Carmen Rasmusen Herbert: Caffeine and controversy

Published: Sunday, Oct. 4 2015 9:33 a.m. MDT

Coca-Cola (Paul Sakuma, AP) Coca-Cola (Paul Sakuma, AP)

Forget the Kristen Stewart scandal. The talk among playgroups at the park is now: "Are you or are you not going to drink caffeine now that the church has said it’s OK?"

For the record, a blog post on mormonnewsroom.org reacting to the recent "Rock Center" television special on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints read, in part: “the Church revelation spelling out health practices (Doctrine and Covenants 89) does not mention the use of caffeine. The Church’s health guidelines prohibit alcoholic drinks, smoking or chewing of tobacco, and ‘hot drinks’ — taught by Church leaders to refer specifically to tea and coffee.”

In my opinion, it’s nothing new. In fact, the church's handbook has been exceedingly clear on this point for years: "The only official interpretation of 'hot drinks' in the Word of Wisdom is the statement ... that the term 'hot drinks' means tea and coffee."

We’ve known all along what the stance was. There is nothing in our Word of Wisdom that says you can’t drink a Coke. We are expected to be big boys and girls and make good decisions about our health all by ourselves.

The fact is, there are many other things about coffee that aren’t good for your health besides the caffeine, and there are many other things besides caffeine — such as sugar, for example, or corn syrup — in soft drinks that can be addicting or habit forming, too.

It comes down to what it’s always come down to: personal decision. And my personal decision is usually to avoid sodas altogether, but if ever I do have a craving for some carbonation, it’s usually a root beer.

My mom never bought caffeinated drinks growing up. We never thought there was anything really wrong with them; we just knew that she preferred water, whole milk, juice, or very rarely a root beer or 7-Up to a Coca-Cola. We didn’t order sodas when we went out to eat. And to be honest, I could never drink a full one myself, anyhow. Sodas were expensive, so they were saved for special occasions like birthdays or Christmas. (Still nothing like some Martinelli’s sparkling apple cider, in my opinion!)

But for some reason, we got on a caffeine-free Coca-Cola kick for a while. I don’t know why, but my mom started buying the big two-liter bottles, and we’d go through them pretty fast.

Then one day, my mom sat us around the kitchen bar. She told us a story of a family who used to buy non-alcoholic beer to take with them on vacations. She said that while they were members of the church, they were not appearing to live the standards we are taught. Then she pulled out the caffeine-free Coca-Cola. She said she wanted us to do what we thought was right, but that she didn’t want to buy the soda for our home anymore. She said she wanted us to avoid “even the appearance of evil” and then walked over to the sink and dumped a brand-new bottle down the drain.

You may be laughing right now. You may think that is downright ridiculous and WAY over the top. But that night stood out to me. My mom always said, “If ever there’s a question, err on the safe side.” Even if it’s the extremely safe side.

That being said, I have always had somewhat of a rebellious streak.

I remember my first Coca-Cola well. In fact, it was a very dramatic and controversial night for the Rasmusen family.

We were in Las Vegas staying with my mom’s sister for a few days. My mom had a wicked headache a few days before, and my aunt asked if she had taken anything for it. My mom said she usually took Excedrin, but didn’t have any. So my aunt took her to a Taco Bell and got her a Coke. I remember tsk-tsking as my mom gingerly sipped her soda and saying in a very sassy way, “Mom, you’re not supposed to drink caffeine.” Ignoring me, my mom continued to sip her Coke and I even snuck a few tastes here and there, much to her dismay.

Well, a few nights later my cousins and I were up watching a movie. My uncle asked what we wanted to drink. A rebellious thought popped into my head, and before I really knew what I was saying, I burst out, “I’ll have a Coke, please!”

My older, much more wise and strait-and-narrow sister looked at me in disbelief.

“You can’t have that!” she hissed. “We’re not allowed!”

“Uh-huh, mom said I could,” I said, which was a far stretch from the truth. I have no idea where the Molly went, but suddenly I was embracing the Jack side of Mormon, lies and all, and enthusiastically encouraged my confused uncle to pour me a glass on the rocks.

My sister cried.

These are funny memories for us now, but looking back in seriousness, I appreciate what my sister and mom were trying to instill in me. It’s not about whether or not you do or don’t drink Coke.

For me, obeying what The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints calls the Word of Wisdom has never been a trial or struggle. I’ve never felt I’ve missed out on anything. I’ve been the better for it. And even now that a church website has re-clarified the letter of the Word of Wisdom, it won’t change my choice of beverage when out to eat.

Root beer, as usual.

Carmen Rasmusen Herbert is a former "American Idol" contestant who writes about entertainment and family for the Deseret News.

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