Ask most non-Mormons to describe The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (commonly known as the Mormon Church), and a variety of answers will be given. A few commonalities will stretch across most of the answers, including the belief that Mormons do not drink caffeinated beverages. About an hour ago, I would have included that assertion in my answer. However, like everyone else who believes that Mormons aren’t allowed to drink caffeine, I would have been incorrect. Mormons can and do, indeed, drink caffeine.
Moreover, according to a press release from 2012, official Mormon Church doctrine does not forbid caffeine.
Responding to an episode of NBC’s Rock Center with Brian Williams that spent the entire hour talking about the Mormon Church’s beliefs and practices, the Mormon Church issued a statement with some clarifications. Gently chiding Brian Williams and NBC, the press release points out that “despite what was reported, 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.”
If not for Brigham Young University, that five-year-old press release would’ve probably been confined to the dusty archives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints website devoted to press releases and official church news.
The largest religious university in the United States, BYU is owned and operated by the Mormon Church. Ninety-nine percent of the more than 33,000 students at BYU are Mormons. The honor code that all students are expected to abide by is in strict adherence with Mormon doctrine and teaching. What happens at BYU is reflective of Mormonism, in general. That’s what makes the news being reported by NPR newsworthy. According to NPR, “For the first time since the mid-1950s, students can buy caffeinated soft drinks at Brigham Young University’s dining halls in Provo, Utah.”
In a Q/A about the decision, BYU’s Dining Services explains, “In the mid-1950s, the director of BYU Food Services decided not to sell caffeinated soft drinks. This decision has continued on since that time. Until more recently, Dining Services rarely received requests for caffeinated soda. Consumer preferences have clearly changed and requests have become much more frequent.”
BYU’s Dining Services acknowledges that some are unhappy about the change. To those people, BYU’s Dining Services explains, “We realize that there are many choices to be made, and some are more nutritious than others. We strive to offer a variety of food choices and encourage our customers to make healthy choices. We encourage our patrons to visit the Dining Services website where a program is available to promote not only healthy eating, but also a healthy lifestyle. The program is referred to on the website as EAT: Eat, Act, Think.”
However, for the most part, it seems, the decision to sell caffeinated beverages at BYU is being met with applause among American Mormons. In fact, according to one Mormon writer, “there [is] much rejoicing. Not only, I think, among the current students at BYU, but among U.S. Mormons of all ages, because it’s one more confirmation that what most of them are already doing is kosher in the eyes of the Church.”
Jana Riess goes on to claim that “most American Mormons do consume caffeinated soda.”
Citing survey results that have yet to be released, Riess does reveal that “nearly two-thirds of currently identified Mormons have had caffeinated soda in the last six months.”
This isn’t so much a change in Mormon doctrine as it is a continued clarification and response to that clarification. Just because BYU students can now enjoy a Church-sanctioned Coke, that doesn’t signal that the Mormon Church is going to begin allowing Starbucks in the lobbies of their church buildings.