Hot Drinks and Cold Soda

One aspect of the Word of Wisdom that has long been debated is whether or not all caffeinated drinks should be included under its umbrella. The original revelation specified that hot drinks should not be consumed, which was interpreted to mean coffee and tea. Throughout the twentieth century, the most common explanation for why was that the drinks contained an addictive substance—caffeine. Yet, other caffeinated beverages (i.e. soda drinks like Coca-Cola) were not added to the banned list, most likely because they aren’t too dangerous. This creates a bit of tension—with caffeine being the most compelling reason for banning coffee and tea, it could be argued that either there is no strong logical reasons known for banning them (other than obedience to the prophets) or the ban should be applied to all caffeinated beverages.

Dr. Lester E. Bush provided insight into why the earliest Latter-day Saints may have believed that coffee and tea were unhealthy. Medical knowledge in the early and mid-nineteenth century was rudimentary, and it was often believed that diseases were manifestations of one underlying condition—an imbalance in vital nervous energy. This is a bit of an oversimplification, but too much energy was thought to lead to symptoms like fevers, inflammation, or indigestion while too little led to debility. Strong alcoholic beverages were acknowledged as the most dangerous stimulant in common use, but foods and drinks like coffee, tea, meat, and spices were also thought to contribute to the level of vital nervous energy. Foods and drinks with temperatures higher than the blood were also considered potentially dangerous, which may have contributed to the inclusion of “hot drinks” in the Word of Wisdom and to President George Q. Cannon’s inclusion of hot cocoa and hot soups on the list of things that were unhealthy.[1] Thus, early Latter-day Saints were likely to have believed in the “heroic” medical tradition prominent in their day, accepting the proscription of coffee and tea both because they were mild stimulants and consumed at temperatures higher than those of the internal body, potentially contributing to an imbalance in vital nervous energy.[2]

In the early 20th century, however, the reasoning behind coffee and tea shifted to focus on caffeine. Along with this came the debate about other caffeinated beverages like soda pop. As early as 1917, Frederick J. Pack (a university professor in Utah) argued that Latter-day Saints should avoid consuming Coca-Cola because it contained the same drugs as coffee and tea.[3] The state health director in Utah around that time, Dr. T. B. Beatty, took this a little too far by proclaiming that Coke had four or five times the amount of caffeine as coffee. President Heber J. Grant initially supported Dr. Beatty, announcing his claim in general conference and invoking his prophetic authority to ask Latter-day Saints “to let coca-cola alone” as a personal favor to him. He added his reason for doing so: “The Lord does not want you to use any drug that creates an appetite for itself.”[4] After representatives of the Coca-Cola contacted President Heber J. Grant in 1924 and made it clear that Coca-Cola actually had only about one fourth of the amount of caffeine as coffee, President Grant was “sure I have not the slightest desire to recommend that the people leave Coca Cola alone if this amount is absolutely harmless, which they claim it to be.”[5] Thus began a delicate dance that continues to this day—stating that caffeine and sodas aren’t healthy (and therefore not recommended), but not dangerous enough to put on an official ban list.

Since then, the Church has continued to dance that line. For example, one 1972 statement indicated that:

‘hot drinks’ meant tea and coffee. With reference to cola drinks, the Church has never officially taken a position on this matter, but the leaders of the Church have advised, and we do now specifically advise, against the use of any drink containing harmful habit-forming drugs under circumstances that would result in acquiring the habit. Any beverage that contains ingredients harmful to the body should be avoided.”[6]

Brigham Young University didn’t allow caffeinated soda to be sold on campus prior to 2017 but didn’t make a proscription of consuming soda a part of its honor code. As late as 1990, an article was run in the Liahona and Ensign that railed against caffeine as a dangerous, disease-causing agent, thus supporting the ban on coffee and tea.[7] Yet, in 2012 the Church released a blog post that stated: “The Church revelation spelling out health practices … does not mention the use of caffeine,” with the initial wording being somewhat stronger in stating that caffeine is not on the banned list.[8] It seems that caffeine and caffeinated beverages are not recommended by the Church, but not banned either.

The latest clarification of the Word of Wisdom covered areas relating to vaping, coffee, tea, marijuana, and opioids but says only a little that contributes to the discussion of caffeine. The New Era article states that “modern prophets and apostles have frequently taught that the Word of Wisdom warns us against substances that can harm us or enslave us to addiction.” This point is brought up again in discussing potentially legal substances (marijuana and opioids), stating that “such habit-forming substances should be avoided except under the care of a competent physician, and then used only as prescribed.” When it came to beverages relating to coffee and tea, however, the argument was simply based off the fact that anything made from the same plants fall under the same ban.[9]

How might these arguments apply to other caffeinated beverages? Caffeine is a habit-forming substance—a psychoactive drug that people can develop a dependence on. There are some concerns about negative health impact from over-consumption of caffeine on a regular basis, including insomnia, nervousness, restlessness, and a faster heartbeat.[10] Thus, it can be argued that caffeine falls under the description of a substance “that can harm us or enslave us to addiction.” A ban on all caffeinated beverages is a logical extension of the reason most frequently given for banning coffee and tea, along with some other substances.

On the other hand, however, there are strong reasons to not extend the ban to sodas and other caffeinated beverages. I don’t think that consumption of caffeine has the potential to harm or enslave people on the magnitude of compounds like methamphetamine, heroin, tobacco, or alcohol. It also makes a difference that caffeine is the most socially acceptable drug around, with a culture that often encourages caffeine consumption to increase function in the work place. Research indicates that a quarter to half of Latter-day Saints in the United States (active temple-recommend holders or not) don’t actually follow the Church’s interpretation of the Word of Wisdom as it is,[11] so it would likely be counterproductive to add to it by placing a ban on highly popular beverages. These are some of the realistic reasons that I imagine are why the ban has not officially extended to everything with caffeine.

Ultimately, the current interpretation of the Word of Wisdom is based on obedience to our Church leaders rather than medical research. The medical reasons for including coffee and tea has seemed to change over time—from their potential to contribute to an imbalance in vital nervous energy in the nineteenth century to caffeine content in the twentieth century. Recent Church literature, however, usually speaks of inclusion based on the traditional interpretation of “hot drinks” rather than medical reasons. While the argument that caffeine is the reason to avoid coffee and tea is still alive and well, it doesn’t hold water when we consider the fact that the Church has not (and probably will not) ban other caffeinated beverages. For now, we follow because it’s what we do as Latter-day Saints and is what we are required to do in order to attend the temple.

 

References:

[1] George Q. Cannon, 7 April 1868, Journal of Discourses 12:221-223.

[2] See Lester E. Bush, Jr., “The Word of Wisdom in Early Nineteenth-Century Perspective,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 14 no. 3, p. 46-65, https://www.dialoguejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/Dialogue_V14N03_48.pdf

[3] Frederick J. Pack, “Should LDS Drink Coca-Cola?”, Improvement Era March 1917, 432-435.

[4] Conference Report, April 1922, 165.

[5] Cited in Thomas, Mormonism in Transition, 282.

[6] Priesthood Bulletin of February 1972 (volume 8, number 1).

[7] Clifford J. Stratton, “Caffeine—the Subtle Addiction”, Liahona April 1990, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/liahona/1990/03/caffeine-the-subtle-addiction?lang=eng

[8] “Mormonism in the News: Getting It Right”, Mormon Newsroom 29 August 2012, https://newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org/article/mormonism-news–getting-it-right-august-29.

[9] “Vaping, Coffee, Tea, and Marijuana”, New Era August 2019, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/new-era/2019/08/vaping-coffee-tea-and-marijuana?lang=eng. See also “Statement on the Word of Wisdom”, Newsroom 15 August 2019, https://newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org/article/statement-word-of-wisdom-august-2019.

[10] “Caffeine: How much is too much?”, Mayo Clinic, https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/caffeine/art-20045678?reDate=16092019.

[11] Riess, Jana. The Next Mormons (p. 158-159). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

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