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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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How have they gone about doing that?

Well, I think the big tactic is just to ignore it, and when it comes up to simply say, “Caffeine’s safe. It’s been studied for a long time. Move along. Nothing to see here.” And I really don’t blame them, because it’s a tough conversation to have. But early in my reporting I approached both Coca-Cola and Starbucks as the exemplars of caffeine culture in the U.S. and said, “I’m not on deadline, I’d love to have a conversation face to face with someone about caffeine.” Neither of them would do it.

So before the FDA can get involved, it seems like there’s still a lot they need to investigate and understand. What are some of the big things they need to look into?

Great question. You probably know they had this workshop at the Institute of Medicine last summer, and they came up with an  executive summary recently. One of the big ones, with the energy products, is: What are the effects of the other, noncaffeine ingredients? They often have advertised very conspicuously taurine, B vitamins and amino acids, etc. So what is the effect of all of these ingredients, either additively or synergistically?

Another question is: How are these products being marketed to different populations? And what effect do they have on vulnerable populations, like children or pregnant or nursing mothers? What kind of physiologic responses can they have in naive users — people who aren’t used to using caffeine? There’s a lot of research to be done, believe it or not, on cardiovascular effects still, and some people are concerned particularly that there may be some people who have a particular genetic susceptibility to caffeine-related heart problems.

Are you confident that the FDA is going to be able to address these things, or be able to bring serious regulations into effect? Is it possible that there’s just too much to catch up with?

I think they’ve got a very full plate at this point. They’ve got a lot to catch up with. I think it will be a slow, deliberative process and I wouldn’t want to predict what the outcome would be. But I’d say the FDA’s got a lot on its plate.

You know, caffeine is a product that presents challenges unlike anything else, because it is a drug and we all are taking it daily, so it’s automatically in just a whole different category than anything else the FDA has to deal with. One of the really interesting things in terms of regulation that did surprise me in the process of reporting the book is how many of these same questions that the FDA is asking right now came up 100 years ago in the Chattanooga Trial in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Back when there was a whole lot more caffeine in soda.

Right. It was almost exactly like a Red Bull is today. And the questions are the same. Are the effects of caffeine different when you add them to a product such as Coca-Cola — which they were doing — versus when you drink it in coffee? Should we be more protective of children? And what is the role of the federal government in regulating this? It’s really remarkable how the parallels are there 100 years later.

And we still haven’t figured any of those things out. 

Yeah, it’s true. In the interim there has been some great research. Knowing what we know now with a lot more specificity about how caffeine affects us — for most of us, it’s probably not going to kill you, and it might even be beneficial. But a lot of those questions still linger today.