(MCT) -- When I emailed a family member that I was at the annual convention of the Hawaii Coffee Association, he replied, "A dietitian and nutritionist at a coffee convention? Just curious."
Me, too. But, hey, where else do you get coffee breaks that feature 100 percent Kona coffee? And speakers in Hawaiian shirts? I was ready and alert to learn.
For starters, I learned that Hawaii is the only coffee-producing state in the US. Coffee trees love the dense sunshine, plentiful rain, and rich volcanic soil of these islands.
And coffee growers work hard to produce healthy coffee plants that produce good-tasting coffee. More than 30 varieties are grown in Kona, for example. Coffee labeled "100 percent Kona coffee" is harvested exclusively from beans grown in this area of Hawaii.
Besides the fact that much of the world does not function in the morning without it, does coffee contain any redeeming nutritional value?
Why, yes, it does. A recent study at John Hopkins University found that 200 milligrams of caffeine (what we might get in 8 to 12 ounces of brewed coffee) enhanced the ability of study participants to remember details.
But coffee is more than just a vehicle for caffeine, say researchers at Harvard University. It contains hundreds of different compounds, including antioxidant substances known to protect cells in the body from destruction. Coffee also contains the minerals magnesium and chromium which the body uses with the hormone insulin to regulate blood sugar levels. Recent studies have, in fact, found an association between higher coffee intake and a lower risk for type 2 diabetes.
Not everyone should be downing a carafe of coffee every morning however. Pregnant women are advised to limit coffee intake to no more than 1 or 2 cups a day since caffeine crosses the placenta to the baby. And people with high blood pressure need to monitor the effect of caffeine on their condition.
"If you're drinking so much coffee that you get tremors, have sleeping problems or feel stressed and uncomfortable," say experts at Harvard, "then obviously you're drinking too much coffee."
How to distinguish a good cup of coffee? "Cupping" experts use a precise scoring method to rate speciality coffees, I learned. Good coffee might be rich-bodied with mild acidity, clean, and balanced, for example. Bad coffee might be dusty, dirty, card-boardy or "like hot electrical components." Interesting, too, that inferior coffee gets worse as it cools. Good coffee gets better.
Kona coffee beans are delicate, explains Tommy Greenwell, a 4th generation coffee farmer and owner of Greenwell Farms in the heart of Kona. So its best taste is at a medium roast, not dark. One of his favorites is "Jeni K" - named after his wife. Awww..
Why is Kona coffee so pricey? Mostly because of labor costs, says Greenwell's chief financial officer, Steve Hicks. Each individual coffee "cherry" - the ripe-red fruit of the coffee tree that produces a coffee bean - is hand-picked. And workers in Hawaii are compensated according to U.S. standards.
Store your precious coffee in airtight containers away from direct light and heat, advises Peggy, our enthusiastic tour guide at Greenwell Farms. "Never put coffee in the refrigerator!" (Moisture causes coffee to deteriorate.)
Only buy what you will use within a week or two. Coffee beans (and especially ground coffee) lose quality and flavor if stored too long. And by the way, "If it's good coffee, you shouldn't need cream or sugar."
So from the big island of Hawaii: "To drink is human. To drink Kona coffee is divine." Mahalo and aloha, dear friends.
(Barbara Quinn is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator at the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org .)
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