This week brought news that coffee, long accused of causing cancer, actually helps prevent it. Reports that America's favorite beverage is chock-full of antioxidants came across exactly as one would expect—in the form of a gentle scolding. That a cup of joe carries ten times more antioxidants than a banana "does not mean coffee is a substitute for fruit and vegetables," warns Associated Press. "Americans are not eating enough fruits and vegetables, the sources of antioxidants…doctors recommend," Reuters cautions us 50 words in.
Following a study by Joe A. Vinson at the University of Scranton, it's not unreasonable to conclude that the 1.64 cups of coffee the average American sucks down every day will help keep his cells from dividing uncontrollably. But even Vinson managed to find the bad news in this announcement, noting, "Unfortunately, consumers are still not eating enough fruits and vegetables." Maybe he's just worried that using the words "coffee" and "healthy" in the same sentence would be like ordering a double espresso or flavored cappuccino—a faux pas sufficiently gauche to offend health nannies and coffee connoisseurs alike. That black sludge could be good for us is not only counterintuitive, but counter to everything the FDA, caffeine alarmists, Juan Valdez, and Starbucks have taught us about the good life.
Over the past four centuries, coffee has been accused of causing birth defects, ulcers, throat, stomach, pancreatic and breast cancer, coronary thrombosis, calcium loss, and "caffeinism." It has repeatedly been blamed for bouts of impotence in men and infertility in women, as Nina Luttinger and Gregory Dicum explain in their history of the coffee trade, Coffee Book: Anatomy of an Industry. In 1674 a group of women in England penned The Women's Petition against Coffee, charging that "coffee makes a man as barren as the desert out of which this unlucky berry is imported." (In their defense, men responded with a petition insisting that coffee "adds a spiritualescency to the Sperme, and renders it more firm and suitable to the Gusto of the womb.")
Blurring the lines between food and drug, sustenance and stimulant, coffee awakens a society's killjoys and encourages its regulators. Sixteenth-century Turkey was a pioneer of coffee prohibitionism. The Mufti of Constantinople outlawed the drink; second-time offenders were tied up in leather sacks and thrown into the Bosporus. Prussia's Frederick the Great banned the stuff in 1777 and issued the Coffee and Beer Manifesto. "Everybody is using coffee. If possible, this must be prevented," he explained, "My people must drink beer."
Hundreds of years of safe consumption have done little to improve coffee's reputation. In Uncommon Grounds, Mark Pendergrast points out that scientists have tried time and again to prove society's long-held intuitions about its toxicity—most notably in a series of tests during the late 1970s and early '80s. This involved FDA scientists force-feeding massive amounts of caffeine to rats and recording the results. As it turns out, feeding rats the equivalent of 35 cups of coffee a day is not good for them. That's not enough to prove a link between caffeine consumption and health problems in human beings; it is more than enough, however, to perk up the professional scolds at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Citing studies that linked caffeine intake to birth defects in lab animals, Michael Jacobson of the CSPI spent years trying to get caffeine knocked off the FDA's list of drugs "generally recognized as safe" and to add warning labels to coffee products. Caught between industry interests and bogus rat studies, the FDA did what it does best—nothing. "We're not saying caffeine is unsafe," the FDA's Sanford Miller explained, "We're just not saying it's safe."
That's pretty much been the happy consensus ever since. Where coffee is promoted, it is promoted as a stimulant and a guilty pleasure. Where it is denounced, it is denounced as a drug and a vice. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, coffee was the upper that kept recovering cocaine addicts showing up at the office. More recently, Starbucks has helped turn java into a faux Italianate fantasy of leisure and excess. Periods of coffee alarmism bubble and dissipate. They only add to the spirit of the high and the depth of the indulgence.
Professor Vinson's antioxidant study has no place in this equilibrium. The liquid equivalent of brussel sprouts and organic spinach is neither a worthy indulgence nor a satisfying target for CSPI fanaticism. As a socially acceptable addiction in a world of health taboos, coffee is a necessary vice. Which may be why Vinson went to such lengths to downplay his findings and attack the American diet. Among the coffee alarmists and the many millions of coffee drinkers who ignore them, he knows he's the real killjoy.