Sipping a Brainwash mushroom latte at Equator Coffee’s cafe in Sausalito after a bike ride across the Golden Gate Bridge had me thinking just one thing: I was, indeed, brainwashed. Somewhere in my algorithm-fed mind, it made sense to spend $6, plus 50 cents for oat milk, on coffee with “adaptogen powder crafted into a syrup” laced into my drink. It’s not Equator’s fault; the Bay Area roaster is well deserving of all its many accolades. Nor was the drink bad, incorporating Wunderground’s trendy supplement into an otherwise creamy and pleasant latte. It’s on me, and all of us, for mistakenly equating black coffee with bad health, leading me to try other beverages or boosts not for the taste — but out of misplaced guilt.
Coffee alternatives are a dime a dozen these days. Bay Area startup Minus Coffee is highjacking the old-school chicory alternative, citing the very real impending coffee-specific impacts of climate change as one of its major selling points. Renude’s Chagacinno sandwich boards clutter San Francisco streets left and right with promises of your “daily dose of mushrooms” and a flavor profile akin to “coffee ice cream.” Taika, for its part, says its blend of five adaptogens including cordyceps and reishi balances with the company’s coffee or matcha lattes for a “smooth, clear experience.”
While they may be fun, and some of these “wellness” energy drinks claim to stymie the torrential downpour of climate change’s impacts, at the end of the day these businesses confuse consumers in a big way: Coffee is not bad for you. And, if the product’s claims relate to climate change, let’s not forget that mushrooms, aluminum cans, and adaptogens of any stripe are not sourced from thin air. These commodities, too, can take their toll on the planet through overproduction and supply chain issues, much like other agricultural products.
Let’s start at the start. In 2018 coffee was incorrectly labeled a carcinogen by the state of California thanks to a substance called acrylamide that is present in roasted coffee. The state was then sued in 2019 by the California Chamber of Commerce for collateral damage inflicted on various industries, including the coffee industry, for confusing consumers as acrylamide is a naturally occurring byproduct of the Maillard reaction, otherwise known as the glossy result of sugars and proteins cooked at high temperatures. At the same time, researchers began to zero in on understanding coffee’s real health benefits and detriments.
So ignoring marketing tactics and trends, how bad is coffee for you, really? The Annual Review of Nutrition found in 2017 that not only is coffee not bad for you, it’s good for you. Wrap your mind around that: Drinking coffee can increase your lifespan. Or, as Michael Pollan summarized the study in his book This Is Your Mind on Plants: “Regular coffee consumption is associated with a decreased risk of several cancers, (including breast, prostate, colorectal, and endometrial), cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, dementia, and possibly depression and suicide.” While Pollan notes there are risks for those drinking eight cups of coffee or more a day, I think that falls into the similar risks for those eating six boxes of Kraft Mac n’ Cheese a day or watching The Irishman every day at 4 in the morning and 4 in the afternoon. Which is to say, not good for you for obvious reasons.
It’s the similar tactics and trends that draw my ire regarding mushroom coffee. Renude and Taika especially are taking advantage of a spike in interest when it comes to mushroom coffee, mushrooms writ large, matcha tea, and adaptogens. It’s not unlike Bulletproof Coffee taking butter-laced coffee to its venture capital-backed logical end in the mid-2010s. I’m no one to scoff at ancient, holistic forms of medicinal treatment; I drink apple cider vinegar every day like that dude from My Big Fat Greek Wedding puts Windex on paper cuts. But it’s not cool to hawk products to coffee drinkers using scientifically dubious scare tactics.
Minus Coffee, amongst the Bay Area alternatives, seems to take a legitimate approach to low-water-requiring, intercropped ingredient production and sourcing. Still, none of these businesses can claim to beat the solution still staring coffee consumers in the face: Paying top dollar for coffee sourced as ethically as possible.
You may be among those who pause critical thinking at “no ethical consumption under capitalism,” and, if so, I’ll leave you with a hypothetical. Sitting in Sausalito, perusing a menu in search of a bite to eat, does a chicken sandwich featuring a bird raised within seven miles of the restaurant on bread made in the East Bay from California grains strike you as better for your body and for the planet than Lunchables? If so, you might just have escaped the brainwashing.