This past week, most of the coffee discussion around the Internet involved the subject of caffeine. Talk about caffeine seems to bring out the worst in people. Too many act as if coffee and caffeine are synonymous and interchangeable — whether it’s scientific research on the effects of caffeine or some lame riff on coffee lovers being “caffeine junkies”.

By the same token, why wine lovers aren’t so readily called “alcoholics” is beyond us. But in the medical research on caffeine category, the study-de-la-semaine involved a mix of mice, caffeine, and Alzheimer’s symptoms: Caffeine Reverses Memory Impairment In Mice With Alzheimer’s Symptoms. So, naturally, this triggers bad science reporting in the mainstream media with unsupported conclusions based on leaps of faith, as in this headline from the otherwise-respectful BBC News: BBC NEWS | Health | Coffee ‘may reverse Alzheimer’s’.

It’s the same old story: lab mice are equated to humans, caffeine is equated to coffee, and the next thing you know we have media companies insinuating that Maxwell House cures Alzheimer’s Disease. If only this were one instance — this type of thing happens on an almost weekly basis.

Why would it take over 1,000 years to notice any real health effects?

Ponce de León almost got it right: it was the molecules, not the waterWe have some 1,000 years of epidemiological evidence to prove out any nominal linkages between coffee consumption and human health. Despite the study-de-la-semaine drumbeat of the past few decades — a mystical health obsession that Western civilization has not experienced since Europeans wrested the bean from the hands of Ottoman Turks in the 17th century — there’s little or no evidence to show over the past 1,000 years that coffee has any significant relevance to our health. That includes good or bad health implications. So why the continued, obsessive curiosity?

The myth that there is somehow a meaningful connection is largely perpetuated by two groups, each which stands to benefit most from the continued belief that there’s any real debate about this:

  1. Media companies. They profit from readership. Any time the evening news can tell you, “That everyday product can kill you: details at 11,” it’s good for business. Add an audience that subtly recognizes caffeine as a drug (as if alcohol wasn’t?): they’re either looking for personal validation that their habits are OK — or they are desperate for a sense of personal control, worshiping at the altar of micronutrients with the vain hopes that it will unlock the magic combination to eternal life.
  2. Grant-based medical researchers. Well, of course. The more there’s an insatiable public appetite for this information, as irrelevant as it may be, the more likely researchers can secure corporate and other funds to keep them employed. Even if it means working on trite projects that add less to the public good.

Telling us that normal coffee consumption really doesn’t make a difference to human health would be killing the golden goose.

If coffee = caffeine, what do you call decaf?

Over the past few months, Jerry Baldwin, co-founder of Starbucks, has authored an interesting series of articles on coffee in The Atlantic. This month he took up the topic of decaffeinated coffee: In Defense of Decaf – The Atlantic Food Channel.

Like Mr. Baldwin, we question those who don’t see a point to coffee without the caffeine. Because we see two kinds of coffee drinkers: people who are driven more to the taste of coffee, or coffee enjoyers, and people who depend exclusively on its chemical effects, or coffee users. (Really, go straight to the vein if you must.)

We even used to think that decaf coffee fans were the truer fans of the beverage. But given the role caffeine plays in heightening the awareness of taste receptors, and how Duncan Hines got to become one of the largest corporate purchasers of purified caffeine, we’ve come to the conclusion that coffee’s caffeine and taste are not entirely separable.

Mr. Baldwin goes on in the article to mention Swiss Water-process decaffeination, its namesake company’s current consumer scare tactics, and other decaffeination processes.