Caffeine and the Word of Wisdom

MYTH: Latter-day Saints are prohibited from drinking Caffeine.

FALSE

This subject has been hotly debated for at least a century. Some Mormons argue that caffeine is not specifically mentioned in the Word of Wisdom and while some General Authorities have recommended not consuming caffeine, in the end it is a personal choice.

Other Mormons have argued that there has been a consistent and increasing denunciation of caffeine by LDS Church leadership since 1972. So where do these arguments come from and what, exactly, is the Church’s official position?

This debate goes as far back as the 1920s. Representatives from the Coca-Cola Company visited President Heber J. Grant complaining that the state Health Director (a non-Mormon) was attacking the cola company and using the Church teachings to bolster its position because several Church leaders had advocated that members should not drink cola. President Grant admitted that he had counseled members to avoid cola because of its caffeine content, but after a convincing argument by Coca-Cola’s reps, he changed his opinion:

On October 15, 1924, representatives of the Coca-Cola Company called on President Grant to complain that non-Mormon Dr. T. B. Beatty, state Health Director, was using the church organization to assist in an attack on Coca-Cola. They asked President Grant to stop him, but he refused at first, saying that he himself had advised Mormons not to drink the beverage. Beatty, however, had been claiming that there was four to five times as much caffeine in Coke as in coffee, when in fact, as the representatives showed, there were approximately 1.7 grains in a cup of coffee and approximately .43 grains or about a fourth as much in a equivalent amount of Coke. After a second meeting, President Grant said that he was "sure I have not the slightest desire to recommend that the people leave Coca-Cola alone if this amount is absolutely harmless, which they claim it is." Beatty, however, insisted that he would still recommend against its use by children. The question was left unresolved, and evidence indicates that while the First Presidency has taken no official stand on the use of cola drinks, some members urge abstinence.
[1]

Though it appears that President Grant no longer personally supported a ban on caffeinated drinks, the Church did not officially take a position on the issue. Then in 1972 the Church released the following Priesthood Bulletin:

With reference to cola drinks, the Mormon Church has never officially taken a position on this matter, but the leaders of the Church have advised, and we do now specifically advise, against the use of any drink containing harmful habit-forming drugs under circumstances that would result in acquiring the habit. Any beverage that contains ingredients harmful to the body should be avoided.
~1972 Priesthood Bulletin

While the Church officially did not spell out the use of caffeine, the leaders of the Church “advised” against “harmful habit-forming drugs” and “ingredients harmful to the body”. This bulletin prompted more explicit interpretations by many leaders as well as members of the Church.

In 1975, Bishop H. Burke Peterson of the presiding Bishopric stated in the New Era:


"We know that cola drinks contain the drug caffeine. We know caffeine is not wholesome nor prudent for the use of our bodies. It is only sound judgment to conclude that cola drinks and any others that contain caffeine or other harmful ingredients should not be used."

In 1980 in the Ensign, Elder Sterling W. Sill stated: "In the Word of Wisdom the Lord so narrowed down the width of the road leading to good health that, among other things, he placed alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine out of bounds."

Additionally, during this time period several official Church publications also specifically denounced caffeinated soft drinks. But the President of the Church, while clearly not supporting the consumption of caffeinated drinks, did not feel that caffeine was on the same level as tea and coffee in regards to the Word of Wisdom. Former Spencer W. Kimball said:

Generally when we speak of the Word of Wisdom, we are talking about tea, coffee, tobacco, and liquor, and all of the fringe things even though they might be detrimental are not included in the technical interpretation of the Word of Wisdom. I never drink any of the cola drinks and my personal hope would be that no one would. However, they are not included in the Word of Wisdom in its technical application. I quote from a letter from the secretary to the First Presidency, "But the spirit of the Word of Wisdom would be violated by the drinking or eating of anything that contained a habit-forming drug."

With reference to the cola drinks, the Church has never officially taken any attitude on this but I personally do not put them in the class as with the tea and coffee because the Lord specifically mentioned them [the hot drinks]…. I might say also that strychnine and sleeping pills and opium and heroin are not mentioned in the Word of Wisdom and yet I would discourage them with all my power.
[2]

In fact, it was not until 1996 that a President of the Church specifically listed caffeine and caffeinated soft drinks as part of the Word of Wisdom. In an interview with Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes, the following conversation took place:

Wallace: Mormons adhere to a very strict health code. No alcohol, no tobacco, no coffee, no tea, not even caffeinated soft drinks...
Hinkley: Right.
Wallace: ...eat meat sparingly, exercise...
Hinkley: Right.
Wallace: ...get plenty of sleep.
Hinkley: Right. It's wonderful!

One year later in an interview, David Ransom and President Hinckley had the following exchange in which President Hinckley asserted that coffee was to be avoid precisely because it has caffeine:

Ransom: But you do condemn so many things that are commonly accepted. For example, no sex before marriage. No tobacco, no alcohol, no gambling not even coffee.
Hinckley: Yeah that's right.
Ransom: And very, very strict.
Hinckley: That's wonderful. And you live longer. And you're happier. And you're healthier.
Ransom: What's wonderful about not drinking coffee?
Hinckley: Oh ah coffee has all kinds of caffeine in it.

On the Larry King Live show in 1998, the following conversation took place in answer to a caller’s question regarding the Word of Wisdom:

Hinckley: Oh, I don't know. You've read a part of the word of wisdom. The word of wisdom covers many things. It covers the excessive use of meat, as I see it. It covers, in a very particular way, the use of tobacco and alcohol.
Larry King: By saying no?
Hinckley: By saying, by proscribing those things.
Larry King: No to caffeine?
Gordon B. Hinckley: No to caffeine, coffee and tea.

Although President Hinckley publicly taught abstinence from caffeine as part of the Word of Wisdom, other General Authorities during that same time period were more hesitant in their interpretation. President Boyd K. Packer, senior Apostle of the Church said the following in the May 1996 General Conference:

“Members write in asking if this thing or that is against the Word of Wisdom. It's well known that tea, coffee, liquor, and tobacco are against it. It has not been spelled out in more detail. Rather, we teach the principle together with the promised blessings. There are many habit-forming, addictive things that one can drink or chew or inhale or inject which injure both body and spirit which are not mentioned in the revelation.”
[3]

Even the current President of the Church seems hesitant to specifically prohibit caffeine as part of the Word of Wisdom:

“‘The temple of God is holy, which temple ye are’ (1 Corinthians 3:17). May we keep our bodies—our temples—fit and clean, free from harmful substances which destroy our physical, mental, and spiritual well-being.”
[4]

The obvious intimation about “harmful substances” is that caffeine is harmful and addictive and is therefore covered under the above principle. But the obvious question that invariably arises is: What about chocolate?

Just months after the 1972 Priesthood Bulletin was issued, Lenny and Naomi Hesterman submitted the following letter to the Ensign:

In the June issue of the Ensign, members were advised against drinks containing habit-forming drugs [Policies and Programs, p. 46]. We wondered if many of the Saints were aware of the high caffeine content in chocolate. Even though no mention of it is made on the labels, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration reported to us that an eight-ounce candy bar has 160 milligrams of caffeine, which is 50 milligrams more than a stay-awake pill. Also, this amounts to nearly twice as much as in a cup of coffee.

We learned from the World Book Encyclopedia that chocolate also contains the poisonous alkaloid theobromine in addition to caffeine. We remember an article in the newspaper several years ago that reported that chocolate had the same habit-forming effect on children as nicotine has on adults….We also recall that President Heber J. Grant advised against the use of chocolate some years back.

Certainly there are many things beyond those mentioned in the Word of Wisdom that wise and prudent Saints will learn are not for the best interests of their health and bodies.[5]

It is logical to conclude that if caffeine in beverages constitutes a "harmful substance," clearly caffeine in chocolate or in other foods is equally harmful and should also be avoided. But surprisingly, several General Authorities have explicitly rejected that logical notion. Elder Mark E. Peterson declared:

"At no time has cocoa or chocolate been included in the prohibitions of the Word of Wisdom, and at no time has the Church said that cocoa is as harmful as coffee. Those who make these claims do so on their own responsibility, and obviously without knowing the facts of the matter."
[6]

Elder Bruce R. McConkie also specifically identified chocolate, among other foods, as prohibited specifically by the Word of Wisdom and thus fit to consume:

“There is no prohibition in Section 89, for instance, as to the eating of white bread, using white flour, white sugar, cocoa, chocolate, eggs, milk, meat, or anything else, except items classified under the headings, tea, coffee, tobacco, and liquor."
[7]

In the end, members and leaders of the Church have gone back and forth on this issue. But, despite personal statements made by various leaders, the official policy of the Church does not take a stand on caffeine, leaving it to the individual to make healthy choices about what they put in their bodies.


[1] Thomas G. Alexander, "The Word of Wisdom: From Principle to Requirement," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 14:3 (Autumn 1981): 84–85.
[2] The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, p.202
[3] President Boyd K. Packer. “The Word of Wisdom: The Principle and The Promises” May 1996 General Conference.
[4] President Thomas S. Monson, “True to the Faith,” Ensign, May 2006, 19.
[5] “Our Readers Write,” Lenny and Naomi Hesterman, on the topic: Chocolate. Ensign, Dec 1972, 88
[6] Elder Mark E. Peterson, Patterns for Living, 1962, pp. 235-37
[7] Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, p.846

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