Jeanette Rusk Sefcik: Coffee or soda. Which is really ‘wiser’?

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A BYU food services employee stocks caffeinated Coca-Cola products in the cooler at the Cougar Express on BYU campusThursday, September 21, 2017.

It is time for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to take a new look at its dated Word of Wisdom.

If church leadership prioritizes the health of its members, it must consider new contravening evidence that the demonized “hot drink” coffee is way better for you than the tremendous quantities of soda that members drink as a caffeine substitute.

Full disclosure before I continue, I am of “Mormon” heritage (it’s OK to say Mormon because that’s what my ancestors and family called themselves). The arguments I present here are offered with respect for the LDS Church and its faithful members.

The Word of Wisdom is a health code (based on a Joseph Smith revelation) that faithful Mormons are obliged to follow. It prohibits “hot drinks,” which the church has always interpreted to mean coffee and tea. What is it about coffee and tea that is bad? The main conclusion has been its caffeine content. So a controversy arose over the years as caffeinated sodas became a popular drink and Mormons imbibed.

In general, coffee has more caffeine than sodas, so members wondered if the demon was the amount of caffeine and then maybe sodas were okay. In response to the questioning, in 2012 the church released an official statement saying explicitly that caffeinated soda is allowed under church doctrine, but coffee and tea are still prohibited.

A word about caffeine. It is a stimulant — whether in coffee, tea, sodas, chocolate — and that’s the reason people need and want some of it. Scientific studies show that caffeine has numerous health benefits, such as increasing energy and brain function plus reducing the risk of certain diseases including diabetes and dementia. Assuming LDS leaders and members accept this science, then the next question is how best to get the moderate amount of caffeine that is good for us.

I do not understand why the church made its decision that caffeinated soda is OK and coffee is not. But, as the years go by, and Latter-day Saints have more and more problems with obesity and diabetes, perhaps it is time to re-consider the wisdom of giving the green light to the real demon drink, those unhealthy sodas. Both coffee and sodas should be drunk in moderation, but because soda is “OK” and coffee isn’t, the “Big Gulp” phenomenon took over, and Mormon soda drinkers consumed more and more. They are getting more caffeine than moderate coffee drinkers, but also more of the bad components in soda, like sugar, artificial sweeteners, and carbonation.

Coffee is a low-calorie beverage. According to the USDA, an 8-ounce cup of black coffee has just 2 calories. Coffee is also a great source of antioxidants and contains small amounts of vitamins and minerals. When it comes to the coffee vs. soda debate, having a cup of coffee is much healthier than drinking soda.

Perhaps the health debate is irrelevant in the religious context because the coffee and tea exclusion is considered to be part of Mormon doctrine, and therefore blindly accepted. But I understand that it was given as “counsel,” not a commandment, and besides it was the “wisdom” of nearly 200 years ago. I have heard some people say that adherence to this type of doctrinal code is not to be questioned rationally, instead compliance is a test of faith. Or others say that we need to wait and be patient until the prophet has a revelation.

With mounting evidence of the harms of soda and benefits of coffee, why not change the coffee taboo now so that Latter-day Saints can have a healthier range of choice for getting their caffeine. And the many Latter-day Saints who have already chosen coffee would be able to come out of the closet, discard the judgments, and be considered “worthy” Latter-day Saints again.

Jeanette Rusk Sefcik

Jeanette Rusk Sefcik, Glendale, is a retired newspaper reporter and editor, having worked at newspapers including the Tucson Citizen, Daily Spectrum in St. George, Southern Utah News in Kanab and Lake Powell Chronicle in Page, Ariz. She has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Arizona.