Science Talk

Good News About Coffee And Amazing Skeptic Conference

In this episode, food ingredient expert Roger A. Clemens discusses research suggesting that coffee drinking has numerous beneficial health effects. Scientific American editor-in-chief John Rennie talks about pseudoscience and paranormal debunker The Amazing Randi's skeptic conference last weekend in Las Vegas. Plus we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. Websites mentioned on this episode include;;

Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American for the seven days starting January 24th. I am Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast, some good news about coffee from Roger Clemens, not the pitcher the Roger Clemens, versus Dr. Clemens. He has got the good news about coffee – not like bad news about coffee would stop you from drinking it, but you can drink it guilt-free for the most part. And Scientific American editor-in-chief John Rennie talks about the recent skeptic conference he attended and spoke at in Las Vegas, home of the cold science of statistics. Plus we will test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. First up, Roger A. Clemens. He is an adjunct professor in the School of Pharmacy at the University of Southern California and he is a regular columnist at [the] publication Food Technology, where he recently wrote a piece called, "Coffee and Health, Surprisingly Good News." The column summarizes findings presented at the recent International Conference on Coffee Science in France. I caught up with Clemens in Irvine, California.

Steve: Hello Dr. Clemens. How are you today?

Clemens: Good morning Steve.

Steve: Coffee for the last few years has really been getting a lot of good press compared to, you know, some negative press and some good press in the years before that. Has it just been a function of more research being done?

Clemens: Research in the food in relation to health has grown considerably and obviously the research here for coffee is part of that.

Steve: Let's talk about some of those specifics related to specific conditions that are in your article, and for most of these things, we're usually talking about a moderate coffee intake, something like three, four, or five cups a day.

Clemens: Indeed, we will put ndash; moderate cup of coffee, we can have some benefits or health benefits associated with them. On the other hand, in some of the epidemiological data and even some of the prospective cohort data, some of the outcomes really require as much as 10 cups of coffee a day.

Steve: Alright, and when you get to those higher levels, you might see some effects that you don't necessarily want, like, you know, just jitteriness to a big degree.

Clemens: Yes. Every component in every food has its ups and it has its downs. For some people they may, well, react in having the jitteriness and the tachycardia, the nausea, and the hyperventilation with large doses of coffee. Others, on the other hand, seem to tolerate it quite well and in those individuals appear, in some of the research studies that have been published in the peer-reviewed literature suggest, they may have some benefits. But typically, to your earlier comment, we typically see benefits in the three to four to six cups of coffee a day.

Steve: Okay, so let's talk some specifics. You cited reduced risk of adult diabetes associated with drinking coffee.

Clemens: So, there have been a number of prospective studies conducted over the last 10 or so years, reported basically in the literature in the last five years. Those studies—about two-thirds of them—are associated with or demonstrate actually or suggest that there was an inverse relationship between the coffee consumption and diabetes. Inverse relationship means that if you consume more than three to six cups of coffee a day for prolonged periods of time, that your risk of presenting [with] type 2 diabetes is markedly reduced, so that's the inverse relationship.

Steve: And that looks like it's a caffeine-free association, i.e., actually the other ingredients in coffee, the other compounds in coffee and not the caffeine.

Clemens: It may well be those other compounds and how the coffee is actually brewed or how the coffee is actually prepared.

Steve: You also say [there's] some evidence for reduced cancer risk that's probably also associated with the presence of the antioxidants in coffee.

Clemens: There are so many components in coffee. To know better, [whether] it's actually specific to the antioxidants, has not been clearly delineated. What we do see is that those who drink coffee are at a lower risk versus those who don't drink coffee and the chance of presenting symptoms, say colorectal cancer or hepatic cancer or any type of hepatic or liver injury. So, it's very, quite interesting to see what coffee and some of its components may have. Again, it comes back to, now one of these components that [of] how the coffee is actually prepared.

Steve: You bring up an interesting point. Coffee is an amazingly complex beverage.

Clemens: It is an extraordinarily complex beverage, not quite as complex to [as], say, in orange juice or fruit nectar, yet there [are] components in there that really have drug-like or pharmacological-like properties and some of those properties may clearly be identified. Other properties have not been identified. Having identified some of those properties helps us to understand how caffeine and some of these other components may work or may not work.

Steve: And clearly caffeine is one of those that has definite pharmacological properties.

Clemens: It does indeed. Caffeine is clearly a drug. At some high doses what you want is, consuming, suppose 200-mg a day, which is more than three cups of coffee a day typically. Indeed the caffeine at these levels can function as a drug and work as a drug on a variety of organ systems.

Steve: And one of the studies, or one of the results that you discuss in the column, and that is, a caffeine-associated result is a reduced Parkinson's disease risk.

Clemens: These kinds of data all come out of the Asian environment, the compared number of a large number of individuals who presented [with] the disease and those who did not present with the disease relative to consuming, say, three to four cups of coffee a day. These kinds of studies were also evaluated here in United States, i.e., with a nurse’s health study that was over a 16-year period. I also looked at a study called [the] Cancer Prevention Study, which involved a large number of individuals—I think over 500,000 individuals, of men and women here in United States—who [which] examined coffee consumption relative to the presentation of Parkinson's disease and mortality. It appears in these large studies—mine and these epidemiological studies and not clinical studies—the data would suggest that there was an active inverse relationship between the presentation of Parkinson's disease and the consumption of coffee. And [the] earlier comment as well that how caffeine may work as a drug, part of this is we understand neurochemistry, that it's how caffeine affects the function of the brain. that It may well be that there are some components – either caffeine directly or somewhat metabolized, because caffeine is metabolized in the liver – that it may actually have some impact on how the brain develops and how it presents, the receptor sites that are there [are] really unique to caffeine because of what we know the pharmacological impacts may be. We also see that, in fact, in some cases this effect be [is] modulated differently in men and in women. The various scientists who studied this suggest this may be some estrogenic effect. The clarity or the points of discussion and the points that need further investigation have not been delineated, but it's interesting to speculate at this time that – how to identify and how these caffeine and some of its components behave neurologically to prevent the risk of the disease.

Steve: So, still a lot of research to do obviously. If coffee were just discovered, how do you think it would be received, if let's say, [it] were discovered and then analyzed prior to being released as a popular beverage.

Clemens: That's a very intriguing question. If coffee were just discovered and analyzed and released as a beverage, I would suspect that although coffee is natural under the current regulations, it may not be on any market in the world from [a] regulatory prospective because of this protested point of pharmacological impact.

Steve: So, it may still be under study for another 15 years before the FDA decided to release it to the public and then maybe by prescription only.

Clemens: Well, it's intriguing to think about that.

Steve: Let's talk for just a moment about something that I have noticed and [I'm] sure [a] lot of people [have] noticed, that when people go into some of the more popular coffee stores in the country, coffee bars, a lot of what they are buying that they might think is a cup of coffee, it's actually a milkshake. There are some concoctions that you can find at Starbucks, for example, that must have 800 calories in it. Now, your are not going to get the same kind of health benefits as a cup of black coffee might have from downing two or three of these a day.

Clemens: Indeed, that's an interesting remark and not to pick on Starbucks, but just the coffee industry at large, there are various cocktails that they have become so popular with the American public and I think internationally. Indeed, the potential health benefits of coffee by itself may be compromised by the other components that are added, though the full-fat milk for example is a cracky or even the various flavors in the high carbohydrate content. Clearly, when you start looking at these cocktails, which is again, in the American public, and even children have come to appreciate the calorie load themselves, offset, attempts to offset the health benefits on the other end.

Steve: Dr. Clemens, thank you very much for you time. I really appreciate it.

Clemens: You are very welcome.

Steve: Roger Clemens' column on coffee is available in the January issue of Food Technology, published by the Society for Food Science and Technology's Institute of Food Technologists. It's free at

Now it's time to play TOTALL.......Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories. Only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL.......Y BOGUS.

Story number 1: Speaking of coffee, material scientists have created a self-cleaning coffee cup.

Story number 2: A female chimp at a sanctuary in Louisiana had a baby chimp, even though all the male chimps had been vasectomized.

Story number 3: Three species of tropical beetles never before seen north of Florida have been found on the streets of New York City during this virtually snowless winter.

Story number 4: The Weather Channel and a U.S. senator are in a nasty war of words over global warming.

We will be back with the answer, but first, Scientific American editor-in-chief John Rennie spent the weekend on [at] a conference devoted to skepticism, and what better place to hold a skepticism conference than Las Vegas, the place where dreams go to get slapped around. Anyway, to find out more I called John upon his return to the innocent wonderland, i.e., New York.

Steve: Hi John, how are you?

John: Hi Steve.

Steve: So, you are just back from Vegas. I hear you were splitting fives at the black jack table and really ticking a lot of people off.

John: Steve, what can I tell you? I am a whale in the Vegas.

Steve: So, what exactly were you doing [t]here and what do you have to report to our audience.

John: I am freshly returned from the Amazing Meeting Five. This is the fifth of the meetings with the skeptic community, organized by the James Randi Educational Foundation, and the theme of this year's meeting was skepticism and the media.

Steve: And James Randi, of course the Amazing Randi …

John: Amazing Randi, very well known as somebody who has been busting flimflam artists, psychics, basically for many years, he is a pain of Uri Geller, somebody who has made his reputation as an enemy of all kinds of paranormal con artists.

Steve: Right, so hence the name of the conference, The Amazing.

John: Exactly.

Steve: So, what exactly was going on there at the Amazing Five?

John: Well, it was a very, very entertaining meeting—gathering of 800 skeptics—which at one point of the meeting they were saying was the largest skeptics meeting that has ever been held, which was interesting.

Steve: How do you not have a two-hour debate then, when somebody makes a claim [like] that at a skeptics meeting?

John: I think every once in a while, they are just sooner going to take something on faith or maybe they just researched it vigorously after the fact. That I don't know. This is my first one

Steve: Okay.

John: (laughs) But they had a great selection of guests who were coming in and talking about a lot of different subjects – about both credulous subjects that are in the media and how they often get covered, and also really subjects relating to science and [the] future of science. So, it was great. So, we had, for example, Michael Shermer, who is the president of the Skeptics Society and a columnist for Scientific American. He was writing about the neural evolutionary roots of economic behavior, which is something he has got a book in the works on. Eugenie Scott was there talking about the history of the evolution/creationism conflicts and [the] history of scientific creationism and of course, the Keith Miller, the Dower case, which is very much in the news. We had had a new person filled from M.I.T. He was there talking about [an] amazing project that he is overseeing involving the creation of these things called fab labs. Fab labs are basically fairly low-cost prototyping that make it possible for anybody, even in children, to basically come up with an idea for something and then just immediately do that, and it's really something that has a potentially revolutionary implications for innovation and future of technological development and economies. Penn and Teller were there to, I think, bring a little more entertainment to all of it. The psychologist Richard Weisman was there telling us about the search for the funniest joke, which I don't know was entirely successful in coming up with a truly funny joke, but still that was very good.

Steve: Yeah, we lampooned that search in the magazine three or four years ago.

John: That's right, but it was very good. Dr. Phil Plait—who is well known as the bad astronomer doing the bad astronomy Web site and so forth—he was there talking about the people who believe that the moon landing was all a hoax.

Steve: That is bad astronomy.

John: That is bad astronomy. He was answering a lot of the usual objections, the bad evidence that the people present.

Steve: Alright.

John: And, Adam Savage of the TV show MythBusters was on too, talking about that. MythBusters is actually a fairly potent force for the subject of skepticism and scientific investigation, and we even had Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who are the creators of South Park, and Penn Jillette was introducing them. We felt that they were actually the most powerful voice of skepticism in the country in the past five years

Steve: Yeah, they have done a lot of debunking on South Park. For example, John Edward, the episode where John Edward is sort of taking a test for talking to the dead allegedly.

John: Now, that's right. Well, in fact, you know, Penn Jillette singled out that particular thing that they had done is the best debunking of John Edward, and onstage, Trey and Matt were actually acknowledging that really they cribbed everything that they had Stan saying from Randi's comments on his own Web site about that.

Steve: Interesting, and what were you talking about there?

John: Well, I was talking about Scientific American's own history of debunking over the years, and particularly I was focusing on back in the 1920s when Scientific American put together these investigative committees to check up on both a particular medical fraud called the electronic reactions of Abrams, and also this investigation of spiritualism that it was doing with Harry Houdini.

Steve: And did we offer some kind of a prize back then?

John: Yes. Actually we were offering $5,000 dollars in prizes – two $2,500 dollar prizes, one [of] which would go to the first persuasive photograph of some sort of ectoplasmic emanation and the another $2,500 for some other physical evidence, some physical demonstration to the satisfaction of the investigative committee.

Steve: So that $5,000 dollars was put in the bank in 1920 and we are all getting paid off the interest.

John: (laughs) They never did pay that out. Actually, it's funny. In a sense, James Randi is carrying on the tradition of that today, because after [for] some time now, he and the educational foundation have been offering their own million dollar challenge. Basically, they've thrown down the gauntlet to John Edward, Sylvia Browne, and Uri Geller, and all the other psychics out there. A basic thing that all they have to do is just demonstrate their ability under the controlled setting that the foundation will set up and they can walk away with a million dollars, and so far, none of them are stepping forward to take that challenge, which will actually leads to maybe the biggest piece of news that came out of the meeting was an announcement by James Randi, that they have decided to step up the pressure associated with this million dollar challenge. So far, basically they put the challenge out there and they have been fairly passive about leaving it to these psychics to step forward, and now it sounds like the James Randi Education Foundation is going to put a lot more pressure on these psychics, more directly challenging them to come forward and do this, and in fact, also starting to look into the question of whether there may be a class action suit that would be appropriate to bring against some kinds of psychics who have been making claims and accepting money for what are ultimately fraudulent claims of paranormal ability.

Steve: And we should also castigate any media outlets that put these people on.

John: Well, I think that's very much one of the messages that the Amazing Meeting wants to convey, is that far too much of the media does – just, become very credulous in the face of these claims. They treat it as though this is real. In fact, often that they would be just described as fake psychics. For example, one of the point[s] of the Randi Foundation would be, look, there are no real psychics. (laughs)

Steve: Is this an annual meeting in Vegas? Is it always in Vegas?

John: It is an annual meeting. This is the first time I have attended. I believe it has always been in Vegas, and I know they are planning to hold the next one there in next year. So, it's a really [a] lot of fun, and I would certainly recommend it to any other skeptically minded folks who are in the audience.

Steve: Sounds good. Thanks a lot, John.

John: Thank you Steve.

Steve: For more on the skeptics conference from John Rennie, check out his entry at our blog,

Now, it's time to see which story was TOTALL.......Y BOGUS. Let's review the four stories.

Story number 1: Self-cleaning coffee cup.

Story number 2: Female chimp has baby despite presence of only vasectomized males.

Story number 3: Three species of tropical beetles never before seen north of south Florida found on the streets of New York City.

Story number 4: U.S. senator and Weather Channel throwing lightening bolts at each other.

Time's up.

Story number 4 is true. Some heated exchanges recently about global warming between the office of Senator James Inhofe and the Weather Channel, which apparently thinks global warming is real, Inhofe not so much. It's all very bizarre and somewhat entertaining and you can read about it on our blog entry of January 18th,

Story number 1 is true. Researchers have come up with a self-cleaning cup. Microscopic pillars on the surface drive water away, taking dirt with it. Hopefully, the cup holds the coffee in one place long enough to drink it. You can hear more about the self-cleaning cup on the January 22nd edition of the daily SciAm podcast, 60-Second Science.

Story number 2 is true. A chimp at a place called Chimp Haven in Shreveport, Louisiana gave birth despite the lack of any males who had not had vasectomies. Well, sometimes those vasectomies just don't take. DNA testing is ongoing and the unlucky male will make a second trip to the operating room.

All of which means that story number 3 about the tropical beetles found in New York City is TOTALL.......Y BOGUS. But what is true is that there is a species of beetle that is as white as the driven snow and researchers have figured out what makes it so white has to do with the structure of the protein fibers in its scales. The finding could lead to whiter whites where whiter whites are wanted. For more, check out the January 18th news story, "Brilliant Whiteness of Strange Beetle Explained." That's on our Web site

Well that's it for this edition of the weekly Scientific American podcast. You can write to us at Check out news articles at our Web site,, the daily Scientific American podcast 60-Second Science is at the Web site and at iTunes, and check out Mind Matters, the new expert written seminar blog on the sciences of mind and brain that's updated weekly at the Scientific American mind Web site, For Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, I am Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

Web sites mentioned on this episode include;;

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