You know the phrase “knowing just enough to be dangerous”? A good example can be found in the regular stream of rip-and-read medical research press releases that appear in the daily media cesspool. And scuttlebutt on the health benefits and detriments of coffee are in steady supply.

I promise not to go off on my usual tirade about mainstream media’s sorry state of science and medical reporting. But I’d like to tackle the more general issue of how food-as-medicine thinking can create a sorry world of over-anxious people and sterilized, unenjoyable edibles (and drinkables).

First, take a lot of the salesmanship buzz about the growth of tea consumption in the press these days. Inevitably, they play the health card. We learn that tea drinkers have always known it’s better for you than coffee, and now there’s proof (thanks to one study that apparently suffices as the basis for all our health care decisions). We learn that consumption of tea is on the rise because of rising interest in the health benefits attributed to tea.

Don’t get me wrong — I enjoy tea and all its yummy anti-oxidant goodness (just call them “flavor crystals”). But how much should my choice of beverage be dictated by an actuarial assessment comparing my mortality risk of cancer or stress hormones? Even if this uncoordinated media mass of medical non-sequiturs truly came to a coherent conclusion that I had a 0.16% higher risk of cancer by drinking coffee instead of tea, when does that statistic become the prime determinant of what I should consume? Flavor, apparently, is just an inconvenience.

Tea aside, coffee itself has been alternately viewed as a monster or savior, depending on your study du jour. An alarmingly obese America seems very worried about the nine-calorie coffee, despite its regular consumption for hundreds of years. Over the weekend, one cited study claimed coffee harmed sperm — arguably taking a page out of the “smoking may reduce the blood flow and causes impotence” threats you now see posted on cigarettes in the U.K.

Subtle flavor, not so subtle labelling in the duty-free shops of London's Heathrow Caution: coffee may be harmful to your health

When health concerns kill food

I’m not advocating ignorance. Everyone is capable of making personal choices based on available information. But when alarmist health-consciousness sets the standard, we all suffer.

Oddly enough, take the example of pork. While in Portugal, I was lucky enough to eat quite a bit of proco preto — literally a “black pork” that comes from a special line of pigs in the Alentejo region that’s popular around Lisbon (black is the color of the animal, not the dish). Porco preto, like any other pork in Portugal, tastes nothing like pork in America. Why? Because at some point Americans got the idea that pork was the taste of premature death on four hooves. So pork was bred to be leaner, drier, whiter, and without any flavor — and ultimately not worth eating for many.

A more famous example concerns unpasteurized cheeses (i.e., cheeses that are not pre-heated to kill off some bacteria). America can claim production of a number of good cheeses, but many of what are considered the best cheeses in the world are unavailable here due to U.S. pasteurization laws. Roquefort, Camembert, Brie … safely consumed for centuries, the real deal may carry a rare risk of salmonella or E. coli. But there’s a good reason the French call pasteurized cheese “dead cheese“.

Moderation and personal choice should always play a role in our food supplies. But when we’ve let the forces of health paranoia rule our choices, most everyone loses out. We’ve made ourselves sick and made our food far less appealing in the name of health fads and the conventional wisdom of the moment. All of which is another major reason why, when someone presents me with another study du jour that says coffee may cause additional limb growth, I just want to smack them upside the head with the third arm growing out of my back.

UPDATE: November 24, 2006:
The penny wise and pound foolish obsession on whether to label coffee as good or evil continues in the media: A cup of confusion: Is coffee healthy or not? – Nutrition Notes –