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Bad Reporting = Wrong Coffee Consumption Message

I planned to write about the Re:co Symposium and SCA Expo, both of which I attended last week in Seattle, Washington, until I came across this headline in a local newspaper: “Kids and coffee: The true price of caffeine.” The article was accompanied by a sizable image of a three or four-year-old girl sipping, what readers are to presume, is coffee from a mug. Under the headline – and in much smaller font – the dek read: “The go-to staple of most teens could have long-lasting effects.”

The reporter proceeds to set a scene of having to push past “anxious teenagers” in a coffeehouse on a school day, and then muses on how not long ago American kids would rather “down a strawberry milkshake” than a flat white…now a “morning, midday and afternoon coffee is almost guaranteed.” I have been in many a coffeehouse around the world and I honestly do not recall ever hearing a teenager order a flat white, and I’ve certainly never heard a parent order one for their elementary-school aged child in the story image. In fact, flat whites are still relatively new to the US market — most adults are not familiar with them, let alone teenagers and children. Furthermore, although coffee is consumed by elementary-school aged children in many countries around the world, American parents still tend to be a bit cautious when it comes to coffee beverages. Hence, the plethora of non-caffeine “fun” beverages offered in coffeehouses to appeal to those younger consumers. (See “Move Over Millennials! It’s Time to Pay Attention to Gen Z” in our upcoming May issue.)

So, given the headline, the image, the dek and the first couple of paragraphs, the reader will likely infer that coffee, because it has caffeine, is bad, and they should worry about their child’s consumption. But that would be an incorrect assumption as the next paragraph states: “However, it’s not just coffee that’s the culprit. Caffeine can be found in energy drinks, tea, chocolate, and some soft drinks. So, it’s not surprising that a recent US study reported that 73% of children consumed caffeine at some point —mainly from cola beverages and chocolate.” And there it is — the problem isn’t coffee at all. I guess “Kids and chocolate” or “Kids and cola” and “The true price of caffeine” would not have attracted enough eyeballs, which is odd considering cola/soda is the beverage equivalent of persona non-grata for adults and children given its highly unhealthy nature.

The article goes on to discuss the side effects of too much caffeine in children (mood swings, increase in blood pressure, slow heart rates, and of course, sleep disruption. It also discusses the “deadly affects of caffeine…” (that’s not a typo, the reporter did seem to confuse “effect” and “affect” — a sloppy grammar error that should have been caught, but I digress…) and references the tragic incident in 2017 of a 16-year-old boy from South Carolina who died of a caffeine-induced heart attack after consuming a latte, a large soft drink and an energy drink within a two-hour period (together the drinks have in excess of 500 milligrams of caffeine). The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than 100 milligrams for teenagers over a 24-hour period.

The reporter never lists the amount of caffeine in the flat white referenced in the first paragraph, nor in an espresso-blended beverage (complete with lots of milk, syrup and whipped cream, which so many younger consumers like) or even in an 8-oz cup of coffee. The caffeine in a can of soda (34 mg) and a chocolate bar (20-60mg) are listed. The article concludes by recommending that parents “watch the caffeine intake of their children and teenagers, taking special notice of highly caffeinated coffees and expensive energy drinks.” (I guess inexpensive energy drinks are okay…)

It’s this type of attention-grabbing headline and bad reporting that irritate me. I’ve been covering the coffee industry (and tea) for six years and during this period there have been ample research and studies showing the health benefits of coffee, evidencing that it is not the taboo beverage it was once thought to be. And yet coffee continues to be stigmatized and misunderstood. If the judge in California who recently ruled that coffee is not exempt from the Prop 65 law (see my blog “Prop 65 Ruling Causes Confusion and Fear” posted on our website the week of 9 April) has been misled or swayed by articles such as the one I referenced or those on news crawls reporting “coffee causes cancer…” then his ruling is not surprising. Unfortunate and uninformed, but not surprising. Hopefully with time, as more consumers become aware of the healthy attributes of coffee, errant reporting will have less of an impact on consumer mindsets.

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