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Last Updated: Tuesday, 30 September, 2003, 10:11 GMT 11:11 UK
Coffee cleared in chemical court

By Suzanne Bush
BBC, Naples

Italians drink coffee in the dark
A national power cut did not stop Italians from getting their coffee fix
Italians are famous for their love of coffee - collectively they are estimated to down about 70 million espressos a day.

Starting the day with a coffee at home or in the nearby bar is part of an unbreakable routine.

However, confusion surrounds the question of whether it is actually good for us or not.

An array of studies on the effects of coffee have all produced varying results. Some say it protects against certain diseases, others say it produces anxiety, insomnia and impotence.

For Italians, as well as being a pleasure... it provides a way of getting together, having a few minutes break from work to chat a bit
Germana Militerni, Italian Cooking Academy
At the weekend, the Pharmacy Department of a university in Naples, the Italian city most famous for its coffee, put the country's national beverage on trial.

Twelve witnesses were called to give evidence during the case, which was presided over by law professors from various Italian universities.

Cult status

"We choose coffee because it is representative of this area, the Neapolitan area, in which coffee has cult status," said Ettore Novellino, the head of the department.

"Everyone drinks it at every hour of the day."

The charges:

  • Attacking the nerves, and generally being bad for our health
  • Having a disruptive effect on the office or workplace by encouraging people to break off for a quick caffeine fix
  • Aiding and abetting sugar, as well as alcohol, when mixed together in an Irish coffee

The prosecution's case:

  • Coffee can provoke anxiety, irritability and the shakes
  • It can also bring on headaches in coffee-drinkers suffering caffeine withdrawal
  • It can stop people sleeping and they come to rely on caffeine instead of getting a good night's sleep
  • Like smoking, it also disrupts the working day by providing an excuse to leave the office for a break

The defence:

  • For most, the main plus point of coffee is the stimulating effect of the caffeine on the central nervous system, making people feel more awake and alert.
  • In this trial, the case put forward by the defence centred largely around the benefits of the drink in protecting against some kinds of cancer and neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson's, by increasing the levels of dopamine in the brain.

One witness, Maria Daglia, a pharmaceutical expert from Pavia University, was quick to defend the drink, but only in moderation.

"A high coffee consumption is five or seven cups a day, but instead, a regular coffee consumption of no more than three cups a day can be a protective factor for colon cancer and liver cirrhosis for example," she said.

Social benefits

A Brazilian worker tosses coffee beans in a sorting process
The court ruled that it's fine to start the day with coffee
It was frequently pointed out during the trial that coffee can have the damaging effects outlined by the prosecution when drunk in excessive amounts - but the court was also told that only three people are known to have died from drinking too much coffee.

Other expert witnesses talked about the history, traditions and production of coffee.

An expert from the Italian Cooking Academy, was called upon to explain the social benefits of a cappuccino or caffe macchiato.

"For Italians, as well as being a pleasure in that it physically recharges the batteries, it provides a way of getting together, having a few minutes break from work to chat a bit and create a bit of free time," said Germana Militerni.

The verdict:

  • After very little deliberation coffee was cleared of all the charges, on the understanding that like most vices, it is only really damaging when consumed in excessive amounts.

In his summing up, the judge presiding over the court, Dini Cristiani, explained that it had been redeemed by the stimulating effect it has on the brain, limiting tiredness, and making people more productive, thus counteracting the disruptive effect of the number of breaks it encourages during the working day.

So coffee-lovers around the world can continue to start the day with an espresso or caffe latte, with the full blessing of this special court in the coffee capital of Italy.

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