Coffee and Cigarettes: Misinformation By Algorithm

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Despite overwhelming scientific evidence, popular myths on coffee and health continue to persist.

By Kyra Auffermann, NCA Digital Content & Communications Manager


Coffee plays an important role in the lives (or at least mornings) of most people — in the United States, nearly 80% of all adults drink coffee, typically at the start of their day.

Yet most coffee drinkers don’t have a good understanding of coffee: the plant, the way it is processed, or the precision of a “perfect” roast.

In fact, more coffee drinkers may have a good misunderstanding of coffee. And despite overwhelming evidence, myths persist — particularly when it comes to coffee and health.

This confusion is partially due to the fact that for many years, drinking coffee was unfairly associated with cigarette smoking.

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That association – science has since learned – is partly due to the fact that nicotine can cause smokers to metabolize caffeine more quickly than non smokers. As a result, all things being equal, cigarette smokers are likely to drink more coffee – supporting the popular image of a smoker clutching their coffee.

When it came to health research, coffee, and smoking, the confusion was further compounded as a result of the growing social stigma attached to smoking, and the hazards of self-reported data [Ever lie to the doctor about your bad habits? Exactly.]

Over time, this led to what researchers called “confounding” factors, creating an erroneous confusion between the negative effects of smoking and the beneficial effects of drinking coffee.

In other words, the association between smoking and drinking coffee made it harder for health researchers to “see past” the harmful effects of smoking – and could even lead them to conclude that those harmful effects were connected to drinking coffee.

Study after study has shown that smoking has a powerful, negative affect on the human body, impacting everything from cardiovascular health to cancer rates. Yet even in these cases, we later learned that coffee could still offer protective benefits. Ultimately, the research even shows that coffee drinkers live longer.

Today, better scientific methods (as well as decreased smoking rates) have enabled health researchers to isolate the effect of coffee on human health — and the news is good.

An overwhelming number of studies and meta-analyses show that coffee has a host of potentially positive health benefits — from helping reduce incidents of cancer and Parkinson’s disease to longevity.

But it takes a long time to change public perceptions. And the internet, which brings so much information to so many, is ultimately agnostic: Misinformation is just as easily accessible.

Anyone using a search engine can see this confusion  firsthand. Start by searching “can coffee…,” and then let the algorithm autofill for you.

For example, Google immediately suggests queries such as “can coffee kill you,” “can coffee give you acne,” and “can coffee cause cancer.”

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Just to clarify (and save you the search):

Can coffee kill you?

Yes. A 154 pound person (70 kilos) would have to drink about 70 cups of coffee for a lethal dose, although your own limit may vary.

Can coffee stunt your growth?

No.

Does coffee cause cancer?

No.  In fact, coffee has been shown to have a wide variety of benefits.

Independent research (not funded by coffee companies) shows that coffee drinkers may have better athletic performance, lower rates of certain cancers, diabetes, and strokes — and may live longer than non-coffee drinkers.


Of course, combatting ignorance takes a long time.

This is why the industry — coffee roasters, importers, equipment manufacturers, and scientists — can work together through their trade associations to communicate accurately about topics such as coffee and health, sustainability, and how the supply chain actually works. And to do so through independent, third party research — so that everyone has the chance to draw their own conclusions, based on what the science actually says.

Ultimately, the health of the coffee sector (and the people who support it, from growers to roasters to baristas) depends upon consumers, government officials, and the media all understanding the facts behind coffee.

As individuals, we can each be part of the solution: By doing our research (or at least checking the source), using a little common sense, and involving ourselves in these conversations, we can help dispel old myths — and make room for more truth.

 

This post is adapted from a previous article for Probat, Inc.

 

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