What's the deal with caffeine?

Coffee cup

Question

“I have noticed over the past few years that their abstinence from drinks containing caffeine has changed significantly.  They never used to drink any beverage containing caffeine; so they drank only 7-Up, Root Beer, & Postum.   Now, my sister’s family, anyway, has started drinking Coke & Dr. Pepper but still no coffee or tea.  What’s the deal?  I thought the “problem” with those drinks was the caffeine.” – Beth

Answer

When it comes to the caffeine issue, Mormonism is anything but consistent. For example, in a January 8, 1965 letter, Joseph L. Anderson, Secretary to the First Presidency under David O. McKay, wrote:

Dear Brother C**:

Your letter of January 1st addressed to Miss Clare Middlemiss, secretary to President David O. McKay has been referred to this office for answer.

You indicate that you are the home teacher of a sister residing in your ward who has a Word of Wisdom problem in that she drinks coffee. You state that you are trying to help this sister overcome this problem by the use of Sanka or Postum. As your letter is understood, you are desirous of knowing the attitude of the Church regarding the drinking of Sanka Coffee.

I am directed to tell you that the drinking of a beverage made from the coffee bean, from which all caffeine and deleterious drugs have been removed, is not regarded as a violation of the Word of Wisdom.

In answer to your second inquiry as to whether President McKay has given and written suggestions for studying the gospel and the scriptures, I am directed to tell you that we know of no such written suggestions on this subject.

In answer to your final question as to the date when President McKay may have received revelations pertaining to the new priesthood correlation, home teaching, and family home evening programs, please be advised that we have no recorded date of such revelations.

Sincerely yours,

Joseph L. Anderson
Secretary to the First Presidency

However, we find LDS Seventy Sterling Sill stating in a conference message four months later:

“And one of the most damaging sins and one that gives greatest strength to our death instinct is the violation of that great revelation given 132 years ago called the Word of Wisdom. Some violators of this law tend to excuse themselves because it appears to be such a small thing. It seems like just a little disobedience, a little caffeine a little nicotine, a little friendly indulgence in alcohol. Yet these are the springboards to disease, broken homes, immorality, disloyalty to God, physical death, and the death of many of our eternal interests” (Sterling Sill, Conference Report, April 1965, p.88).

Mormon Apostle John A. Widtsoe, on page 96 of his book, Joseph Smith As Scientist, called caffeine a ‘vegetable poison.’ He states,

“Without going into further details, it is readily seen that the teachings of Joseph Smith, in 1833, in relation to the value of tea and coffee in human drinks, harmonizes with the knowledge of today. Moreover, he was in advance, in the certainty of his expressions, of the scientists of his day. It is true that caffeine had been found in coffee and tea a few years before the revelation of 1833, but the physiological action of the drug was not known until many years afterwards.”

Thomas G. Alexander, in his book Mormonism in Transition (p.267) addresses the caffeine issue:

“Still, church members were not long in making the link between stimulants and additives on the one hand and the Word of Wisdom on the other. On October 15, 1924, representatives of the Coca Cola Company called on President Grant to complain that Dr. T. B. Beatty, state health director, was using the church organization to assist in an attack on Coke. They asked President Grant to stop him, but he refused at first, saying that he himself had advised Mormons not to drink the beverage. Beatty, however, had been claiming that there was four to five times as much caffeine in Coke as in coffee, when in fact, as the representatives showed, there were approximately 1.7 grains in a cup of coffee and approximately .43 grains or about a fourth as much in an equivalent amount of Coke. After a second meeting President Grant said that he 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 is.’  Beatty, however, insisted that he [p.268] would still recommend against its use by children. The question was left unresolved, and evidence indicates that while the First Presidency has taken no official stand on the use of cola drinks, some members urged abstinence.”

Gary James Bergera noted in a 1985 Sunstone article (Has the Word of Wisdom Changed Since 1833?):

If interpreted as prohibiting the use of all drinks or substances containing caffeine (the chief drawback of coffee and cola drinks), the Word of Wisdom would forbid:

  1. Brewed coffee, which contains 100 to 150 milligrams of caffeine per cup.
  2. Tea, which contains 60 to 75 milligrams of caffeine per cup.
  3. Coca Cola, Mountain Dew, Tab, Pepsi, and Dr.  Pepper, all of which contain more than 30 milligrams of caffeine per 12 ounces.
  4. Anacin, Cope, Vanquish, Excedrin, and No-Doz, all of which contain over 30 milligrams of caffeine per tablet.
  5. Cocoa, with anywhere from 6 to 142 milligrams of caffeine per cup. (Sunstone 10:7/33 (Jul 85).

Science continues to show that coffee and tea are generally not health hazards. In fact, some studies show that both liquids actually have health benefits.