October 25, 2010

Coffee and health

I had an odd task today. Odd, in that in seemed something that, to me, shouldn't need doing at all. As I set about trying to sell coffee as a healthy beverage to my communications class, it became clear to me that misconceptions persist.

To lay it out, as plainly as possible, the general public still seems to think of coffee as something of a guilty indulgence. It is useful, they think, only insofar as it provides a caffeine buzz. But even that, they fear, can be addicting, and thus should be limited.

Basically, the evidence goes like this: Coffee drinkers have significantly reduced risk of developing diabetes, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. The statistics are consistent and weighty enough that, although correlation never proves causation, coffee must be considered at least a positive factor in staving off those diseases.

Most people do not have the desire to read medical journal articles concerning coffee, of course, but if you do, google scholar and pub med have endless material to pour over.

Even still, most people seem to think that these statistics are somehow accidental, that healthy people just happen to drink coffee, say, not that coffee has health benefits. Worse, many still impose imaginary harms on coffee.

Once upon a time, there were those who thought coffee caused cancer. Thankfully, that line of bull has mostly been done away with. But even still, equally inaccurate statements persist. Coffee causes high blood pressure, stomach ulcers, sleep apnea, etc. Worse yet, caffeine is addicting.

Conventional wisdom, in this case, is anything but. There is no data that shows any sort of positive correlation between coffee and hypertension, excessive stomach acidity, or any of the other negative health effects one might dream up. And there is no such thing as caffeine addiction. That is not my opinion, but rather the official medical stance. It is not classified as a drug of dependence; therefore, one can no more be addicted to coffee than apples, grilled cheese sandwiches, wearing pants, etc. Demonstrating a preference for any one of those things, or even habitual use, is not the same as addiction.

As best I could, I said as much in class this morning. I'm not sure I changed any minds, of course, as that's very hard to do. But at the very least, I hope I made people question some of the assumptions they take for granted.

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