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Cause and Effect

My parents may be getting up there in age, but that hasn’t slowed them down just yet, especially when it comes to warning their children about the latest health “study” they heard about on the news or through some email chain.

Those of you who are regular readers of this column know by now I can be quite prickly when it comes to many of these so-called “studies.” It’s come up before in this space because, unfortunately, as anyone associated with the beverage business knows, this industry take the brunt—especially lately, but this has been going on for decades—of these ominous health warnings.

There are too many of them, and they are announced too frequently to even begin to summarize here. But it does seem that the so-called “experts” have smelled blood in the water when it comes to certain segments of our industry and they have converged on it like a swarm of feeding sharks.

The parental warning I refer to above was slipped in right at the end of a recent phone call with my mom, tucked in so nonchalantly I almost missed it as I was hanging up: “Oh, and don’t forget that drinking more than four cups of coffee a day can take years off your life!”

My reply was a typical, rolling-of-the-eyes, “What in the world do you mean?” as my fingers started automatically Googling the relevant keywords into my iphone’s browser (I’ve been to this rodeo before). Eventually, I did find the study, but a little more investigating immediately showed what I expected. The study itself lacked the standards that would support one that was respectable. I happened to have dinner with a friend later that evening who had studied statistics in college, and he explained the difference between a good study and a bad one. The good find causation between two things, the bad ones just correlations. Unfortunately, many of the studies we hear about today and get tossed around so often by the mass media are based on correlations, not causations. The coffee study is a good example.

In that case, it found that those who consume more than four cups of coffee a day and are under the age of 55 have a tendency to die at a significantly younger age than those who drink fewer than four cups of coffee a day. This was sloppily bullhorned by the media as showing a real link between consumption of more than four cups of coffee by those under 55 and early death. But a little more study of this study and you start to see it unravel. There was no real causation between the coffee drinking and the early demise, just a correlation. It just happens to be that those who drank that much coffee, in that particular age group, happened to die younger. The study didn’t take into account anything else: Did they have more trouble sleeping and needed caffeine to stay awake, for example? Did they tend to have extreme Type-A personalities?

Were they dealing with heavier workloads and have more stressful lives as a result? Did they consume a delicious donut with every cup of coffee?

If we as an industry are going to fight back against these poorly conceived studies, it’s important we know how to set their authors, the media—and, yes, even our parents—straight. I tried, respectfully, and as gently as possible with the latter, at least.

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