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  • Are You Drinking Coffee Ethically?
  • Sonee Singh
  • FoodNutrition

Are You Drinking Coffee Ethically?

Are You Drinking Coffee Ethically?

Ethical consumerism is growing the draw to sustainable, organic, local, and non-genetically modified food sources. When it comes to coffee, ethical consumerism can take many forms, but fair trade, shade grown, and the impact coffee has on your health are three important concepts to be familiar with.

1. Is Your Coffee Fair Trade?

Fair trade is defined as goods that are “purchased under equitable trading agreements, involving cooperative rather than competitive trading principles, ensure a fair price and fair working conditions for producers and suppliers” (Murphy & Jenner-Leuthart, 2011, p. 508). For coffee this means prices are not determined by the fluctuating market price, which is driven by supply and demand parameters. Instead, coffee growers and fair trade cooperatives agree upon prices, and set an amount that fairly compensates the coffee grower. The price also covers associated people and processes, including the millers, roasters, importers and exporters, distributors, and retailers (Stewart, 2007).

Fair trade cooperatives are often better options for coffee growers who can receive as little as 10 to 30 cents per pound at market value, which does not cover production costs that can be as much as 60 cents per pound. For example, one fair trade cooperative paid $1.26 per pound of coffee, and agreed to pay at the higher market price if the market price rose above the agreed upon price, in addition to a 5 cent premium for every pound. Fair trade cooperatives also provide support for the coffee growers in the form of training on business practices or other related functions or services (Stewart, 2007). When purchasing fair trade coffee you are guaranteeing that the coffee growers are able to sustain their business.

However, it is not easy for coffee growers to become part of fair trade cooperatives. Fair trade cooperatives do not actively recruit or seek coffee growers, and coffee growers may simply not know about them because they live in remote and not easily accessible areas. Most common coffee areas are in various countries within Africa, Central and South America, and Asia. Even when coffee growers find a cooperative they want to join, they have to adhere to certain standards to be part of a fair trade cooperative, some of which they are unable to or unwilling to do (Stewart, 2007). Each fair trade cooperative negotiates a different price for its coffee growers, which can become confusing for the coffee growers (Murphy & Jenner-Leuthart, 2011).

As a consumer, it is important to know that even when buying coffee that is not fair trade, you are still benefiting coffee growers.

2. Is Your Coffee Shade Grown?

Shade grown coffee indicates that coffee plants are grown next to other trees that provide shade to the coffee trees. The shade trees provide necessary nutrients to the coffee plant, protect the coffee plant from insects and diseases, and contribute to the biodiversity of the farm (Mouen Bedimo et al., 2008; Steward, 2007). Coffee plants naturally grow in shaded areas or under shaded trees, but in a desire to increase production, coffee growers often remove the shade trees and replace them with coffee plants. This can make the coffee plants more vulnerable to infections and infestations, increase the use of fertilizers, and disrupt the natural biodiversity of the farm and the area (Mouen Bedimo et al., 2008; Stewart, 2007). Shade grown coffee is thus a more sustainable option, and supports the natural environment in which coffee is grown.

Be mindful of the coffee retailer who charges more for fair trade coffee or shade grown coffee. Costs for these options are not much higher than that of other types of coffee, and the only benefactor could be the retailer (Stewart, 2007).

3. Is Your Coffee Healthy for You?

There is controversy surrounding the health benefits of coffee. Examples of the controversy surrounding coffee intake can be seen on studies that have looked at the effect of cancer from coffee consumption. Although the effect of coffee on colon cancers has been studied extensively, the results are not consistent. Some suggest that moderate (1-3 cups daily) and large amounts (more than 4 cups daily) increased the risk of colorectal cancer, but consuming 0 or 4 cups of coffee did not (Groessl et al., 2016). Other studies indicated that only after consuming more than 4 cups of coffee daily would there be a protective effect against colorectal cancer. Age, education, smoking habits, hormone use, use of painkillers, and family history of cancer contributed to the variance in results (Groessl et al., 2016).

Another example is seen on studies of the effect of coffee on the liver. Coffee has been found to protect against a range of liver diseases. However, some studies have found that coffee consumption increases the risk of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (Kennedy, Roderick, Poole, & Parkes, 2016). Similarly, drinking black coffee has been found to prevent the onset of type-2-diabetes in studies conducted in the United States and Korea, but a study conducted in Europe showed that coffee had negative effects on blood glucose, while also increasing blood pressure (Lee, Oh, Lim, Kim, & Lee, 2016).

Regardless of the controversy, coffee does have beneficial components. Of the three most commonly available coffee varieties, Coffea arabica, Coffea robusta, and Coffea liberica, C. arabica, is the most common and provides the majority of the coffee made globally. Nonetheless, all three varieties of coffee provide valuable antioxidants, such as tannins, phenols, and polyphenols, all of which are beneficial to health (Patay et al., 2016). Read my article on antioxidants to learn how antioxidants are beneficial for health.

Coffee has health benefits, as well as some detriments, and the decision on whether or not to drink coffee should not just be based on your preference, but also on your health, your lifestyle, your age, your genetics, and your specific condition and circumstances. Pay attention to how you feel after drinking coffee, and if you feel any discomfort, coffee may not be the best choice for you.

The amount of coffee consumed also has an impact. Some advise to drink minimal amounts of coffee (no more than 1 cup daily), while others state that to see health benefits from coffee large amounts of coffee are required (more than 4 cups per day). Again, the amount of coffee you consume should be in accordance to your health and lifestyle. Do not consume large amounts of coffee if you do not require it.

Keep in mind that there is no one solution that works for everyone, and what may work well for you may not for others, and vice versa. You are unique and should only consider yourself when making your decision.

Website Links

Coffee and Health

Fair Trade USA

Specialty Coffee Association of America


Groessl, E. J., Allison, M. A., Larson, J. C., Ho, S. B., Snetslaar, L. G., Lane, D. S., Tharp, K. M., & Stefanick, M. L. (2016). Coffee consumption and the incidence of colorectal cancer in women. Journal of Cancer Epidemiology, 2016(6918431).

Kennedy, O. J., Roderick, P., Poole, R., & Parkes, J. (2016). Coffee, caffeine and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease? Therapeutic Advances in Gastroenterology, 9(3), 417-418. doi:10.1177/1756283X16636765

Lee, J., Oh, M., Lim, J., Kim, H., & Lee, W. (2016). Effect of coffee consumption on the progression of type 2 diabetes mellitus among prediabetic individuals. Korean Journal of Family Medicine, 37, 7-13.

Mouen Bedimo, J. A., Njiayouom, I., Bieysse, D., Ndoumbè Nkeng, M., Cilas, C., & Nottéghem, J. L. (2008). Effects of shade on Arabica coffee berry disease development: toward an agroforestry system reduce disease impact. Phytopathology, 98(12), 1320-1325. Retrieved from

Murphy, A., & Jenner-Leuthart, B. (2011). Fairly sold? adding value with fair trade coffee in cafes. The Journal of Consumer Marketing, 28(7), 508-515. doi:

Patay, E. B., Sali, N., Koszegi, T., Csepregi, R., Balazs, V. L., Nemeth, T. S., Nemeth, T., & Papp, N. (2016). Antioxidant potential, tannin, and polyphenol contents of seed and pericarp of three Coffea species. Asian Pacific Journal of Tropical Medicine, 9(4), 366-371. doi:10.1016/j.apjtm.2016.03.014

Stewart, K. L. (2007). Eating Between the Lines. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Griffin.


Pixabay, Christoph

  • Sonee Singh
  • FoodNutrition