For 100 years Seventh-day Adventists stood out as social oddities because we did not smoke. But by accepting the insights of a godly woman we were spared the now well-known major health issues that tobacco use causes.
Today the world has finally caught up with us on tobacco. It’s even recognising the benefits of an alcohol-free and meat-free lifestyle. But there’s one area of health that finds society moving in precisely the opposite direction from Adventist teachings.
God used Ellen White to give us this advice, not to keep us from something good, but to help us live healthy, balanced, positive lives.
Today, in some societies, four out of five adults drink coffee, and many of those who don’t, drink tea or caffeinated soft drinks. This use of caffeine is not generally viewed as a health concern by contemporary society. Rather it’s celebrated. As one New Zealand website joyously put it:
In the last couple of decades, New Zealand has undergone a coffee revolution as many Kiwis have become connoisseurs of their favoured black beverage.1
But more than 100 years ago Adventists were advised by Ellen White to avoid caffeine. Was her advice correct? Or did she misunderstand something? Should we follow her counsel? Or should we go with the practices of contemporary society? To answer this question, the place to start is at the beginning.
Coffee was developed in Ethiopia in the ninth century. It was originally known as the “wine of the bean” because it was used to circumvent the Muslim prohibition against alcohol. It became an essential part of the performance-driven religious behaviour of the “whirling dervishes” associated with the mystical Sufi branch of Islam. Christian churches originally outlawed it but in the 16th century the Pope blessed its use. English women were initially banned from coffee houses. In return they suspected coffee reduced their husbands’ potency. Were they correct?
Even as caffeine is being embraced as the fuel necessary to sustain our 24/7 culture, the scientific evidence is beginning to pour in. And it isn’t looking good for coffee.
Kenneth Kendler, director of the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioural Genetics, studied 3600 twins. Because of caffeine’s widespread use it’s extremely difficult to obtain appropriate controls—that is, to find enough people who don’t use caffeine to form the population of similarly situated people necessary to compare with those who do. Thus his study could only show what a reduction in coffee use demonstrated. He found that more than five cups of coffee a day doubled the risk of antisocial personality disorders, panic attacks, anxiety, depression, and the use of cannabis, cocaine and alcohol. According to Kendler, coffee is a substance that “influences the way you think”. That is, caffeine is a mind-altering drug.
Five cups of coffee a day is a lot. However, there are two things to remember.
First, the caffeine in a “cup of coffee” is generally measured by a traditionally sized cup of regular brewed coffee. But the amount of caffeine in a cup of coffee varies dramatically. A US study, for example, found Starbucks coffee had roughly twice the caffeine content of some other widely available brands.2 In addition, coffee cup sizes have expanded dramatically. A large (“venti”) Starbucks coffee contains roughly 3.3 times the volume of a standard-sized cup. Put another way, just one venti cup of Starbucks coffee may have the caffeine content of 6.6 standard cups.
Second, the question whether the cumulative use of one or two standard cups of coffee over an extended period of time raises the possibility of psychological problems has not been adequately explored. It is, however, a very real possibility.
In addition to psychological damage, caffeine has been shown to increase blood pressure, blood cholesterol, and, tragically, the rate of stillbirth. It’s also associated with an increase in heart attacks in people with a particular gene variant, and, as is well-known, significantly increases sleep disorders. And remember the concerns of those English women all those years ago? Recent research has found they were right: caffeine does reduce a man’s potency— something to think about men before you drink your next cuppa.
But aren’t the performance benefits worth it? The Cochrane Library, the world’s foremost collection of evidence-based medical information, concludes that there’s no evidence that caffeine improves physical or mental performance.
And what of the claimed health benefits? The most common health benefit touted for coffee is that it’s rich in antioxidants. The problem? Antioxidants are prevalent in fruits, vegetables, legumes and nuts—none of which have the significant health concerns that accompany coffee. Similarly, many of the other health benefits reported can be obtained using healthy foods. In addition, in most cases, the benefits reported for coffee don’t outweigh the substantial negative impacts. Finally, like the loud pronouncements of the cardiovascular “health benefits” of red wine—which have subsequently been shown to be non-existent—many of the “health benefits” of coffee reported in the media are based on small studies that are very likely to be found inaccurate when studied on a larger scale.
So what can we conclude? Caffeine is increasingly recognised by the scientific community as posing significant health issues. But what about our Church community? Sadly, just as the scientific community is beginning to wake up to the toll coffee takes on health, many Adventists are embracing its consumption. We should not forget, however, that it’s the same vindicated source of information that protected us from tobacco use that advises against caffeine. God used Ellen White to give us this advice, not to keep us from something good, but to help us live healthy, balanced, positive lives. Caffeinated drinks do not improve the quality of life; they merely raise the financial and health costs. It’s time for all of us to live caffeine-free.
1. New Zealand’s Dedicated Coffee Culture, http://www.newzealand.com/travel/en/media/features/food-&-wine/food&wine_new-zealands-coffee-scene_feature.cfm
2. How Much Caffeine Is Actually in Your Coffee, From Dunkin’ to Starbucks, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/thrillist/caffeine-in-coffee_b_3671665.html
Dr Elizabeth Ostring is an Adventist physician who writes from Auckland, New Zealand.