An ancient Turkish proverb advises that coffee should be black as hell, strong as death and sweet as love. Coffee drinkers have always accepted, even embraced, the sudden rushes, the insomnia and flutters of the heart that coffee, like visions of hell or love, has brought them. As long as these titillations were understood to be the extent of coffee’s effects, even the most foodphobic folk have perked along, sipping, gulping, measuring their lives with coffee spoons. Sixty-two per cent of Canadians over the age of 10 drink the stuff-an average of 3.2 cups a day. In the past year, however, several studies have been published hinting that coffee—or, more precisely, caffeine, one of
its alkaloid components—could have a more disturbing physiological impact than previously suspected. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently started a battery of tests involving rats and the ingestion of caffeine through drinking water. “The question,” says Sanford Miller, director of the FDA’s bureau of foods, “is whether caffeine is dangerous at ordinary levels of human consumption.” What is making Miller jittery, along with federal officials in Washington and Ottawa, is recent evidence that caffeine interferes with two activities humans value highly: thinking and sex.
That caffeine affects thinking is no surprise to those who know of the venerable association between caffeinecontaining beverages—coffee, tea, cocoa and colas—and 18th-century England’s chocolate houses, Vienna’s cafés or even the excitement that fizzed round the soda fountains of their own cola-fuelled adolescence. Until recently, however, just why caffeine stimulated
mental activity was a mystery. This February, John Phillis and Peter Wu at the University of Saskatchewan announced they had cracked the secret. They reported that caffeine injected into the brains of rats blocked the action of an organic depressant, adenosine, thereby stepping up the transmission of messages between nerve cells. As with rats, so with people? The human data are clouded by the great variation of caffeine’s strength in different beverages and blends. But the FDA has become so concerned about the impact of caffeine stimulation on the developing brains of young children, it threatened the cola industry with regu lation. The industry has responded by sponsoring a major series of studies.
effects on sex are suspected of being even more sinister.
In high concentrations it has been observed to affect the fertility and shrink the testicles of rats. And that caffeine is a cause of birth defects has been known for some time. When male or female rats are dosed with caffeine, their offspring run a higher risk of being born with missing digits or of dying young. “We don’t have the faintest idea what this means for humans,” admits Dr. Sumner Yaffe of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. But in January he warned that “prospective mothers and fathers should be prudent around the time of coitus” about the amount of caffeine consumed.
There are other recent caffeine-scare studies making headlines in the medical press. Last year, Ohio State University researchers found that when women with benign breast ailments—lumps, swelling, pain—completely cut coffee, tea, chocolate and cola from their diets, more than half had remissions within two to six months. As a result of this report, some doctors have counselled their patients to abstain from coffee— although there have been no definitive studies on the effects of caffeine on breast tissue.
The impact of these recent findings has not yet shown up in declining coffee or cola sales. Still, is the day near at hand when one’s beloved breakfast mug carries the warning: HEALTH AND WELFARE CANADA ADVISES THAT DANGER TO HEALTH INCREASES WITH AMOUNT CONSUMED—AVOID SWALLOWING ? “No,” says Alexander Morrison, assistant
deputy minister of Ottawa’s Health Protection Branch. “While there’s no doubt in our minds that it’s advisable for pregnant women to go easy on caffeine, the other data are not definitive.” Adds Richard Gilbert of Toronto’s Addiction Research Foundation: “For
most people, two cups a day are no problem. It’s the eight-cup-a-day addicts who will suffer headaches, stomachaches, jitteriness, chronic anxiety and insomnia.” And who now, he might have added, have additional medical worries to guarantee them jumping nerves and sleepless nights. Val Ross
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