to save your money and make that perfect brew at home.

Here's what to look for:
Some coffee packages proudly display “100% COFFEE” on their label, which means absolutely nothing. What you really want to see is the kind of bean used in the coffee. For example 100% Colombian (100% Arabica), means there is no Robusta or Vietnamese beans and also very few sticks or bad beans. When selecting beans look for those that are chocolate brown in color — those that are almost black and shiny are typically over roasted and can be bitter.

Varieties of coffees:
There are over 20 species of coffee plants, but only two account for the majority of commercial coffee sold worldwide: Arabica and Robusta. Robusta coffee beans constitute the majority of low-quality, mass-produced, pre-ground coffee blends and freeze-dried coffee found in jars and cans. It tends to be bitter and bland. Arabica coffee beans are the world's most flavorful beans and also contain only half the caffeine of Robusta.

Today’s shelves are lined with coffees that tout “organic” or “fair trade” (or both!) on their labels. Here's what that means:

Organic coffee:
Organic standards require that the land used to grow organic coffee crops go through a three-year "transition period" to make sure the crops are free of synthetic pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. Coffees labeled organic also bar the use of irradiation, sewage sludge and genetically modified organisms.

Fair Trade coffee:
Under Fair Trade conditions, an importer must pay a minimum price per pound, and provide financial and technical assistance to producers whenever possible. Since Fair Trade Organizations bypass middlemen and work directly with producers, they are able to operate very efficiently and return a greater price to the producers. Fair Trade is about building long-term relationships and while it's a relatively new effort, many coffee brands are beginning to join the program. For example, 100 percent of Dunkin' Donuts espresso-based beverages use Fair Trade Certified coffee beans.

Brewing tips:
For the best flavor, always use cold, fresh water. Bottled spring water is recommended. Do not use bottled mineral water as it will affect the taste and also cause mineral deposits in your coffee maker. Most coffee makers measure “cups” as just one 6-ounce portion. Always allow the coffee maker to complete its entire brew cycle to ensure the coffee is at its desired strength. (Even on those machines that allow you to take one cup during brewing, wait. It will be worth it!) The first coffee that passes through the filter is the most concentrated, and the coffee near the end the weakest. The proper grind of coffee is important, so read those labels carefully — and use the variety that is designed specifically for your preferred method of brewing. Generally, the faster the infusion process, the finer the ground of coffee. So for those who prefer a “French press,” use a coarser grind. Drink your coffee as soon as the brewing finishes, as the longer the coffee sits the more bitter it will become. Do not leave the coffee pot on the burner (whether it be a stove-top or coffee machine), as it will burn.

The top five health benefits of coffee:

Protects against diabetes
Researchers have discovered that drinking coffee is a positive addition to the lifestyle for those at-risk or who already have diabetes. Anywhere from two to six cups a day has proven beneficial. The reason? Antioxidants plus other chemical elements exist in the complex profile of coffee. Risk factors are reduced up to 30 percent, and scientists believe that the body's metabolism of sugar is balanced by the compounds found in coffee. While the recommendations have been from two to six cups a day, all of the scientists agree that it is best to space the consumption out over the day as the compounds are eliminated rather quickly and do not remain in the body for great lengths of time even though they are beneficial while consumed.

Protects against liver disease.
Two recent studies by Kaiser Permanente Medical Care Program revealed that subjects who drank four or more cups of coffee per day had upwards of 80 percent less chance of developing liver cirrhosis than non-coffee drinkers. In another study, death from the disease was reduced 23 percent. (Cirrhosis caused by Hepatitis C appears to be unaffected by coffee consumption.) Another study in Norway, showed that cancer of the liver can be reduced by drinking coffee. Those in the study who drank coffee regularly versus those who never or hardly ever drank coffee developed only 214.6 cases versus 547.2 of those who did (per 100,000 people).

Caffeine in coffee can rev up the body and keep the mind alert
Several recent studies reported the therapeutic value of coffee and caffeine for protecting against the onset of dementia and/or Alzheimer's. Scientists now believe that caffeine can stimulate the brain cells to stimulate choline, a necessary element in making "neurotransmitters," which are greatly reduced in dementia patients. Caffeine also helps Parkinson's patients who experience a lack of dopamine in the brain, which causes tremors and general mobility problems. The explanation for caffeine efficacy may be that it is a phytochemical (a plant-derivative chemical) and phytochemicals are well known for therapeutic, medical properties.

Coffee has powerful antioxidants
Antioxidants, plentiful in fruits and vegetables, are absolutely vital for excellent health and appear in high levels in coffee. Antioxidants are chemical compounds that fight free radicals, which, if allowed to grow, will attack our body and cause disease, most commonly cancer. Fats and sugars elevate free radicals, so it makes good sense to eat high amounts of fruits and vegetables daily — at least five servings — plus drink two cups of coffee per day.

Protects against gallstones
Caffeinated coffee appears to help reduce the symptoms of gallstones. Men have a four percent lower risk of developing them when they drink two or three cups of caffeinated coffee per day; however, men who drink four or more cups reduce the risk up to 45 percent over those men who do not drink coffee. These are the conclusions from a Harvard School of Public Health study that involved 46,000 male participants over a 10-year period.

A separate study done by the Harvard Nurses’ Health Study followed 80,000 women for 20 years and reported that coffee reduces the risk of gallstones among women by 25 percent when they drink four or more cups a day, compared to those women who did not drink any coffee.

Storage tips:
Air is coffee’s biggest enemy, and if left exposed after roasting, coffee gets stale after just nine days. Store coffee in an air and light-tight container. Do not store coffee in the fridge or in the freezer, doing so will diminish the coffee’s flavor as the moisture is absorbed by the beans or ground coffee.

Food safety warning:
It is important to rinse both the brew basket and the coffee pot with warm water immediately after use. Coffee left in the paper or mesh filter will grow bacteria and mold within a couple of days.

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Phil Lempert is food editor of the TODAY show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent to or by using the mail box below. For more about the latest trends on the supermarket shelves, visit Phil’s Web site at .