brainfood; Weird science

Scientists, God love them. What kind of a life would it be without boffins picking up gene samples in Papua and telling us California's going to fall into the Pacific and Fulham will be under water? The answer is we'd all be bored silly and our taxes would go down.

But this is not an attack on science; or if it is, only on the kind of science that makes Big Statements on Little Evidence. For what diverts me most about this sort of science is its massive certainty. You will not find historians saying that the Second World War was caused by the hysteria of laboratory rats trapped in Ilfendingen, but you will find "scientists" to tell you that Asians are passive because they drink tea, and the West is gung-ho and hyperkinetic because it drinks coffee.

N-n-n-no doubts about it at all, folks! You want to know why the Japanese are (or were until recently) so good at flogging their products and making the stuff we wanted? Look no further. They underwent a dietary change in the aftermath of defeat, pouring all their tea into their insalubrious sewage system and, as conquered nations always do, flattered the victors by adopting their national beverage, coffee. Or perhaps you'd care to consider why Americans are so aggressive about getting going in the morning and starting up new businesses (to patent those Papuan genes, for instance) only to lose interest in what they're doing a few hours later?

Well, now I can tell you: it's that their coffee, ingested in one great whacking early dose, turns them on with a huge dose of caffeine, the wearing off of which (an hour or two) simply leaves them as mentally deflated as Bill Clinton. Whereas those slick, charming Italians, taking the stuff in small, concentrated doses, have time for the arts, stay smart all day and night, and have invented the game of the future, the politics of absurdity.

There is not a sentence in here so far that is not "verifiable" in some way by a scientific study, and the reason this engages my attention today is that I recently read a study which said that coffee was not just one of the most widely consumed products in the world, but also one of the most studied. It seems that if you go into whatever data bank it is that contains such matters, you'll find - in the past 20 years alone - some 60,000 studies on coffee. And - here is the lovely bit - they don't agree. Whether it's good or bad for you, whether it stimulates or depresses, or why it should do either or both, whether it induces cancer or repels it.

Why those 60,000 studies? The easy answer is that coffee is a mild stimulant that helps make one more attentive, better able to concentrate, and simultaneously relaxed. Like all such natural products that people have been ingesting for centuries, if you come into the office dithering about the 19 things you should be doing and not getting any of them done, coffee will give you, temporarily, a sense of priority - part of what we call "alertness". By and large, in modest quantities, this is what coffee does, tobacco does, drink does.

But, of course, these substances work differently on different people: maybe that's why it takes 60,000 studies to tell us what we know already. For instance, that people with low blood pressure, or a slow metabolic rate, can have an espresso before going to bed with no ill result; whereas their contraries are going to have trouble sleeping and produce the sorts of dreams that keep some analytic practises going.

There, I've dropped a scientific "fact" on you. But is it one? Not really. What science can do, however, is tell you what something like coffee is made up of (beans are eight to 12 per cent water, ten per cent sugars, between 1.1 and 4.5 per cent caffeine, 12 per cent fats, 6.8 per cent chlorogenic acid, 4.1 per cent ash, and the rest nitrogenised (12 per cent) and un-nitrogenised (18 per cent) substances). It can also tell you what happens to it when it is processed - in the case of coffee, roasted: water goes down to one per cent, sugar to two, the caffeine stays equal, and we get 25 per cent grey cellulose, 30 per cent glucide derivatives, 14 per cent lipids... You want to hear more?

What common sense will tell you is that if every day 2.5 billion cups of coffee are drunk, there must be something in its favour. And there is something wonderfully pragmatic and experienced about the Italian espresso, just about a hundred years old now. It should contain 6.5g of freshly-ground coffee (roughly 50 beans), made at 94 degrees centigrade, at a pressure of nine atmospheres, and take 30 seconds to filter through. Now there's information we can use. But even more important, to my mind, is that appearance, as with all foods, is as good a guide to flavour as any chemical test yet devised. A sick bean you can see; a sick bean you should discard. Sick science you should discard - before you come to think that the tea-drinking Chinese are unaggressive, or we allow Dunkin' Donuts to colonise the People's Republic

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Arts and Entertainment
This weekend's 'Big Hero 6' by Disney Animation Studios
arts + ents
News
i100
News
Budapest, 1989. Sleepware and panties.
newsDavid Hlynsky's images of Soviet Union shop windows shine a light on our consumerist culture
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
News
In humans, the ability to regulate the expression of genes through thoughts alone could open up an entirely new avenue for medicine.
science
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Transport Administrator / Planner

    £20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

    Austen Lloyd: Corporate Tax Associate - London

    Excellent Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - HIGHEST QUALITY INTERNATIONAL FIRM - A...

    Austen Lloyd: Senior Law Costs - London City

    Excellent Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - EXCELLENT FIRM - We have an outstandin...

    Austen Lloyd: In-House Solicitor / Company Secretary - London

    Excellent Package: Austen Lloyd: IN-HOUSE - NATIONAL CHARITY - An exciting and...

    Day In a Page

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee