Over the centuries coffee has come under attack from various quarters making unfounded and sometimes completely crazy claims against it. Most attacks have had some underlying motive to damage coffee’s reputation, often (as is so common in life) for monetary gain. In 1777, Frederick the Great tried to restrict the use of coffee in Germany by claiming it was unpatriotic:
“It is disgusting to notice the increase in the quantity of coffee use by my subjects, and the like amount of money that goes out of the country in consequence. My people must drink beer. His Majesty was brought up on beer and so were his ancestors.”
The debate on whether coffee is bad for us has gone on every since it started being widely drunk. In 1511, coffee drinking was banned in Mecca as it was deemed to be intoxicating and so therefore against Islamic law. In just about every country where coffee drinking has been introduced it’s provoked some controversy. Here is my list of the 5 greatest slurs against coffee:
5. Public Health Enemy No.1 – In his book ‘Kicking the Coffee Habit’; published in 1981, Charles Wetherall called coffee the “Public Health Enemy No.1” of America. On the front cover he stated that coffee is “America’s No.1 Drug Problem” and that “Millions of Americans are hooked on coffee…risking dozens of health hazards, many of them fatal”. Quite why Wetherall made such an attack on coffee I’m not sure. Judging from the titles of his other books, such as: ‘Seven Surefire Strategies to Stop Cheating and Eating Too Much of the Wrong Foods’; ‘How to Get Yourself to Stay on Any Diet’ and ‘How to Get Someone You Love to Quit Smoking’, I’m guessing he’s one of those self-help gurus looking to make a quick buck.
4. It Dries up the Cerebrospinal Fluid – For those not medically minded, the cerebrospinal fluid is the liquid cushion between the skull and the brain. In 1679, a medical student named Colomb denounced coffee claiming that it “dries up the cerebrospinal fluid and the convolutions…the upshot being general exhaustion, paralysis, and impotence.” Colomb was part of a group of doctors in Marseilles who feeling threatened by all the positive health claims made about coffee, went on the counterattack.
3. Causes Impotence – Colomb wasn’t the only person to claim that coffee caused impotence. Back in 1674, the ‘’Women’s Petition against Coffee’ was published in England by a jealous group of coffee widows, who were upset that their husband’s spent more time in the coffeehouses than with them. You can’t really blame them for feeling aggrieved, as at the time coffeehouses were male only haunts. In the pamphlet they claimed: “coffee makes a man as barren as the dessert out of which this unlucky berry has been imported; that since its coming the offspring of our mighty forefathers are on the way to disappear as if they were monkeys and swine.”
2. Causes Heart Flip-Flops – Not a very medical sounding term: in this country, when we think of flip-flops we think of footwear, worn in summer particularly to the beach (what our Antipodean cousins call ‘thongs’). But apparently in America a heart flip-flop is another name for a palpitation. In 1964, Dr D R Huene, a US Naval Reserve flight surgeon, stated that navy pilots who drank too much coffee “complained of frequent heart flip-flops while in the air.” Although his statement was based on no scientific research, it generated a lot of media attention.
1. Causes Brain Fag – I had no idea what brain fag was until I looked it up on Wikipedia (which knowing Wikipedia was probably incorrect); I just like the name. Brain fag was apparently used in the US (where this claim was made) to describe mental fatigue. The statement was made by Charles Post circa 1897. Post was a prolific slurrer of coffee. In fact I could have made a whole list dedicated to his claims. Post was the owner of Postum, a grain based coffee substitute and he frequently used aggressive advertising to scare the public off coffee onto his own product. Other claims Post made against coffee in his ads include: blindness, neuralgia and stomach ulcers.
Post’s ads were so successful in brainwashing the general public that he inspired a loyal legion of customers to write testimonials for him. A nurse from Pennsylvanian wrote: “I used to drink strong coffee myself, and suffered greatly…Naturally, I have since used Postum among my patients, and have noticed a marked benefit where coffee has been left off and Postum used. I observe a curious fact about Postum used among mothers. It greatly helps the flow of milk.”
Fact from the Fiction
Of course none of the slurs in the list hold a blind bit of truth. Huge amounts of time and money have been spent researching into whether coffee is safe and no links have been proven between coffee consumption and any medical disorder. In fact, current research is proving that coffee is actually beneficial to us (within moderation). I’m sure many of you will remember the headline back in 2007, about Dr Joe Vinson’s study: “Coffee is the No.1 Source of Antioxidants in the American Diet”. Coffee’s come along way in 30 years: from poison (according to Charles Wetherall) to cure.
If you’re interested in reading more about coffee and health, a good place to start is the Coffee Science Source.