Okay, here’s where I willingly forfeit all credibility:

There’s nothing wrong with instant coffee. In fact, on average, it’s as good as “real” coffee.

I have had some mediocre-to-bad “real” coffees, including one memorable cup of gritty, oily swill which I refused to finish. Even drinkable “real” coffee is often somehow plasticy in taste to me. Is this what happens when coffee-snobs freeze their coffee to preserve its freshness? (My understanding is it actually ruins the coffee by changing the structure of the oils.)

There are some mediocre instants, of course. The worst I’ve had was Pablo, which was quite thin and sour. The “upmarket” instants are usually not as good as the generics. I think this is partly due to the granulated form which they impose to make the stuff look more authentic. In fact, instant coffee is coffee beans, cooked and ground to a dry powder. To granulate it may require a coagulant, which might alter the flavour.

Another thing to remember is that instant coffee should be made with water that is hot BUT NOT BOILING. Boiling overcooks the oils and changes the flavour. Otherwise, instant coffee is simply a brew made from roasted coffee beans – in other words, it’s coffee.

Perhaps you should take the above with a pinch of salt, though, as what inspired me to write on this topic was this: tonight I tried dry instant coffee powder for the first time. I’ve read about straight instant coffee being used in the military, and by students, and lately I’ve been annoyed by the extra minutes taken in the morning by the need to prepare and then drink my morning mug. So I stuck the teaspoon in the can, took out a medium size helping, and put it in my mouth.

I had wondered about how instant coffee could be swallowed, since it’s a dry powder – woud it stick to my mouth in an unshiftable film? Also, of course, I worried about the taste. Coffee is famously bitter – would pure coffee be “too much”?

Taste: I drink black coffee, with a little sweetener to take the edge off, and actually I found the powder no more bitter than the usual experience. More interestingly, the flavour had a bit more richness and complexity than the diluted form. It was not unpleasant; I didn’t go “Ick!” and instantly reach for the water. OTOH, I admit it’s not something I want stuck in my mouth for the rest of my life.

Dryness: It was not nearly as bad as I expected. The powder absorbed my saliva to become a paste not unpleasant in texture. A couple of swilled sips of water washed it down easily. There is a slightly deadened aftertaste in the centre of my tongue which I imagine would get a bit unpleasant if I did this frequently.

Caffeine: Well, I’m awake, aren’t I?

So, to sum up: The bad image of instant coffee is just that, an image. And taking the powder straight is doable, and indeed not unpleasant!

EDIT: I’m not sure if this is psychosomatic, but it does seem that eating coffee results in less efficient caffeine absorbtion. If I eat the same number of spoonfuls I would ordinarily put into a coffee drink, I do seem to end up with less of a buzz. Something to bear in mind.

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Media Release – Wednesday 18 March, 2009

A coalition of health agencies has slammed the Senate’s decision today to reject the “alcopops bill”.

The coalition, made up of the Australian Drug Foundation, Cancer Council Victoria, Turning Point Alcohol & Drug Centre and VicHealth, is adamant that more needs to be done by the Government to promote a safer drinking culture in Australia.

“This is a very sad day for the health of many Australians,” said Alcohol Policy Coalition member Michael Livingston (Turning Point Alcohol & Drug Centre), commenting on the loss of new tax and health measures designed to curb Australia’s heavy drinking culture.

Cancer Council Victoria’s Craig Sinclair: “We are extremely disappointed that binge drinking will continue unabated. The failure of a raft of positive measures to address binge drinking to pass in the Senate is a big win for the alcohol industry. Now the onus is on the industry to live up to its promise to use the funds collected to invest in reducing harm associated with drinking rather than line their coffers.”

Geoff Munro, policy head of the Australian Drug Foundation, believes the Liberals, Nationals and Senator Fielding have failed young Australians. “They have also failed so many people in the health sector who have contributed so much to tackle alcohol abuse and to control alcohol advertising as we’ve approached today’s vote. And now it is all for nothing.”

“This was the best opportunity – the best in a decade – to make significant headway in tackling under-aged drinking and in reducing harm across the country,” Mr Munro said. “Twelve months ago, Fielding was a lone voice calling for alcohol control. Today he stands condemned as the person who could not act on his own advice.

“The Senators who voted against the tax have voted for cheap alcopops, the favourite drink of under-aged drinkers – at the very time when medical authorities are urging young people not to drink any alcohol until they are over 18.

VicHealth’s CEO, Todd Harper said: “It is incredibly disappointing that a majority of senators spoke in favour of more effective controls on alcohol yet they delivered exactly the opposite – a green light for the alcopops industry to continue marketing cheap alcopops to young people.

“The only winner from today’s sorry state of events is the alcohol industry.”

The Alcohol Policy Coalition (the Coalition) is comprised of health agencies – Australian Drug Foundation, Cancer Council Victoria, Turning Point Alcohol and Drug Centre, and VicHealth – who share a concern about the level of alcohol misuse in the community. The Coalition’s long-term goal is to reduce the negative health and social consequences of alcohol.

I’ve recently had disturbed sleep, probably due to anxiety and mild depression due to my current situation. I’ve also come to the realisation that I have dysthymia (I guess I was aware before, but didn’t know the psychological term).

So I’m starting to self-treat with St. John’s Wort (SJW), active chemical hypericum. Now, there’s only one study on SJW for dysthymia that I know of – it’s the one that always gets cited, from the journal Phytomedicine. This study confirmed that SJW is effective for mild depression (it’s also effective for major depression), but said it was ineffective for dysthymia. However, the study was limited: first, total group was 150 patients, which is a small sample. Second, the study only went to 6 weeks (psych meds can take longer to become effective). Third, dose was typical for these studies, with a maximum of 1200g/day (SJW extract – abstracts don’t say what strength of hypericum in the extract).

What is the difference between minor and major depression, and dysthymia? Depression is generally defined as an episode lasting up to 18 months, whereas dysthymia is a chronic condition. But dysthymia is depression, chronic depression – it’s a difference of duration, not of kind. Therefore, although SJW may not match the latest medications in period of efficacy, it may be effective if taken over a long period.

Therefore, I propose to take SJW for at least 2 months, and in “therapeutic” doses – Cenovis St. John’s Wort tablet formulation, 2g extract (dried flowering head) equivalent 1mg hypericum, x 5 per day. My only real issue is: should I be taking more?

I guess we’ll see what happens!

An interesting article published in the second half of last year went largely uncommented (to my knowledge), despite its potential to “ignite a media firestorm”. It went unnoticed because it was published in an academic journal (popular journalists usually begin and end their research with the latest issue of Popular Science), and because drug researchers in the United States have had enough of being the whipping boy for each “unhelpful” piece of research that is allowed to emerge from their tenuously-funded labs.

I am drawing some small attention to it here because I think such an unusual finding should not be hidden from view. However, I should caution the unwary with one of the most fundamental principles for assessing scientific literature: ONE STUDY PROVES NOTHING. There have been plenty of medical stories published on slow news days that rely on one single paper (or sometimes just a press release), which may be statistically or methodologically flawed, biased, ignorant of relevant discoveries in related research, or just lumbered with a misleading abstract (summary). Only repeated examination by multiple researchers and reviewers will allow us to draw a strong conclusion one way or another.

A.L.C. Chen, T.J.H. Chen, et al. (2008). Hypothesizing that marijuana smokers are at a significantly lower risk of carcinogenicity relative to tobacco-non-marijuana smokers: evidenced based on statistical reevaluation of current literature. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 40(3): 263-272.

ABSTRACT

A hypothetical link between marijuana smoking and cancer has been established based on a number of misleading assumptions. However, recent studies tend to suggest, if anything, an inverse association between marijuana use and cancers. To test the hypothesis that marijuana smoking significantly lowers the risk of developing cancer in humans, we analyzed published data from a prospective cohort study on cancer incidence among nonsmokers (NS), marijuana-only smokers (MS), tobacco-only smokers (TS), and marijuana and tobacco smokers (MTS). Using the log linear model to calculate the probability of developing each cancer form as a function of the interaction between marijuana and tobacco smoking, as well as functions of marijuana and tobacco smoking main effects whereby chi square statistics were calculated for the interaction and main effect estimates, we found that in all cases tested there was a significantly lower risk for MS compared to TS. Male and female TS had a greater probability of developing lung cancer (r = 0.72) than did MS (r = 0.02). Males and females TS had a greater probability of developing lung cancer (r = 0.72) compared with NS (r = 0.05). Males and female MTS had a slightly higher probability of developing lung cancer (r = 0.73) than did MS (r = 0.07). This difference was statistically significant: c2 = 30.51, p < .00001, with a correlation coefficient of -0.75, Z = -7.84, p < .05. Male and female MTS had a lower probability of developing lung cancer (0.23) than did TS (0.77). This difference was statistically significant: c2 = 71.61, p = .00003, with a correlation coefficient of0 .61, Z = 5.06, p < .05.

The study they examine is in:
S. Sidney, C.P. Quesenberry Jr, G.D. Friedman, I.S. Tekawa (1997). Marijuana use and cancer incidence. Cancer Causes and Control 8(5): 722-8.

As the authors say in their conclusion, “our re-evaluation of a large cohort study indicates that marijuana smokers are at a significantly lower risk of cancer relative to those who smoke tobacco and not marijuana.”

What the authors do not dare to state in their abstract or conclusion is that Marijuana-only smokers have a lower probability of developing lung cancer than Non-smokers. This information is available within the body of the paper (p.269): “For all sites [i.e. all cancer sites examined: colorectal, lung, melanoma, prostate, breast, cervix], males and females had a lower probability of developing cancer if they smoked marijuana and not tobacco (r = 0.13) than if they smoked neither marijuana nor tobacco (r = 0.32).” However, in the discussion, they do suggest that “smoking marijuana may treat lung cancer at its roots early on, while treatment still matters”.

They also cite a number of animal studies to support their thesis, and they assert that, unlike for tobacco smoking, there is no convincing epidemiological link between marijuana smoking and cancer. The role of adulterants in commercially-sold tobacco, as opposed to illegally-produced marijuana, is not considered here.