It's brew love for our cafe society

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 August, 2011, 12:00am


'Venti double mint mocha. Whip. For here.' If you can fire off that coffee order perfectly, you are probably one of the thousands who frequent Hong Kong's coffee shops day and night.

Coffee is fast becoming the beverage of choice in the city, displacing its traditional rival, tea. Nestle, which produces instant coffee as well as the popular Nespresso capsule coffee machines, puts the per capita consumption of coffee in the territory at 60 cups a year. While two-in-one and three-in-one 'cuppas' are a staple at home, more are flocking to coffee house chains such as Starbucks and Pacific Coffee for fancier picks.

The dark, bitter brew that is coffee is made from the roasted seeds of the coffee plant, and has a history dating to the 15th century. Coffee is grown commercially in more than 70 countries worldwide, with the main species cultivated being C. arabica. From this, arabica, the creme de la creme of coffee beans, is obtained.

What gives coffee its kick is caffeine, a pesticide found naturally in the seeds, leaves and fruits of plants such as kola nut, yerba mate, guarana berries and the yaupon holly.

The amount of caffeine in a cup of coffee depends on the strength of the brew, the brewing method and the type of coffee blend used. According to the United States Food and Drug Administration, coffee made using the drip method contains an average of 115 milligrams of caffeine per 150ml cup, while percolator coffee has 80mg. A cup of instant coffee usually contains about 65mg of caffeine.

Contrary to popular belief, decaffeinated coffee still contains a small amount of caffeine. Researchers at the University of Florida have found that some drip-brewed decaf brands can contain up to 13.9mg of caffeine per 473ml.

While most people drink coffee for its stimulant effects - it increases alertness and boosts energy levels - it has also been shown to reduce the risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer's disease, protect against certain types of cancer and even keep you from contracting methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), a bacterial infection that is resistant to traditional antibiotics.

But research into caffeine's negative effects is equally extensive. Caffeine consumption may make it harder for a woman to get pregnant by interfering with muscle contractions that push eggs from the ovaries through the fallopian tubes into the womb. It may also increase the risk of gout, a painful form of arthritis that occurs when uric acid crystals build up and inflame the cartilage of joints, tendons and other surrounding tissue, especially in the feet. Those who love unfiltered coffee such as espresso appear to have an increased risk of high cholesterol levels.

So how much coffee is safe to drink? According to Kathleen Yau Ka-yan, a registered dietitian with the Hong Kong Nutrition Association, drinking four to five cups, or less than 650mg of caffeine, daily is acceptable. 'Over-consumption of caffeinated drinks may lead to dehydration, as caffeine is a diuretic,' she says.

Pregnant women who are moderate drinkers can continue to enjoy their coffee at a reduced intake, as caffeine is metabolised more slowly during pregnancy. The safe limit is under 200mg, or two cups of instant coffee, a day, according to the Britain-based Food Standards Agency.

Unless you have a 36-espressos-a-day habit like pop singer Robbie Williams, your biggest concern about drinking coffee should be what you order at the counter.

'Some coffee drinks like Frappuccino or Caramel Macchiato [both sold by Starbucks] are high in fat and sugar because they contain milk and whipped cream. The caloric content of such drinks is not ideal, especially for overweight and obese people,' Yau says.

According to Starbucks' website, a grande (16 US fluid ounces, or 473ml) Caramel Frappuccino with whipped cream has 370 calories and 12g of fat. By contrast, a Caffe Americano, which is espresso with hot water, contains only 15 calories and no fat at all.

What can inveterate coffee addicts do to keep both their habits and their waistlines? 'You can ask for skim or low-fat milk, and avoid putting whipped cream in your coffee,' Yau advises. Since both Chinese and Western coffee houses usually use full cream, evaporated or condensed milk to make their brews, consider taking home-made brew to work instead of stopping by your local coffee joint. Yau says: 'It is easier for you to make healthier choices like using less sugar ... if you make your coffee at home.'

What's in your coffee?

Yuan yang (tea-coffee), sweetened

Serving size: 100 grams

52 calories, 2.3g fat, 4.8g sugar

Hong Kong-style coffee, sweetened

Serving size: 100 grams

51 calories, 2.3g fat, 2g sugar

Pacific Coffee Company Caramel Swirl Chillino with whipped cream

Serving size: Tall (12oz)

360 calories, 14g fat, 48g sugar

Starbucks Cappuccino, whole milk

Serving size: Tall (12oz)

110 calories, 6g fat, sugar self-added

Nescafe Home Cafe 3-in-1 instant coffee

Serving size: 1 sachet

186 calories, 6.7g fat, 15g sugar