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The Truth About Caffeine: Why We Know So Little About Our Favorite Drug

Caffeine has a stronger hold on us than we realize, says author Murray Carpenter.

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You will hear this common perception, though, that it’s an unhealthy habit. And as you write, there is some evidence to the contrary …

You’re dialing in on it. All these questions are really great because I think a lot of us have this sense of unease. Well, we love coffee or we love caffeine, but we feel like, “Hey, maybe it’s not good for us.” So the question everyone wants to know is, what’s the verdict? Is it good for me or is it bad for me?

I think the simplest answer — and this is what you were getting toward, right? — the simplest answer is if you’re not pregnant or expecting or hoping to become pregnant, and you don’t have trouble with insomnia or anxiety, and you’re happy with your caffeine use, I’ve seen nothing to indicate that it’s going to shorten your life or make you less healthy. And, of course, then there are some things that suggest, specifically, that caffeinated coffee — and this is distinct from caffeine — may even have some beneficial health effects.

Is coffee even our main source of caffeine anymore?

It is. We’re taking more caffeinated soft drinks, by volume, and we’re spending more on them. But coffee remains the primary source of caffeine in our diet, by far and away, actually.

So it’s the rise of other foods and drinks being injected with caffeine that’s getting the FDA’s attention, and making people start to rethink things. Things like caffeinated gum … I think I even saw a caffeinated body spray once.

I’ve got that here on my desk. And you’re a caffeine user, so you would appreciate how unappealing this thing is. Right here in the brochure, it talks about how weak it is: “If you still don’t really get the boost you want, you may have just developed a high tolerance to caffeine, in which case we suggest abstaining from other caffeinated products for a week and trying Sprayable again.” Like, oh great, thanks, guys.

Yeah, that wouldn’t do anything for me. 

No. But in the event I quit for a week, I will try this Sprayable stuff.

Anyway, what FDA is concerned about is the new energy products that are appearing in many different forms. It was  Wrigley Gum that was sort of the straw that broke the camel’s back, even though there is nothing particularly new about caffeinated gum. As the FDA explained it to me, one of the biggest, most well-known corporations in the U.S. is putting out a caffeinated gum, it’s sort of time to say, “Whoa! Let’s take a better look at this.”

One of the things that surprised me in your book was how little we know about products’ caffeine content, and how much the content can vary. Is that going to be hard for the FDA to quantify?

Yes and no. This is something I’m absolutely fascinated with. I spent a lot of time talking to people about this, trying to get a sense of how well people understand how much caffeine they use and take. So the opportunity for FDA and the manufacturers of all these different products is anything to which you add caffeine, in which case it’s precisely calibrated. So it’s no trouble at all to say, “This product contains X milligrams of caffeine.” And I think whatever else the FDA is able to do to corral caffeine — and I think the options are sort of limited at this point — really strong, quantitative mandatory labeling would be a really great first step.