On Coke, caffeine, and the Word of Wisdom

Despite being one of the biggest brands in the entire world, Coke has hit some hard times. Their latest attempt to tackle the obesity problem through one of their own adverts is one very clear sign of this trouble. There is no question that this is another entry into their long list of well-produced and effective advertisements, but, like others, I think this is dishonest.

As Mormons, we are quite well known for refraining from drinking caffeine. Coke and Pepsi (and perhaps other caffeinated drinks) are not sold on BYUs campus and when the church recently removed any ambiguity around their policy regarding cola drinks it  received some national attention. Despite this clarification, abstinence from caffeine is still part of Mormon culture.

It was Widtsoe who, while serving as an Apostle, forcefully made the connection between caffeine and the Word of Wisdom that has subsequently become part of our culture. Perhaps he had the right target but the wrong argument.

D&C 89 is one of our most well-known revelations and it begins with this introduction:

“A Word of Wisdom… showing forth the order and will of God in the temporal salvation of all saints in the last days… adapted to the capacity of the weak and the weakest of all saints… Behold, verily, thus saith the Lord unto you: In consequence of evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days, I have warned you, and forewarn you” (v. 1-4)

Of course, soft drinks are not explicitly mentioned in the subsequent text but Widtsoe’s attempt to frame discussions of the WoW in terms of health certainly lends itself to think about these particular consequences of soft drinks.  Mounting evidence suggests that excessively consuming soft drinks can increase your risk of a variety of ailments. Yet the health consequences distract somewhat from the principle focus of this scripture because the Word of Wisdom is more than a revelation about health. It is a revelation that pertains to our temporal salvation.

This type of salvation, according to the text, is contingent upon our ability to accept the Lord’s warning against the ‘evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men’. And will exist. Clearly this scripture should not be read as a fixed list of forbidden foodstuffs; like most of JS’s revelations this text is open to expansion and addition. My suggestion here is that Coke’s deliberate attempt to obfuscate some of the health consequences of soft drink consumption through manipulation of our emotional ties to food may fit in the category of evil ‘designs which do… exist in the hearts of conspiring men’.

Is our temporal salvation predicated on our health? Perhaps in part, but it appears to be more than that. This type of salvation is made possible through how we live in this physical world of bodies and food. Our temporal salvation is, I take it, the material base of Zion. Where exploitation or manipulation exists (i.e., one of the evils and designs of conspiring men), Zion cannot.  There are many companies and production processes that could potentially fit under this umbrella and Coke may well be one of them.  Their attempt to exploit or manipulate our sense of nostalgia and friendship in a bid to make a profit is a corruption of the type of food-sharing practices that constitute the Kingdom of God.  This post is not so much about Coke as it is an attempt to use the Word of Wisdom to think practically about our consumption practices in a world that seems almost geared to exploit and ravish the earth and its peoples.

If the behaviour of Coke (and other companies like them)[1] reflects the Lord’s description of these designs that will exist in the hearts of conspiring men then perhaps we should reconsider more careful the companies to whom we give our money.  Perhaps Widtsoe was right; just maybe not about the caffeine.


1. Wendell Berry observed that ‘to live undestructively in an economy that is overwhelmingly destructive would require of any one of us, or of any group of us, a great deal more work than we have yet been able to do’ (The Unsettling of America, p. 18).  Yet, at the same time, I think that careful and considered consumption needs, at some point, to simply become the refusal to consume.  Such small victories may not dent Coke’s power or profits (or, again, other companies like them) but perhaps this might be one way of being faithful to this particular revelation.


  1. I would like to think that this will not descend into a flame war but my hopes are often dashed. I see Aaron’s point in targeting those products that come back to harm us and trying not to support them. I will be driving my exhaust-belching transportation a little less this week.

  2. Wait, Diet Caffeine Free Coke used to be sold on BYU Campus. Did Dining Services get rid of it?

    There’s a love/hate relationship with Diet Coke/Pepsi in Mormon Utah Culture, at least in the small towns and on the Wasatch Front.

  3. #2 No… what makes you think they did? BYU in fact has a contract with Coca Cola and only sells Coke products on campus.

  4. A thousand points for quoting Wendell Berry, America’s prophet.

  5. I agree that soft drink makers are peddling stuff that is terrible for us, and that the makers—like most Big Food industries–have evil designs to profit from consumers’ unhealthy choices.

    I think the connection to the Word of Wisdom is tenuous, though. Yes, the WoW warns against evil designs. (Welcome to corporate America!) Yes, the WoW forbids drinks that contain a substance that is also found in certain soft drinks, thereby preventing some Mormons from imbibing some soft drinks.

    But what makes soft drinks unhealthy is not primarily caffeine but sugar, and also (to a lesser extent, if I understand correctly) aspartame and carbonation. Even the most expansive reading of the WoW would not have prevented Mormons from consuming noncaffeinated soft drinks for most of the 20th century, resulting in the kinds of widespread health problems we see today.

  6. Great thoughts and I like the way you conclude by abstracting this away from Coke specifically and focusing more generally on the corrupt exploitative and manipulative practices of all kinds of companies that literally conspire through such methods or techniques to make money by subtle deception or similar tactics.

    Kristine had an excellent post or perhaps comment years ago (perhaps someone can find the link) applying this to the meat industry and the Word of Wisdom’s stance on eating meat sparingly, which Mormon culture of course glaringly ignores in favor of the prohibitions on tea, coffee, alcohol and tobacco. I think it is likely that these are the focus of our Word of Wisdom precisely because they force a kind of social exclusion of Mormons from the rest of the world that in and of itself fosters identity and community. But that also implies (as does the introductory language about the Word of Wisdom being counsel and not commandment) that the Word of Wisdom, as a whole, is merely malum prohibitum and not malum in se — it is inconceivable that there is any greater cosmic principle against these particular products of the natural world, and, indeed, generations preceding the Word of Wisdom partook at their own discretion.

  7. Just don’t tell me I can’t eat Cheetos anymore.

  8. gwp, I have always been naive but hopeful.

    Joy/Bryan, my comment was specifically referring to the fur realz Coke. I should have been more precise.

    jg, to use the Essex vernacular, he is ‘totes a-maze-balls’!

    Edward J., I do not think that the WoW specifically prohibits any particular substance. Those suggestions appear to inferences from the text. Additionally, health, in my opinion, is a consequence (perhaps a blessing) of the WoW but it does not necessarily motivate it. When you

    John F., great points and I agree with Kristine that this type of social responsibility interpretation of the WoW is quite persuasive. In that vein, I would not want to come across as suggesting that Mormons should never buy Coke; that, I think, would work against the spirit of the revelation.

    madhousewife, that is part 2. Sorry.

  9. Fair enough.

  10. EdwardJ., apologies. I obviously neglected to finish my sentence. That evil designs are part of ‘corporate America’ does not mean that we should just accept that state of affairs. One possible implication of D&C 89 for contemporary Mormons is that we should actively resist this type of corporate impulse. As I observed in the footnote above, I do not expect us to be powerful enough to change this state of affairs but I do not think that our inability to change the world should necessitate our acquiescence. Further, I did not thank you for your comment. I meant to.

  11. Re: Widtsoe’s argument – maybe you’re not familiar with it, but he broke down the revelation pretty much verse by verse and addressed the conspiring designs bit.

    I’m not going to disagree with you here, but just note anyone who thinks it’s an overzealous interpretation of the WoW that would wisely exclude caffeine must also think this post is off it’s rocker.

    Fact, caffeine is addictive. Likely libelous defamation, Coke is conspiring with evil designs in their hearts.

    Caffeine is addictive, and Widtsoe was right on target when he said (paraphrasing) that the WoW says nothing about caffeine but when considering the principles in the WoW a Latter-day Saint would be wise to apply the counsel of the Lord and avoid it. Elder Widtsoe didn’t make it a commandment, but he said wise Latter-day Saints who wished to apply God like principles really should hold themselves to that standard.

    He also made direct connections between business/marketing of unhealthy food and conspiring designs like you have here. If we want to attract some media attention, just let others know that we have scripture that we think says Coke is conspiring with evil designs!

  12. kaphor, it is true that I have not read the whole book but it would not surprise me if we (Widtsoe and I) were in agreement. As you have probably guessed my target is not Widtsoe at all nor is it to justify caffeine use, rather I merely wanted to try to think through the implications of those early verses in light of some of Coke’s recent actions. It sounds like Widtsoe and I would have been on the same page.

  13. Chapter 4, you can google, here’s how he opens the section (it’s just a wee-bit more harsh!):

    Fraud and deceit have been practiced since the beginning of history. The ancient Egyptians bought expensive hair restorers made chiefly of date refuse; and we of this day pay a ten-fold price for flavored chalk labeled fancifully as a magic tooth powder. Brass has been called gold; glass has been sold as diamonds; and poison has been hawked as excellent food. The story of fraud throughout the ages forms an ugly chapter of human history.

    Those who practice fraud are evil-minded, a menace to society, whose subtle designs are against the welfare of their fellowmen. Without hesitation they deliberately and knowingly sacrifice others to secure their own purposes. They are impelled by insatiable, merciless selfishness and greed. Avarice is their god. They gloat over their profits as their dupes lose money, health and often life. They frequently “conspire” together to accomplish their “designs”. They are many times more dangerous than the open enemy.

  14. I teach a money management class in High School and spend a little time talking about the manipulative and deceitful nature of a lot of advertising. I usually start out with a few coke commercials as they are so obviously manipulative. I do agree that Zion can not have the deceitful practices that a large number of corporations rely on to turn a profit. I have wondered at times what advertising would be like in Zion or if it would exist at all.

  15. John Taber says:

    And yet KSL carries (or carried) ads from companies like NuSkin, Kennecott and Geneva Steel that the other Salt Lake stations wouldn’t touch.

  16. I am particularly disgusted by advertising aimed at children, particularly advertising for food (and, most egregiously, fast food). Those happy meals and their toys approach evil status.

  17. Rigel Hawthorne says:

    If you haven’t seen this cleverly animated anti-soda video, its worth a look. It takes the adorable Coca Cola polar bears and gives them the ailments that all too many human consumers can tie to sugary beverages. http://www.therealbears.org/

    I went through the Carl’s Jr drive through with a group and ordered seven burgers and seven waters, and heard the worker distinctly cluck disapproval, but hey…you go without the stuff for awhile and you don’t really miss it.

  18. Soda evil
    Happy meals evil
    Advertising (mostly) evil

    Call me crazy, but it sounds like we trade one set of out of fashion no-nos for new age post modern ones. Before it was poker cards, Sunday picnics in the canyon, R-rated movies spoken against by Mcconkie and the like….lets not even get into gays, feminists and intellectuals, and now it’s the evils of consumerism.

    I’m not trying to make an argument here though as part of this is in jest, but I can hope we see its not just the old fuddy duddy conservatives who make big hedges around the law.

  19. I’m not going to say anything about soda or happy meals but consumerism or materialism is very clearly talked about throughout the scriptures, and its a major theme in the Book of Mormon.

  20. Senile Old Fart says:

    To me, the prohibitions serve mainly as boundary markers. The supposed health connections a product mostly of Widtsoe’s fine mind (although I have yet to find credible evidence of tobacco’s health benefits). Hot caffeine prohibited, yet cold caffeine not? Jasmine “tea” prohibited – just because it is called “tea?” Grenadan “cocoa tea” (hot chocolate) also prohibited for the same reason?

    As a not too subtle segue, a prohibition on consumption of beer can’t be fairly inferred from the text: it is neither wine nor strong drink – plus barley drinks are specifically endorsed in verses ignored between the prohibitions and the run without weariness promise. (I doubt Postum was implied.) Just payback from HJG for Utah’s vote to end prohibition.

  21. Geoff - A says:

    Coke might conspire subtly in US market, but in some third world markets they are much more open in their conspiring. I understand for example that in Mexico and south America they pay a kickback to school principals to have coke provided by the school to the children. Resulting in greatly increased childhood obesity which continues into adulthood. Obesity is one of the top 4 causes of premature death in the world.

    Sadly american corporations are notorious for exploiting unregulated markets with their amoral ersion of free enterprise.

  22. Kaphor (#18), point well taken. I should have been more specific. Soda and happy meals and advertising are not bad in themselves. But I think we can all agree that enriching oneself by deliberately inducing someone else to engage in self-harming behavior is not very laudable. Especially where that “someone else” is a person who has not yet developed the cognitive ability to discount the enticement based on the predatory motive behind it.

    Am I wrong here?

  23. Their attempt to exploit or manipulate our sense of nostalgia and friendship in a bid to make a profit is a corruption of the type of food-sharing practices that constitute the Kingdom of God.

    There’s nothing wrong with this. Perhaps I am wrong, but I see this as a jab against sales techniques, an issue different from any given product’s ingredients.

    Where exploitation or manipulation exists (i.e., one of the evils and designs of conspiring men), Zion cannot.

    This is a very broad statement. It seems even zion exploits God for salvation and exhaltation.

  24. I have said for a long time that we don’t understand D&C 89 nearly as well as we tend to think we do. This post highlights one of the reasons I believe that is so: We have defined “evil designs” so narrowly that we miss widely diverse manifestations of it all around us.

    and, yes, exploitation and manipulation for personal gain at the expense of another is, perhaps, the clearest antithesis to Zion I can imagine.

  25. From the hinterlands says:

    In response to #19:
    How can one read the warnings against materialism in the scriptures without thinking about the multi-billion $$$$$$ City Creek Center? There are millions of people in this world who are suffering and dying who could have been saved with the big bucks spent on this monstrosity built to worship the gods of consumerism.

  26. What if we were to take this a step further? How about the makers of video games “conspiring” to make their games (for adults, targeted to children, btw), more addictive?


  27. A lot to think about here, Aaron. I had breakfast this morning with one of the advertising guys for the Coke campaigns. Super nice guy, and yeah, he has targets to meet. Don’t we all?

    I agree that a lot of advertising is evil (I wrote about it a bit here: https://bycommonconsent.com/2010/01/29/satan-and-i-have-the-same-job/), and one of the reasons I opened my own shop is so I can pick my clients and not have to work on products/campaigns I don’t believe in.

    BUT, if we’re saying advertising is evil, I think we need to also apply that to almost every industry nowadays. I’m typing this on a Macbook made under horrible conditions in China. The shoes I’m wearing are probably similar. The Ben and Jerry’s I’m eating is totally organic, and totally bad for me!

    I remember one of the other permas once saying that these issues are the unavoidable evils of our generation, from which we must be cleansed by the atonement. Or reject modern life altogether, which I don’t think is God’s intent for us. (He invented the internet so we could watch General Conference, even if the only way to access it is on machines built under very bad conditions in the developing world).

  28. Ray, to use another example, children will exploit parents at their expense, yet the family is an eternal unit. It’s all about perspective. Hopefully you are seeking to exploit and manipulate any evil purposes in your life for good. The two ideas are married together these days.

  29. Edit: …any evil purposes for good in your life.

  30. #28 – Please explain more clearly what you tried to say in the sentence you corrected in #29. Honestly, I have no idea what you meant.

  31. Kyle, appreciate the response. I would not want to say advertising is evil and had hoped that I avoided some of that rhetoric. If it were evil to advertise then Mormon.org should make us wince. By using the quote from Berry I tried to recognise that our society is incredibly destructive and that it is almost impossible to extricate ourselves from that destruction. If that is true, and it seems like we would agree, then I suppose the question becomes: can we limit our participation in those processes? That is, I think, what D&C 89 calls us to do. In fact, the example of trying to organise your life in such a way so that you can choose your clients is a great example of heeding that counsel, IMO.

  32. This is an interesting line of thinking that, as pointed out by many, can go beyond food and beverage to virtually any of the material aspects of our lives. The video gaming industry can be dinged for its violent games. The clothing industry can be dinged for trying to get us to buy that which is more expensive than we really need and then to change it out frequently. The toy industry can be blamed for producing toys of low human development potential made of plastics that hurt the earth. The automobile industry gets credit for polluting the environment. Ikea for making furniture that does not endure, thus filling landfills while ensuring repeat purchases for themselves. And on and on the list could go. Indeed, even the buy local and organic campaigns that would seem to operate in a Zion like way are often shown to have a larger ecological footprint than bananas shipped to the US from Ecuador.

    So, while I largely accept the argument, I wonder where the practice begins and ends with me personally. I also wonder what a world with totally conscious capitalism would look like. Would the only clothing produced be plain or would there exist room for more artistic fashion? Would video games be banned as time wasters all together or would we simply not have video games that are violent, focused on unhealthy sexuality, or otherwise destructive? Would we rid ourselves of ice cream in favor of green smoothies? Would dangerous sports such as football be replaced by curling?

    Given that the possibilities for living simpler and more emotionally healthy lives are limitless here, I do wonder what is a healthy (God-like) balance? Somehow, moving towards a Puritanical abstention from all things which may be considered mentally or physically unhealthy seems to me to be so rigid as to take much of the joy out of life. On the other hand, I tend to agree that most of us have bought rather whole-heartedly into unhealthy consumption patterns that probably merit a course correction.

  33. Let me get a little more specific on what I mean. I don’t think that advertising is inherently bad, so let me explain. As I teach students how to manage their money I am trying to teach them to be far more rational about a cost benefit analysis of whether a product is worth purchasing or not. The problem is that a lot of advertising is not helpful in this regard and often harmful. Much of advertising is not informative into what a product can do for you but is often hiding the costs while either exagerating the benefits or completely lying about nonexistant benefits through implication or through psychological conditioning.
    While coke might be a tasty treat from time to time (one which I have occasionally) It is definitely not what the advertising has implied over the last several decades. Coke is definitely not a religion or philosophy as implied by its old tagline “The Coke side of Life”. It is not the way to happiness as openly stated by the current tagline “Open Happiness”, and it is definitely not the way to peace and harmony as implied by many of their commercials, which I can point to on youtube if anyone is interested. It is a sugary drink, and only that.
    Advertising that is honestly informative would be helpful and I can see that as being a part of zion. But much of advertising in its current form sells a dream that is non existant that products bring happiness or status (something else the Book of Mormon decries).
    The term conscious capitalism is an interesting one and one that would lead to far more efficiency in production to benefits that people receive for higher quality of life. If advertising was helpful to this and not a barrier to this it would be a good thing.

  34. Food is addictive and eating too much of it or a diet based on the wrong foods causes obesity, serious disease and early death. It’s a much, much bigger problem than caffeine or sodas but oddly one rarely addressed in Mormon circles with their sugared punch bowls, green jello, plates of cookies and jumbo sized garmies.

  35. Sharee Hughes says:

    When I watch TV, I have a book handy, which I read when a commercial comes on. Most advertising is manipulative and often it always seems to me that companies must think I’m pretty stupid if they think I’m going to buy their products based on some ridiculous ad. I don’t drink Coca Cola. Caffeinated beverages make my heart beat faster, which scares me. Also, I don’t like the taste. In fact, I rarely drink soft drinks at all (my usual drink of choice is water). It’s not just the caffeine or the sugar, it’s the carbonation. So I don’t understand how Coca Cola can advertise their beverages as “healthy” even if they take the calories out. A soft drink now and then will not jeopardize a person’s health, but those who drink even just one or two every day are not being health conscious.

    I try to eat a balanced diet and don’t eat (or drink) a lot of sugar. But I am still overweight! Must be the butter. :-)

  36. #32. What, a world without Halo? Perish the thought for myself.
    On a more serious note, I myself cringe whenever I read of complaints regarding violent video games, advertising for foods that in the end may prove more harmful than otherwise (geez, even Outback?), or anything else where it seems there are those who want someone else to control their decisions by outlawing whatever offends. Yes, agency can be very daunting but didn’t we agree to come here so we could exercise agency?
    However, I must disclose I was born and raised in Las Vegas, a town built on appealing to everything other than righteousness.
    On another note, there’s an excellent article in the Sperry release dealing with the D&C which discusses the WoW and early efforts by Church members to relate it to health.

  37. Does anyone have a link to Widstoe’s connection between caffeine and the WoW?

  38. Norman (32) and Sam K (36), I agree that the line of how much we allow the strong to prey on the weak is hard to draw. (Or, perhaps better said, the line of how much we allow profiteers to gain from selling unhealthy wares.)

    At the one extreme, nobody is in favor of allowing drug dealers to sell smack in elementary schools. And at the other end, there will be little opposition to distribution from a neutral source of information about options. There is a line somewhere in the middle of how far we will go to protect people from themselves. Usury, no. Payday lending, yes. Uzi, no. Hunting rifle, yes. Amphetamines, no. Dexatrim, yes. Cyanide, no. Sugar Blasters, yes.

    The fact that the line is hard to draw doesn’t mean there should be no line. (I frequently hear from small-government types that x government program is wasteful or inefficient; therefore said program—and most government functions—should be scrapped. Whoa, tiger!)

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