It costs more to buy coffee in the Washington, D.C., area than almost anywhere else in the continental United States. It has been that way for at least two years according to the Bureau of Labor Statistic's monthly survey which records food prices in 23 large metropolitan areas. But with the exception of an occassional complaint, no one in Washington has said much about it.
Last week Maxwell House coffee sold for between $2.89 and $3.19 a pound in the four leading area supermarkets. The weekly escalation of coffee prices, not only here but all across the country, began with the severe frost that killed much of the Brazilian coffee crop. Despite the price, until last Friday none of the local consumer groups was anxious to endorse a coffee boycott that began in New York City and has been picking up steam across the country. Until then only the District's director of consumer affairs, Edith Barksdale Sloan, had been telling people to boycott.
Esther Peterson, vice president, vice president for consumer affairs of Giant Foods, had gone as far as suggesting that people try alternatives, but she said, "I'm not excited about coffee because it's not a nutritous food anyway. This isn't something I feel like picketing ever."
Coffee has no nutrional value, but those who drink it in copious quantities feel they can't do without it. It isn't just the warmth of the liquied or even its taste that makes coffee "addicts" out of many Americans. It's the stimulative effect that comes from the caffeine coffee contains. According to Dr. John F. Greden, too much coffee, or "caffeinism," mimics the symptoms of an anxiety attack. The caffeine attacks the central nervous system. A report on Dr. Greden's research in the Journal of the American Medical Association described these symptoms as nervousness, irritability, lethargy, insomnia and headache.
Greden also said that too much caffeine can cause heart palpitations, premature heartbeats, irregular heartbeats and skin flushing. It can produce nausea, diarhea and vomiting.
What constitutes too much caffeine? More than 250 miligrams. But just three cups of coffee, two aspirin and one bottle of a soft drink contain 500 milligrams of caffeine. A five-once cup of coffee contains between 90 and 120 milligrams of caffeine. There are 30 to 70 milligrams in the same amount of tea and 36 milligrams in a Coca-Cola.
The Food and Drug Administration recently released a report on caffeine in soft drinks as part of its ongoing review of food additives. The report says there is some evidence that the consumption of caffeine by children may pose a potential health hazard. But the committe reviewing caffeine could not agree on a recommendation. Some members said there isn't enough evidence to say that caffeine is safe at current consumption levels, but others felt there is no evidence to indicate that the amount of caffeine consumed is dangerous. Further studies were recommended.
Only in recent years have the potential hazards of too much coffee come to public attention. This may help account for the decline in its consumption over the last 15 years. Others believe a decline in taste, which they contend was brought on by mixing cheaper coffee beans with the more expensive ones from Brazil, may account for the reduction in coffee drinking in this country. Heavy advertising of soft drinks also has cut into coffee consumption.
Price, rather than health considerations, is often the moving force in getting people to stop consuming something that isn't particularly good for them.TSo far, store sales of coffee and substitutes are reflecting conflicting signals. On the one hand supermarket officials say that there has not been a significant drop in the sale of coffee though there has been a switch to cheaper brands. On the other hand, the stores are reporting increased tea and chicory sales. Chicory is often mixed with coffee, particularly in New Orleans.
Locally the idea of a boycott or even a statement on the coffee pricesd had trouble catching on. Not only is coffee a luxury, unlike meat - which was boycotted a few years ago; but also, at least among Washington activists, there was no feeling that the public was being gouged. Consumerists felt it was a simply a matter of more coffee drinkers than there was coffee to go around.
Several things have happened recently to change their minds. According to a statement released by the Virginia Citizens Consumer Council last Friday, announcing its support of a coffee boycott, the attitude of Brazilian officials who said they are not taking the American boycott. Pat portway, president of VCCC, said , "Only a significant reduction in demand could reduce prices. It is the strongest evidence for the value of a boycott." (Last weekend the Brazilians appeared to have changed their minds about the impact of an American boycott and were making plans to meet with Colombian growers in an effort to stabilize coffee prices.)
The consumer organization believes that a boycott will sensitive consumers to the high price of coffee with prices that are expected to go higher and remain higher for several years, encourage reduction of coffee consumption through substitution of other beverages or elimination of the second cup, effect long-term changes in consumer buying habits. VCCC will also urge stores and restaurants to promote substitutes.
On Monday a coalition of consumer groups and a local restaurateur called on the public to use alternatives: cereal-based drinks such as Ovaltine and Postum, bouillon, hot chocolate and, of course, tea. For those who consider themselves "hopelessly addicted," they suggest eliminating the second cup. Rod Leonard, director of Community Nutrition Institute, said that cutting coffee consumption 20 to 30 per cent could bring the price of a pound down by 50 cents to $1.
The coalition held a press conference at the Channel Inn restaurant, Pier 7, where the owner has raised the price of coffee 10 cents and cut the price of tea and milk in half.
At the same time Consumer Federation of America has asked processors and retailers of coffee to hold the line on the price of existing stocks. According to Ellen Haas of CFA. "An increase in coffee prices at this time is not justified by supply-demand conditions. Worldwide there does not now appear to be a serious shortage."
CFA suggested consumers "patronized those brands and retailers who avoid panic pircing of coffee." A&p is joining other supermarkets across the country in an effort to get consumers to buy alternatives and to get the most out of every coffee ground.
The producing side agrees there is no current shortage of coffee. According to Albert Prosterman, a Washington coffee economist and consultant to coffee producing countries. "There is enough coffee in the world right now to satisfy currents needs, but there will be shortages later. Producers are saying we must spread out what we have to cover the future." In other words, the current price rises are anticipatory.
Prosterman said that for the year 1977 there will be 14 million fewer bags of coffee produced than will be consumed. "Frankly," he said, "there is no need for speculation to drive the prices up."
Whether or not speculators are making a killing, and Brazilian coffee growers are making record profiling, and Brazilian coffee growers are making record profits, growers are making record profits, only way to bring down the price, if not now, sometime in the future, is by reducing consumption.According to Prosterman, "World consumption. must be cut by 15 to 18 per cent in order to bring prices down."
The meat boycott, organized to protest the high cost of beef, did not effect the price of beef eef at the time, but it appears to have altered buying patterns permanently. Carol Tucker Foreman, executive director of Consumer Federation of America, said, "The coffee producers ought to know that people have not gone back to buying meat in the same quantities even though it is essential. People may never go back to drinking coffee in the same amounts they did before if they stop because of the high prices.
In addition to drinking such alternatives as tea, suggestions on how to stretch coffee are coming out of the creative imaginations of those who know how to make a dollar a dollar go a long way. Some of the suggestions work; some of them don't, especially if you drink coffee black.
Drying out coffee grounds overnight or all day long in an oven that has been heated to 450 degrees and then turned off does not give a very good cup of coffee the second time the grounds are used. But, maybe, if you use a lot of milk, you won't be able to tell.
Leaving the coffee grounds in the filter paper and using them again produces approximately the same result.
Reheating leftover coffee produces coffee which tastes leftover, usually bitter.
Mixing chicory with coffee will significantly reduce the cost of the coffee since chicory is available for less than $2 a pound. The Coffee Mill in Silver Spring is selling it for $1.75 a pound.It is $1.89 a pound at the Eagle Wine and Cheese Shop and $1.75 a pound at What in the World. Both stores are in the District. In Alexandria, the Coffee Bean is selling it for $1.60 pound.
The ratio of chicory to coffee depends on how much you like the taste of chicory. You can start with 2 ounces of chicory to 16 ounces of coffee and work your way up.Some people use half chicory and half coffee. But then, some people drink just plain chicory.
Sequently extracting coffee is a suggestion from Dr. David Kessler of Silver Spring. It sounds very technical but is really quite simple. It is based, Dr. Kessler said, on the chemical extraction methods used in laborataries. The doctor, who said he actually doesn't like to encourage people to drink coffee, explained that the solubility of coffee is quite low and you can get at least 25 per cent more from coffee filtered through paper, if you pour the water through in three stages.
As an example, he said, spoon into the filter the same amount of coffee you do normally for six cups. Then pour in three cups of boiling water; wait until it has gone through. Pour in another three cups and wait for it to go through. Then pour in two additional cups.
But perhaps the greatest deterrent to over consumption of coffee is the manual grinding of the beans. A friend reports that he tried out a hand coffee griner this weekend and by the time he had ground fro two cups he was exhausted.