For millions of Americans, iced coffee is a refreshing savior, single handedly rescuing mornings – no, entire lives – from the sweltering summer months. And while purists may say tossing ice cubes into coffee is an abomination, many of us live in climates where we don’t even want to look at a hot cup of joe, let alone drink one, for at least four months out of the year. But below the inky surface of every chilled cup of java lies a surprising list of ecological threats and health hazards that eclipse any problems that hot coffee inadvertently causes. Is iced coffee season actually bad for our bodies, and the earth itself?
Caffeine is bitter. Chilled caffeine is doubly so. And then there’s the fact that sugar dissolves at a snail’s pace in cold beverages, in turn encouraging drinkers to add more and more until the sweet taste is able to break through. Perhaps that’s why the average iced coffee contains higher levels of sugar than a hot mug. Housemade simple syrups, or even bottled options made from agave or coconut, may do the trick of sweetening your drink, but sugar content can vary wildly from bottle to bottle, making it difficult to pinpoint whether or not you’re blowing through your daily recommended serving of sugar before you even make it into work.
Iced coffee to-go requires the usage of plastic cups to stave off the paper-dissolving power of condensation as the cold liquid within comes into contact with the hot air surrounding the cup. Plastic not only costs more than paper, making the iced vessels more expensive, but the actual production of plastic is far more invasive and destructive to the earth. Total plastic waste in the earth’s oceans is projected to outweigh the global fish population by 2050, if left unchecked. Which brings us to…
A growing number of municipalities and cities across the world are putting plastic bans into effect, in various forms. Single use bags and disposable cutlery are near the top of the list, but the item being singled out as the chief offender is without a doubt the plastic straw. Seattle and Malibu will both have enacted plastic straw bans before this summer ends, with plenty of other coastal cities following suit in the coming years. The European Union is even debating a continent-wide straw ban for all member nations.
That’s because plastic straws are a pox on both the environment, where they eventually escape to oceans by the millions, and on sustainability programs when they are successfully captured by waste collection programs. In a single month of voluntary straw removal from businesses in Seattle in 2017, an estimated 2.3 Million plastic straws were saved from landfills, lakes, and the Puget Sound. Iced coffee, along with bar drinks and fast food soft drinks, are the primary sources of all this plastic straw waste.
Those with weak stomachs might want to excuse yourself from this one. That’s because the enormous commercial ice machines used in restaurants, bars and yes, coffee shops, are among the most frequent violation points during health inspections. Ice machines, with their constant flow of water in kitchens that can easily hit temperatures in the 90s, are breeding grounds for bacteria and mold. Plus, rats, cockroaches and other pests that may use ice machines as a watering hole after hours may also leave behind fecal matter. And if you’re not the one making the ice for your coffee, you really never know what may be in the ice.
The iced paradox
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If cooling down on a hot summer morning is the goal you seek to achieve by slurping down an iced coffee, I’ve got some bad news for you. It turns out that hot coffee is actually better at lowering body temperature on a hot day than a cold coffee could ever hope to be. It sounds counterproductive, but there’s no refuting the science. Anthony Bain, a PhD candidate at the Centre for Heart, Lung, and Vascular Health at the University of British Columbia, explains the phenomenon to The Cut:
“When we take in a hot drink, it appears that the thermosensors located in the stomach become overactive, and send strong signals to our hypothalamus that we are hot. In turn, the hypothalamus reacts by initiating an over-compensatory sweating response. So, when this sweat evaporates from our skin, the heat energy we lose due to evaporation exceeds the heat energy gained by drinking the hot drink. In other words, it is because our body overacted to the hot drink that we end up cooler in the end.”
So there you have it. The next time you need a pick me up while you’re feeling the heat, reach for a hot coffee to cool you down.