Caffeine benefits a paper tiger?

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To wrap up this look at caffeine, let me generalize a bit.

Recently I decided to go to the Internet and Google "antioxidants in green tea" -- finding information from the alternative medicine section of the University of Maryland's website. It had some glowing things to say about green tea. In fact it was stated that researchers had found that drinking three cups of green tea daily could decrease the risk of heart attacks by 11 percent.

But that was followed by a note that in May 2006 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had turned down a request from the tea industry to claim green tea cut the risk of heart disease . The FDA felt there was not good evidence to support the idea that green tea or its extracts could reduce the risk of heart disease.

Then I Googled "antioxidants in coffee" and learned that coffee is the No. 1 source of antioxidants in the U.S. Unfortunately this is a bit misleading. In the 40-page article about antioxidants which I mentioned in a previous column it was shown that per serving, blackberries had the highest antioxidant count and coffee had the sixth-highest in that list. But how often do people eat a serving of blackberries? The reason coffee contributes so much antioxidants is that so many people are drinking it on a regular basis.

This study was funded by the American Cocoa Research Institute, which raises a red flag as to the validity of the research, in my opinion.

In the green tea website, no mention was made about the adverse effects of caffeine. For example no suggestion was made that women should not consume caffeine when pregnant nor that it could lead to aberrant behaviors.

The coffee website does a little better as far as mentioning the downside of coffee, but didn't really touch on the serious issues. And we may ask, what about the concept of truth in advertising?

Recently the U.S. Department of Agriculture has released the update to the food pyramid.

For the benefit of those who don't know what this is about, you need to know that for a number of years the U.S. government has published a document in form of a pyramid giving suggestions as to what to eat in order to have good health. From time to time they revise it to conform to current nutritional knowledge. In the food pyramid there are five categories or groups: grain, vegetables, fruits, protein and oil. What is not there is any mention of caffeinated beverages. Since in recent months there has been significant information in the media about the supposed benefits of drinking coffee or green tea it seems to me the conclusion we can draw from that is the government is not convinced about those benefits. Maybe you shouldn't be either.

In the field of human nutrition there is often discussion of health problems due to deficiencies of food, such as with vitamin A or iron. So here is a question? Has anyone ever identified a deficiency of caffeine? If so I have never heard of it. So do people really need caffeine? Some people who are used to drinking it may feel that way if they can't get their usual cup of coffee. But in truth, except for rare cases, no one needs caffeine.

As one thinks of what the world needs nutritionally and that there are some Third World countries who do not get enough good food, wouldn't it seem more logical to plow up the thousands or hundreds of thousand of acres devoted to growing coffee or tea and plant things that people really need?

But suppose someone says, "I have been drinking coffee or tea since the age of 6 and don't have any serious health problems. How do you explain that?"

My reply would be something to this effect:

"You are fortunate because we have already cited many problems that people have had. Also we need to recognize that we still have much to learn about the long range effects of the use of caffeine.. I am reminded of what happened with the case of cigarettes.

"In the early 1940s very few of the public had a clue as to how dangerous the use of cigarettes was nor even the danger from secondhand smoke. From about the mid-1930s until 1952 even the Journal of the American Medical Association accepted and ran advertisements for cigarettes. This is not to claim that caffeine will ever be found to be as dangerous as cigarettes. But there are significant red flags when it comes to caffeine."

Is it possible that if people got a good night's sleep, ate healthfully and drank 5-8 glasses of water a day they wouldn't feel the need for something to get them going in the morning? Thinking of my own experience as a physician oftentimes up in the night and on rare occasions all night I didn't feel the need to use caffeinated beverages except for only one or two nights some 40 years ago when circumstances seemed to call for me and my wife to drive all night.

Over the past 70 years I have known many people who did not use caffeine in any form who did well and performed very effectively. For those who are accustomed to use hot drinks there are several non-caffeinated ones available such as herbal teas, Pero and Sano-caf. Probably the easiest place to find these would be at a health food store.

When I think of the high consumption of caffeine in this country and that it sends a message to teenagers who are at significant risk to get involved in alcohol or illicit drugs as well as the other adverse effects I cannot help but have a deep concern, which has been the main things that has inspired me to write.

Dr. Don Casebolt of College Place is a retired physician who is passionate about preventive medicine. He spent 4 years as a medical officer in the U.S. Navy, the last 21/2 years as a flight surgeon. He also worked on the Navajo Reservation for 22 years.

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