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.

14 comments for “Hot Drinks and Cold Soda

  1. larryco_
    September 17, 2019 at 2:31 pm

    Thanks for the insight, especially sharing Lester Bush’s comments. Ever since Dr. Strangelove I have been nervous about impurifying my precious bodily fluids. Now I know it was actually a concern about an imbalance in my vital nervous energy.

  2. September 17, 2019 at 3:29 pm

    A few years ago they did come out and say that energy drinks are a bad idea. Those seem to fall between soda and coffee — bad enough to be more strongly recommended against, but not actually on the banned list with coffee and pot.

    It would be good for me to give up my Dr. Pepper Ten. I can’t say it’s a healthy habit, and I am a bit dependent on it even though I keep my consumption down to a level where I don’t, say, get a headache if I go without for a day. I tell myself that I’m just trying to get through the day and life is way too stressful to go without. (It’s sure a good thing I never started drinking; I would 100% be an alcoholic by now. I’m pretty certain I’m one of those weakest of the Saints.)

  3. Hunter
    September 17, 2019 at 5:07 pm

    “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.”

    I tend to agree. And the latest clarification from the Chirch this summer only underscores this conclusion.

    Unfortunately, a health proscription that seems to have no basis in, well, health makes it harder to convince the next generation that it needs to be followed.

  4. The other Chad
    September 17, 2019 at 5:35 pm

    “(O)bedience to Church leaders” without scientific evidence no longer cuts it for my six adult children. They were taught that we never covenant to obey people, only correct principles. For their generation, correct principles must have some relationship to logic. Our arbitrary, opinion-based boundaries – iced coffee, tattoos, white shirts, etc., etc., — are not just silly, but spiritually damaging to young idealists who know a “true” religion to be focused on orphans and widows and keeping themselves from being actually polluted.

    As life-long vegetarians they have spent much energy explaining that choice (with science) to fellow saints, and getting no support from 21st century leaders. The science is more clear, the scriptural language less ambiguous than proscriptions about ice tea and coffee. As a vegetarian myself, I infer from our leaders’ ambivalence about overconsumption of meat, and recent advice about green tea, a lack of seriousness about the WOW as a health guide. As mentioned other times in these forums, the WOW is a cultural marker, not a health guide.

  5. Clay Cook
    September 17, 2019 at 6:27 pm

    There is another possible definition of “hot Drinks.” From Drinking in America: A History, P. 6 “While “aqua vitae” was a general term for distilled beverages, it usually meant brandy. “Hot waters” were grain whiskeys and other distilled drinks.” http://www.hoboes.com/Politics/Prohibition/Notes/Drinking/

  6. ji
    September 17, 2019 at 7:59 pm

    In my mind, the Word of Wisdom never was a health code, and we have erred in styling it as such. The reason the Lord gave it is in v. 4 (D&C 89:4) — look at it, and you will see nothing about health as the Lord explains His reason for giving the Word of Wisdom.

  7. a.eon
    September 17, 2019 at 8:01 pm

    Regarding caffeine, many of the “energy” supplements I’ve come across have “Caffeine (Green Tea Extract)”.

    I feel that the green tea exclusion, whether hot or cold, would include those. But on researching that, it led to the question, where does caffeine in the common drinks get extracted from?

    From searching the internets, “Most of the caffeine in soft drinks comes from factories in China. Naturally extracted caffeine is burned out from heated-up coffee beans. But most of the caffeine used in soft drinks is actually synthetically produced in Chinese pharmaceutical plants.”

    Reading how it’s produced, “The main process involves the chemical synthesis of urea as a raw material which is then combined with different harsh chemicals such as methyl chloride and ethyl acetate. When caffeine is made synthetically, it is produced with a much higher concentrate and is absorbed much faster”

    Reading on different concentrations in drinks, hot chocolate has the same caffeine as a cup of green tea, half the caffeine of Coke, which is about the same as a cup of black tea, which are half the caffeine of energy drinks, with a cup of coffee holding the most, at 230% more than a cup of coffee.

    So it’s not the temperature that matters — iced coffee out, hot chocolate allowed. It’s not the caffeine that matters – hot chocolate has less caffeine than decaf coffee and equal to green tea, which is out.

    But drinks made with coffee and green tea are out? Are those drinks ok if the substance is caffeine? It’s odd that we’d prefer a harsh, more potent synthetic caffeine because it didn’t come from green tea extract, merely because we want to avoid great tea, which got covered under the proscriptions on hot drinks, which isn’t against all hot drinks, but only a couple hot ones and cold ones.

    For whatever it’s worth, I avoid anything where I know caffeine has been added, and of course don’t drink the green/black tea and coffee.

    To make it more interesting, the Olympics once banned caffeine, but now it’s ok. And it apparently aids your body in using body fat as an energy source.

    So theoretically, there’s an advantage in body fuel consumption during long strenuous activities where you otherwise wouldn’t metabolize as much fat for fuel.

    Which it’s almost crazy to imagine that an athlete trying to do the “right” thing from a health and WoW perspective would involve a harsher synthetic caffeine rather than just drinking a warm brewed beverage from a natural plant.

    The tea side of things is no more clear. White tea isn’t mentioned, but it comes from the same plant as green tea, oolong tea isn’t mentioned, but it’s basically fermented white tea leaves. So the proscriptions on tea is really just against Camellia plants. And it’s only that plant, because other plants are ok.

    So hot drinks means no camellia leaves or coffee beans.

    But what about the leaves of a coffee plant for coffee leaf tea?

    It all becomes absurdity at some point, and yet I absolutely see the wisdom in principles behind the Word of Wisdom.

  8. a.eon
    September 17, 2019 at 8:04 pm

    *a cup of coffee holding the most, at 230% more than a cup of coke

  9. Basil O Smith
    September 17, 2019 at 11:11 pm

    I have a theory that the further away from SLC members live, the less they hear of or engage in, the debates/discussions that may occur along the Wasatch Front and……………… the more cautious they are in adhering to the letter of the law.
    The contemporary medical opinion appears to accept that caffeine possesses potentially addictive properties. Perhaps the WoW has less to do with science and more to do with the “culture” that has been carefully cultivated around and associated with, coffee-drinking.
    Advertising and media opinions and practice in many societies, have elevated coffee drinking to the status of an essential social ordinance (authoritative order), a ritual.
    In many societies, identifying with and being seen to be engaged in the act of coffee(or tea) drinking is a public sign (display), an essential ritual to be performed, precedent to and a condition of, social acceptance and bonding.
    Modern-day decision-makers are “unable” to think clearly nor to continue informed discussion, nor arrive at either consensus, decision or conclusion, without the assistance or effects of coffee.
    Perhaps this is one of the hidden treasures of knowledge to which the WoW refers….Getting by without such artificial or fabricated social constructs

  10. SDS
    September 18, 2019 at 8:00 am

    Living the WofW surely has health benefits, but it may have other purposes as well. It seems to me surprising when people who believe the WofW was in some sense inspired by God also confidently assume that they know precisely what the commandment’s purpose is and then proceed to extend or limit it in accordance with their understanding of what science currently teaches about health.

    Over the years I must have had at least a dozen conversations, in places I happened to be for a day or two, with people I barely knew who saw me drinking a Coke and who came up and said, “I thought you were a Mormon. Aren’t Mormons prohibited from drinking Coke?” These good faith questions have led to friendly conversations about what the Church does and doesn’t teach on the subject, and sometimes on other subjects as well. I wouldn’t claim that the conversations have been particularly inspirational in quality and I doubt that anyone joined the Church because of them. But they did at least serve to remind me in an away-from-home setting that I’m a member of the Church with accompanying obligations (in that respect the WofW served a function similar to one function of wearing a temple garment), and also that other people I associate with know I’m a member and expect me to live in accordance with Church teachings. Might not this be an important benefit of the WofW, pretty much unrelated to health?

  11. p
    September 18, 2019 at 1:43 pm

    I work in drug rehab in the Midwest and recommend my clients drink two cups of black coffee and two cups of green tea each day, both for the huge load of natural antioxidants each contain, and the associated salutary effect they have on liver healing and function. There is copious and ever increasing research that attests to the positive potency of both, and they are primary healing modalities in my facility. “Black and green both have different types of antioxidants than fruits and vegetables. Thearubigins, epicatechins, and catechins are among those listed in a USDA chart.” (WebMD). The health research regarding coffee is astonishing. See https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/coffee-worlds-biggest-source-of-antioxidants#benefits for a quick if informal summary. Will also say that we discourage soda drinking here, and not because of the caffeine but the simple carbs, which is what does the primary dietary damage to the American population.

  12. Stephen Wight
    September 20, 2019 at 10:24 am

    “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.” Insomnia, nervousness, restlessness, and a faster heartbeat, oh my [!]…these are all symptoms I experience when asked to speak and teach in Church before large groups, or the night before a race.

  13. Paul M
    September 26, 2019 at 6:44 pm

    I have a doctor’s note granting me dispensation to drink coffee for health reasons. Thank Heaven.

  14. Paul
    September 29, 2019 at 2:57 pm

    Principal reason for the WoW is as a boundary marker between Mormons and Gentiles. It replaced polygamy in this role during HJGrant’s tenure as president.

Charitable Comments Welcome

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.