Coffee in Italy Question
January 2, 2014 2:49 PM   Subscribe

A friend just moved to Italy and has mentioned that almost all of the cafes in Milan and Rome now serve a product called Caffe al Ginseng (coffee with ginseng). Given Italy's status as one of the authentic and original coffee cultures, I was surprised to hear about the seaming popularity on this new offering. Can anyone shed some light on this coffee type?

Is it part of mainstream Italian coffee culture or does it cater to a specific demographic? Does it offer any health benefits over regular coffee? I am searched for answers, but have been mostly unsuccessful in finding any insight into how Caffe al Ginseng fits into everyday Italian experience.
posted by beisny to Food & Drink (10 answers total)
It might help to think of coffee in Italy as equivalent to sodas in the US. The same way Americans "enhance" sodas with extra caffeine and "nutrients" to create energy drinks, Italians seem to be doing to coffee, since they're more likely to grab a quick coffee throughout the day rather than a soda. (The Italian-language links I'm looking at claim some health benefits, but mostly of the sort that coffee already helps with -- quickened response time, digestive benefits. Ginseng is also considered an aphrodisiac in parts of Asia, where it's from, but I'm not seeing that benefit claimed for the coffee.)
posted by jaguar at 2:57 PM on January 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

Does it offer any health benefits over regular coffee?

Ginseng has a long traditional medicine use in northeast Asia with such a variety of claims from fighting aging to treating depression. Science-based research, on the other hand, has been fairly inconclusive. There has been some evidence that some of the ginsenosides of ginseng may help to increase white blood cell counts, and there has been some indication of anti-inflammatory effects. There isn't much evidence for the other myriad traditional health claims for ginseng. For example, there is conflict research as to ginseng being a stimulant or a sedative. There are also a number of ginseng species, so saying "this coffee contains ginseng" doesn't tell us very much because different species have different ginsenosides at different levels.

It's also worth noting that none of the ginseng research, to my knowledge, used coffee as the delivery vehicle. Thus, it is hard to say what health benefits, if any, one could expect from coffee infused with an unknown dosage of unknown ginsenosides. I'd based my decision on whether to drink it based on taste and cost.
posted by Tanizaki at 3:04 PM on January 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

No idea on the Italy connection, but I got hooked on ginseng coffee in Bali.
posted by ktkt at 3:09 PM on January 2, 2014

There are all kinds of newfangled coffee gimmicks in Italy, just like anywhere else. It's not really a magical land of "authenticity". I saw a few different freaky instant coffee products when I was last there, most notably juice-box style prepackaged espresso shots. You can also get instant espresso, nescafe, postum-esque barley coffee substitutes, and really any permutation of weird mutant coffee-esque beverage available anywhere else.

I'm not able to find any non-woo sites about ginseng coffee specifically, but from what I can tell it's just coffee with ginseng added. One of the sites I found claimed that it eliminates some negative side effects of coffee consumption like sleeplessness and accelerated heart rate, but this doesn't make sense since ginseng coffee actually contains regular coffee. My guess is that gimmicky ginseng coffee products are not substantially different from the gimmicky ginseng sodas that were trendy in the US 15 or so years ago.
posted by Sara C. at 3:34 PM on January 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

Ginseng has no proven medical value or strong evidence for most of its claimed benefits, like most herbal "medicine."
posted by spitbull at 4:19 PM on January 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

I know nothing about coffee with ginseng in Italy. However, considering the way drinks are enhanced with ginseng, as well as all sorts of other nutrients, in the US, I imagine it is mostly a marketing gimmick. Meaning it probably uses low concentrations of very poor quality ginseng and markets it from a point of view that does not understand anything about ginseng. Ginseng is considered very powerful in Chinese Medicine, but it is considered to vary extremely wildly in quality. Meaning wild ginseng is radically different from cultivated, and even within these two groups there is thought to be extreme variation. Good quality wild ginseng is unfortunately very, very expensive. Recognizing good quality ginseng is thought to require great skill in itself, and depends on the shape of the root, the size, the age, and many other physical properties probably only understood by an expert.

Poor quality ginseng is thought to be the kind where you get some of the negative effects of ginseng, such as jitteriness, etc, bad energy instead of good energy. Also, from my understanding ginseng is considered a "tonic", meaning while it might sometimes have an effect with one dose (not too sure about this), it is really meant to be taken long term. Most of its action is not immediate, meaning it's not like caffeine or other fast acting substances.
posted by Blitz at 4:37 PM on January 2, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: The caffè al ginseng thing is a relatively recent, slightly exotic option added to the vast repertoire of customizing options Italians have at their disposal when "just getting a coffee" at the local bar - their favourite, pervasive, multiple-times-a-day break from work (or any other activity). These options used to be the work of the bartender, making it short, long, tepid, decaf, in a glass, with a shot of milk or sambuca, etc; another fairly recent new option is the cremina, a sugary and sometimes alcohol-y coffee foam added in. What's kind of sad about the ginseng, apart its playing off stolid old lore, is that it's a commercial, pre-prepared option, cutting the bartender's handiwork out of the equation. It's more than a coincidence that this is happening in parallel to the rampant Nespressification of the country, which is similarly spreading the idea of different-flavoured coffees, where once there was only really Il caffè. So it's part of a sea-change for a key ritual of Italian life, and though I'm still a lone voice, I'm more convinced every day that Italy is indeed doomed to get Starbucked just like everywhere else.
posted by progosk at 12:12 AM on January 3, 2014 [5 favorites]

Yes, I wanted to mention cremina but didn't remember the name and my google-fu failed me. If anything, IMO Italy is currently more interested in achieving better living through chemistry-addled coffee than the US is. Despite Americans' idea of Italy as the home of truly great coffee.

Not that you can't still get good old espresso everywhere, of course.
posted by Sara C. at 12:21 AM on January 3, 2014

Best answer: The Cochrane review states that ginseng has "appeared to have some beneficial effects on cognition, behavior and quality of life" but that "more rigorously designed studies are needed on this important issue."

Italy is not immune to importing foreign trends, and like anywhere younger Italians will break and modify the traditions of the generation ahead of them, no doubt horrifying their elders in the process.

Nutraceuticals, supplements etc like ginseng are having a funny time in Europe thanks to the introduction of rigorous standards five years ago around health claims and supporting clinical evidence. In practice, this means that manufacturers can't make direct claims about most herbal ingredients. But there is nothing to stop them relying on traditional views of health benefits from specific ingredients nor aligning ingredients like ginseng with things that are also thought to wake you up, improve your performance. Like coffee. Tea drinking is still pretty marginal so some of that appetite for healthy, sort out your day, type stuff is channelled at coffee. The trend kicked off in about 2007/8 and by 2010 was mainstream: half of Italians had tried ginseng coffee in a bar at least once.

Speaking to progosk's point about Nespressification, a big turning point in Italy was Lavazza deciding it needed to get into capsules to survive. Lavazza has about 50% of the retail market in Italy. It is a family company and has tended to be quite conservative in its approach to the market. They still run a barista training school, for example. But you can buy Lavazza ginseng coffee pods, which tells you something. Nestlé introduced their instant ginseng coffee product in 2008. It's a lot easier now to buy all sorts of bastardised coffee flavours that you can make at home.
posted by MuffinMan at 2:54 AM on January 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Progosk has it. I'm chiming in to add that I've seen it put on par with caffè d'orzo, the aforementioned barley drink, a caffeine free coffee substitute. Not sure why since caffè al ginseng nominally contains coffee. But while I was in labor for 3 days I was offered a choice of milk or caffe al ginseng as breakfast drink options. Not a fan of plain warm milk, I chose the latter.

Tasted like assssssss.

I saw a few different freaky instant coffee products when I was last there, most notably juice-box style prepackaged espresso shots.

I bet this was the summer Pocket Coffee sweets. In winter they are dark chocolate pralines filled with liquid espresso. In the summer they switch to liquid mini juice box choco-espresso shots because the pralines would melt in the heat.
posted by romakimmy at 9:49 AM on January 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

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