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Genius Java: Memory Boosting Coffee

SkepDoc's Corner

Harriet Hall

June 23, 2016

My local newspaper is an unending source of amusement in the form of ads for questionable health products—ads that demonstrate clever marketing tactics aimed at scientifically illiterate and gullible readers. Perhaps it is a waste of time to critique them, but I like to think that consumers can be educated about the deceptive methods these marketers use and can learn to think more critically about all such claims.

The latest travesty was a half-page ad for Genius Java with the headline “Skyrocketing Demand Expected For New Memory Boosting Coffee.” There is an appealing picture of two happy, alert elders cuddling and drinking coffee with the message “Iowa engineer invents new K-cup coffee that restores up to 15 years of lost memory and brainpower.” Without reading further, an astute reader’s antennae will already be twitching. If there were really a new discovery that restores lost memory, we would not be likely to first learn about it through a paid advertisement. How likely is it that it would be an engineer who made such a discovery? And how could you measure “15 years of lost memory”? Reading on, it only gets worse.

What Is It?

It is basically coffee in those convenient one-serving K-cups with vitamin B12 added. But not just any B12. They warn that most B12 supplements are the wrong form, containing poisonous cyanide. Over time, they can lead to “brain suffocation” (whatever that is!) and other health issues. Genius Java contains a safe and effective form of B12.

Marketing Ploys Dissected

What about Evidence?

They cite “30,000 patient case studies showing the ingredients in Genius Java may help improve your foggy memory.” That’s not true. A search of PubMed for clinical studies on caffeine and memory and on B12 and memory yielded 214 and 91 hits, respectively, and most of those hits were irrelevant. For example, one was on hydration and cognition and only listed caffeine as a possible confounding factor contributing to dehydration and one was on lithium and just happened to mention an increase of lithium side effects with high caffeine consumption.

As often happens, there is a kernel of truth behind their claims. Caffeine can enhance performance in various ways. (I know I feel smarter after my first cup of coffee in the morning!) And vitamin B12 deficiency can have serious consequences. Even a mild deficiency of vitamin B12 can cause problems with memory and thinking processes. And B12 deficiency is more common in the elderly.

If people are B12 deficient, they would benefit from supplementation, but there are better ways to get it. FDA-approved B12 supplements are available in a pure form with precise dosage. Supplying it in coffee would be more inconsistent, with dosage depending on coffee intake. If people are not B12 deficient, there is no reason to think they would benefit from supplements. They might, and it would be simple to set up a double-blind test comparing Genius Java to unsupplemented coffee. No such trial has been done, so we have no way of knowing if the coffee would help consumers in any way.

I was surprised by the claim that there is cyanide in most B12 supplements, but there’s a kernel of truth there, too. The most widely used form is cyanocobalamin, and when that is metabolized it releases a cyanide ion. The amount of cyanide is minute, far below toxic levels and far less than the amount of cyanide we ingest every day from our food. Many foods contain cyanide, with higher levels in certain healthy foods such as almonds, lima beans, and spinach. Our bodies eliminate cyanide easily, and it poses no health risk in small amounts. Other forms of B12 are cyanide-free, notably methylcobalamin. Methylcobalamin is recommended by questionable “authorities” such as Mike Adams (the Health Ranger of Natural News) and Peter D’Adamo (of bogus blood-group diet fame), but mainstream scientists have not found any evidence that it is superior to cyanocobalamin.

Conclusion

If you need a B12 supplement, Genius Java is not the best way to get it. If you are not B12 deficient, there is no need for supplements in any form. Genius Java makes unsupported claims. It is driven by marketing, not science. It’s probably not harmful except to the pocketbook, but in the absence of any evidence of actual health benefits, there’s no reason to prefer it to regular coffee.

In one sense it might actually make you smarter: if you can understand why its claims are questionable and can apply those lessons to other marketing claims.

Harriet Hall

Harriet Hall's photo

Harriet Hall, MD, a retired Air Force physician and flight surgeon, writes and educates about pseudoscientific and so-called alternative medicine. She is a contributing editor and frequent contributor to the Skeptical Inquirer and contributes to the blog Science-Based Medicine. She is author of Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon and coauthor of the 2012 textbook Consumer Health: A Guide to Intelligent Decisions.