Advice from the Trenches: Can I Have My Cuppa?

coffeeDear C;

I used to drink coffee – until my boyfriend started getting on my case about it because of all the news about how coffee gives you the jitters, raises your blood pressure and causes anxiety disorders. So, goodbye coffee. But recently, I’ve been  hearing that coffee isn’t bad for you after all – in fact it might even be good for you. But now I am hearing that the state of California is going to force coffee shops to carry a warning that it can cause cancer! What the hell? What is the story? And why does it keep changing?

Java Jill


Dear Jill;

The story keeps changing because there is no one single study that is going to uncover everything there is to know about any given subject of research. One of the problems with the earlier studies on coffee is that they didn’t take into consideration the lifestyle habits of the people who participated. Back when coffee became universally maligned by the media, scientists for some reason failed to note that nearly all of their coffee drinkers were also smokers, many of them with a two pack a day habit. Of course they had crappy health! But it wasn’t the coffee that was causing it.

Once researchers began adjusting their data to take these other factors into consideration, a new picture began emerging – it seemed that coffee might actually be good for you. Now, there is a growing body of research that shows coffee drinkers are less likely to have type 2 diabetes, Parkinson’s disease and dementia, have fewer cases of certain cancers, and fewer heart rhythm problems and strokes. There are also far fewer suicides among coffee drinkers.

But you are right – California is seeking to require cancer warnings for coffee. The state has a list of chemicals it considers to be carcinogenic, and one of them is acrylamide, a substance that is created when coffee beans are roasted. However, California seems to be the most hyper-reactive state in the country when it comes to alarming labels. If you go browsing through sites that sell vitamins and health supplements, you will notice quite a few products that are categorized as “dangerous” only in the state of California. That is because they contain magnesium stearate, a substance that is used in manufacturing as a “flow agent” to prevent ingredients from caking and sticking to the equipment. There are some internet claims that magnesium stearate can suppress the body’s immune T-cell function; however, there’s no credible scientific evidence to support this. The claims that were made have been based on a single mouse study related to stearic acid, not magnesium stearate. Mice lack an enzyme in their T-cells that people have that makes stearic acid safe for us to ingest, so the study may or may not have any relevance to human beings. California still insisted on requiring every pill and capsule using magnesium stearate in their manufacturing process to carry a warning label. I am not saying that you shouldn’t be concerned about the acrylamide warning … I am just suggesting that you take it with a grain of salt.

What is the bottom line when it comes to coffee? There is no one size fits all. Every human being on this planet is going to have a slightly or drastically different reaction to every substance on the planet, and every substance a person takes in will also be affected by every other substance they are consuming, along with factors such as genetics, lifestyle and socioeconomic status. There are a few substances that are pretty much universally bad for everyone – nicotine, heroin and crack come to mind – but, with the exception of crack, even these can have certain beneficial medical applications when properly applied.

My advice? Don’t eat or drink things that make YOU sick, and keep an open mind. Life is a balancing act. There are no final answers, all we can really do is weigh the percentages and choose the options that seem to do the least harm. It’s called common sense.

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