“Caffeine is a drug, so to admit that a drug is the primary attraction of any product is fraught with both regulatory and moral peril.”
The majority of Americans—and the citizens of many other countries—are under the influence of a drug almost every day. Legal, and entirely socially acceptable, caffeine is a popular stimulant that many adults, and not a few teens and children, never go a day without. Part of this acceptance is due to its natural presence in some of our most oldest and most popular foods and beverages: coffee, tea, and chocolate. But with the ability to extract or artificially synthesize caffeine comes the ability to add it to anything and everything, from juice, to gum, to prescription pharmaceuticals. That last one is regulated by the strictures that surround medications, but in most cases, caffeine is a largely unsupervised additive, and can even be sold alone as a straight caffeine pill without FDA approval. Yet most people cannot quantify how much caffeine they are consuming, partially because manufacturers are not required to disclose it. Journalist Murray Carpenter delves into the history of caffeine, explores the science we have about its safety, and investigates the current regulatory environment in the United States.
Carpenter begins with chocolate and tea, but the story quickly shifts to coffee, which was for many years the most popular form of caffeine in the United States. Each of these items has a rich and interesting story, and have been the subject of their own microhistories. Carpenter provides an overview, focusing on the evidence that caffeine was the driving force behind the popularization of these consumables. However, things really begin to get interesting when Carpenter delves into the modern caffeine boom, particularly the energy drink industry, and other products that rely on added caffeine. Carpenter visits factories and bottling plants, but is turned away from every caffeine synthesizing facility he tries to approach, be it in China or Germany. He does, however, uncover troubling evidence of unsanitary conditions at a major Chinese factory despite being denied entry.
In Caffeinated, Carpenter is out neither to demonize caffeine nor deify it. He simply wants to better understand its complicated social history as a legal stimulant, and explore the recent boom in caffeinated products that the loose regulatory environment has allowed. While Carpenter clearly finds the lack of regulation somewhat concerning, he is more interested in laying out the facts about the current situation than making arguments about what could or should be done. This hands off approach may help make the book more accessible to caffeine users who want to learn more about their drug of choice, but aren’t interested in being shamed for their habit. Given that Carpenter thanks caffeine in his acknowledgements for providing the “focus and stamina” to write the book, you know that shame isn’t what you are going to find here. On the positive side, Carpenter examines legitimate therapeutic uses for caffeine, using caffeine to enhance athletic performance, and the use of caffeine in the military. On the flip side, a full chapter is dedicated to the relationship between caffeine and panic, anxiety, and insomnia, all conditions which can be induced or triggered by overconsumption.
One of the most provocative arguments in the book is the comparison of caffeine to nicotine. The regulatory dance currently being done by beverage makers, who like to insist that caffeine is a flavouring agent, not a stimulant, is not unlike the subterfuge the tobacco companies went through as they tried to deny that the purpose of nicotine in their products was to keep customers coming back. While scientists quibble over whether or not caffeine can truly be termed addictive, it can definitely serve to reinforce habits and behaviours. Take the connection between soda consumption and obesity, and add it to the fact that eight of the top ten soft drinks contain caffeine, and you start to see how allowing caffeine in soda pop could be considered a public health issue not unlike the use of nicotine in cigarettes. While Murray is happy to air this theory and take it into consideration, it is not the driving force behind his narrative.
Caffeinated has no grand overarching thesis, except perhaps that caffeine is less well understood by consumers than it should be, thanks to poor labeling and regulation. This book at least will arm caffeine aficionados with the knowledge they need to make informed decisions about their own intake.
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