Lies, damned lies and the coffee lobby

by Dilhan

Fact and fiction should contrast as dramatically as black and white. Strangely that truth does not seem to hold anymore as the world enters a state of altered reality reminiscent of that which George Orwell described in 1949. In this dimension, it is not the State that is Big Brother, but something far worse.

The history of tea is marked by more than the occasional subterfuge. Since Robert Fortune disguised himself as a Chinese Peasant to learn the art of producing tea in 1842, through to the Opium Wars and Boston Tea Party, tea has been no stranger to conspiracy and conflict. However the conspiracy in which tea finds itself involved in the 21st Century is one that is against tea itself.

A Georgetown University Medical Centre study presented at the Annual Congress of the European League Against Rheumatism suggests that women who drink tea are more likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Ignoring EULAR president, Prof Paul Emery’s words,

“We do assert the need for caution in the interpretation of these findings as no strong causation effect has been confirmed. We also encourage patients with rheumatic diseases to consult their physician before making any significant changes to their diet or caffeine intake,”

and the inherent shortcomings in the type of study, the coffee industry has drawn its own conclusions. Elated at the prospect of a stain – even unproven – on the unblemished and centuries old reputation of tea as a healing herb, the coffee industry has set its PR machine in high gear to publicize the study as widely as possible, and apparently with increasingly unsubstantiated inference.

It’s happened before. Alarmed by the the strong positive association between natural antioxidants in tea and wellness, the coffee industry in 2005 used its media might to throw reassuring headlines at coffee drinkers. Amongst them one news item that claimed, “Coffee is number one source of antioxidants.” The leader of the study on which all those claim was based – Joe Vinson, Ph.D., chemistry professor at Scranton University – somewhat unscientifically proclaimed,

“Nothing else comes close…. Americans get more of their antioxidants from coffee than any other dietary source. ….Coffee came out on top, on the combined basis of both antioxidants per serving size and frequency of consumption.”

And quite right he was, for the study was based on the antioxidants that Americans derive from their diet. Most Americans do not drink tea. In Vinson’s study tea was logically second to coffee in terms of antioxidants for this very simple but for some reason inadequately explained reason. Vinson’s assertions, including one that

“Java easily outranked such popular antioxidant sources as tea, milk, chocolate and cranberries.”

were therefore misleading and likely to have been coffee induced spin rather than science. In their frenzy to publicize the very profitable ‘news’ of a blemish on the reputation of tea, the coffee lobby PR persons apparently forgot to balance their desired outcome with the reality of the study.

Five years later, they are at it again. Possibly good science, but in the hands of Big Brother, the average lay person reading the article is transported into an altered reality. The study that was presented at the Annual Congress of EULAR has no cause and effect confirmation linking tea consumption and rheumatoid arthritis. It was based on a cohort study, which is an observational study and inherently inconclusive. It lacks the clarity that a randomized control study might offer.

In his ‘Textbook of Pediatrics’ Waldo Nelson, acknowledged father of paediatrics, says that RA occurs almost twice as often in females as in males, even in preschool ages. Age at onset, as Nelson states, is rarely under one year, although the median is about five years and the mode two to three years. It goes on to say, Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) is more frequent in females under the age of six (Juvenile rheumatoid arthritis). Extending the reasoning that is followed in the rash of articles that link tea consumption with RA, might these children be drinking tea too?

The cohort study carried out connects females in the age group 50-70 years, drinking more cups of tea, as having a greater incidence of RA. Caution – as Prof Paul Emery suggests – and not spin, is the sensible response to this preliminary and inconclusive study. Females are said to be more prone to RA, Females above 50 are also more likely to be drinking tea in preference to coffee. Interpretation and conclusions are best left to men and women of science. Truth and not profit should be the only bias.

In analysing this preliminary study further, researchers may discover the 2000 study by Dr M Heliövaara of the National Public Health Institute in Helsinki. It was entitled, ‘Coffee consumption, rheumatoid factor, and the risk of rheumatoid arthritis’. It concluded:

“Our results suggest that coffee consumption may be a risk factor for RF positive RA. As RF often precedes RA1 the association between coffee consumption and RA risk may be mediated through mechanisms contributing to the production of RF. Whatever the mechanism, coffee consumption should be considered a possible risk factor or a confounder in future research into the cause of RA.”

Ann Rheum Dis 2000;59:631-635 doi:10.1136/ard.59.8.631

Imagine the possibilities – “Coffee drinkers at risk,” or maybe even “Coffee linked with severe pain and eventual immobility.” Fortunately, – to quote G.K.Chesterton tea is a gentleman – and us teamen are generally a genteel lot, valuing tradition, integrity, and the truth.

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