That warm, soothing sip of coffee to start my day – it’s been part of my morning ritual for well over a decade. (Since then, I’ve only given it up while pregnant with my daughter; thankfully, the smell made me nauseous during my entire first trimester.) For years, I can remember being half-asleep, eyes barely open, as I carefully scooped in the grinds, pressed the red switch and impatiently waited for the coffee to brew. And then my husband bought me a Keurig, which produces a perfect cup of Joe with a quick pop of a pod and a pull of a lever. Although I never drink more than two cups (and only in the morning, or else I lie awake, heart racing, thinking, Why did I drink that?), I religiously rely on my daily caffeine consumption to shed the morning chill, wake me up and get me going.
I’m hardly alone, according to Murray Carpenter, freelance journalist and author of Caffeinated: How Our Daily Habit Helps, Hurts, and Hooks Us. He writes, “Let’s get personal. This substance courses through my veins as I write these words. It is a drug, and I have been under its influence … for the last 25 years. And I’m in good company.” A self-proclaimed “omnivorous and enthusiastic caffeine user” (coffee is his preferred “delivery system”), Carpenter’s book is a detailed, data-filled narrative about caffeine in every form: chocolate, coffee, tea, soda, energy drinks, liquor, even chewing gum. Every page is brimming with information – whether a historical tidbit or study or data about cost, consumption, production or regulation of the drug that seems to be added to almost every type of consumable.
I’ll be honest: The facts and figures are a lot to take in. While reading I at times toyed with pouring myself a Diet Coke or another cup of Joe just to stay alert. Nonetheless, the book delivers on its promise, offering surprising, interesting facts about caffeine, which is a bitter, white powder, or, as Carpenter calls it, “the object of our affection – the drug that makes us energetic, sociable, and happy” – and all the ways it helps, hurts and hooks us.
The author takes the reader on a tour of the world history of caffeine – starting from “the birthplace of chocolate culture,” the Soconusco region of Mexico, where the Izapans, Mayans and Aztecs of some 3,500 years ago relied on the cacao drink, which is said to have as much caffeine as a Red Bull or shot of espresso (about 75 milligrams). Carpenter’s history lessons span the globe, detailing his visit to a teashop in Beijing and then to a coffee plantation in Colombia. The one place he’s not allowed to enter, though, is the world’s largest caffeine factory, in China, which shipped 4.7 million pounds of caffeine (in the form of synthesized powder) to the U.S. in 2011.
The writer comes back to the U.S., to the Vermont headquarters of Green Mountain Coffee and Keurig (fun fact: The inventor of the single-serving coffee K-cup made his first fortune by inventing the E-Z Wider rolling papers for marijuana) and then to the NVE Pharmaceuticals in New Jersey, which makes 6-Hour Power and Stacker 2 Xtra, two of the nation’s best-selling energy shots.
Carpenter reminds us throughout the book that caffeine is indeed a drug, and like all drugs, it is not benign. To complicate matters, it’s nearly impossible to really know how much caffeine we’re typically ingesting; no agency regulates the amount of the drug in food and beverages. This doesn’t mean the Food and Drug Administration hasn’t made numerous attempts to control how much we get, especially in light of recent deaths caused by energy drinks pumped full of the drug.
This is an age-old regulatory battle, Carpenter shares with us — one that’s been going on since the early 1900s, starting with a famous trial against Coca-Cola. In brief, the government charged the company with marketing and selling a beverage that was injurious to health because it contained a harmful ingredient: caffeine. In 1909, Coca-Cola included a dose of caffeine equal to half a cup of coffee in each 8-ounce bottle of soda; that’s more than twice the amount of the drug in a 12-ounce can today. The soda maker won that case when the judge ruled that “Coca-Cola without caffeine would not be ‘Coca-Cola,’” and that the public would in effect be duped if the company sold the drink without caffeine. In fact, the name Coca-Cola comes from the words “coca” and “kola,” a caffeinated nut from Africa, which were part of the beverage’s earliest form.
Carpenter argues that without an understanding of how much caffeine you’re ingesting, you can’t control its benefits (the drug improves depression, cognitive function, fatigue, mood and athletic performance) or its dangers (insomnia, disrupted heart rhythm, headache and obesity, to name a few). He even goes so far as to devise a measure called a “Standard Caffeine Dose,” or “SCaD,” which he defines as 75 milligrams of caffeine, which is equal to a shot of espresso, one can of Red Bull or 20 ounces of Diet Coke. “It is these complicated and highly varied effects that make caffeine so hard to pigeonhole,” writes Carpenter. “And [these effects] go a long way toward explaining, why, for more than a century, American regulators have simply not known what to do with caffeine.”
Caffeine withdrawal may not be anything new – it’s even recognized as a syndrome in the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), the handbook of psychiatric disorders used by mental health professionals – but what is surprising is how little it takes to get hooked. If you abruptly cut out caffeine after drinking just 100 milligrams a day (equal to five to eight ounces of coffee, two cans of Diet Coke or two or three cups of tea) you may experience withdrawal symptoms, including headache, fatigue, irritability, depressed mood, nausea and muscle pain.
Carpenter doesn’t really set out to address how good or bad this ubiquitous drug is, but rather to give his readers the facts so that we can make up our own minds about what’s enough and what’s too much. For me, reading Caffeinated didn’t turn me off of my morning cups of java, but it did force me to think about what I’m putting into my body and whether I’m really as in control of this daily habit as I might think I am.