Fighting back for the benefit of coffee

The National Coffee Association (NCA) kicked off its annual convention this week (3-5 March), but for the first time, it was a virtual event. Under the theme, “Together Toward Tomorrow,” the virtual event is largely like the in-person convention with keynote presentations of an aspirational nature as well as breakout sessions focusing on various aspects of the coffee industry. A bonus of the virtual event is that attendees may view sessions they missed immediately after initial presentation has taken place. The NCA is offering attendees the ability to view/replay all keynote and breakout sessions through 30 March.

While many sessions are discussing the impact of Covid-19 on the coffee industry – both challenges and benefits – there has been a strong focus the first two days of the convention on highlighting coffee’s health benefits and fighting back against misinformation and sensationalized stories to “grab eyeballs.” For example, in his keynote presentation, Timothy Caulfield, the host and co-producer of the Netflix series A User’s Guide to Cheating Death and author of Relax, Dammit!: A User’s Guide to the Age of Anxiety, broke down the decisions that stress consumers out and the ample amount of misinformation being disseminated today including that surrounding coffee.

Caulfield emphasized pushing back on the inordinate amount of misinformation in the world. He postulated that the world is experiencing an ‘infodemic’ — that people are bombarded with so much information on a daily basis – and a lot of this is negative – that it is stressing us out, creating fearmongering and affecting the decisions we make every day because people tend to remember bad or negative headlines. A self-proclaimed coffee-lover, Caulfield noted that coffee is one of the biggest victims of misinformation and sensationalized headlines to simply grab viewers/readers.

He called ‘confirmation bias’ – the tendency to find/believe in things that support your personal theories – the “mother of all biases.” Caulfield noted, for example, that drinking 8oz of water per day is a wellness myth that began decades ago and continues today, nor is there any evidence to support that coffee causes adrenal fatigue. “Once a belief become part of your personal brand, that is, how you see yourself, and “it becomes difficult to change your mind,” he said, adding that it is easy to get pulled into a vortex of conspiracy.”

Caulfield pointed out that the wellness industry has become a multi trillion-dollar industry and yet it is one that is not based on scientific facts — many are based on observational studies. “Wellness brands are big factors in creating and disseminating a lot of misinformation — there needs to be some sort of regulatory response to this.” Noting that it is an important time to be countering misinformation on social media, in the news, Caulfield stressed that “misinterpretation of risk must be highlighted. Get on social media and actively debunk misinformation.”

Pursuant to Caulfield’s session, NCA president and CEO Bill Murray, along with Melissa San Miguel, head of policy at Red Flag, in their joint presentation, “Coffee & Health: Advocacy in Action,” discussed the NCA’s advocacy efforts on behalf of coffee, but they also emphasized the importance of fighting back against misinformation surrounding coffee. Bad news is easier to fill ‘media space’ because it is more appealing and it makes good fodder for headlines, conveyed Murray, explaining that coffee has had such a difficult time overcoming negative stigmas because of decades of misinformation.

He and San Miguel shared that recent surveys have found: 61% [of people] think it’s important to limit caffeine intake; 43% have heard info about health benefits of drinking coffee; and one-third have heard ‘bad things’ about coffee in the news.

“There has been a concerted effort (by the media) to cherry pick the positive health benefits of coffee,” said San Miguel. However, both she and Murray agree that there are opportunities to counteract the misinformation and debunk the myths by those in the coffee industry by promoting positive aspects of coffee through “repetition and simplicity.” They also urged the coffee industry to:

  1. Help the science speak for itself
  2. Connect health to other values (e.g., drinking coffee helps coffee farmers)
  3. Correct misperceptions
  4. Participate in the conversation

It is definitely food for thought as just this week, prior to the start of the convention, news programs and social media were abuzz with yet another negative coffee study (likely an “observational study”) that “warned against coffee consumption…” (This seemed to be released almost immediately following a previous recent study that touted the benefits of drinking coffee in the fight against cardiovascular disease.)

If avocados can overcome their once held bad reputation for being a “fatty food” and evolve into a superfood, surely the same can happen for coffee?

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