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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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Another question we now have to contend with is chemically synthesized caffeine: How concerned should we be about that? 

There’s an interesting question, and it’s also on the FDA’s plate. Now I don’t know if you’ve been following this, but FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg just got back from India and she had a press conference. A big initiative is to try to ramp up inspections on overseas pharmaceutical plants. And it’s no secret that the FDA has been way behind on this for a long time. They’re underfunded and they’re scrambling to keep up with some of these pharmaceutical plants. And it’s not just caffeine. The pharmaceutical industry has to a large extent been offshore.

So, I’ll answer your question two ways. One, synthetic caffeine versus natural caffeine, chemically, should be exactly identical. You could do stable isotope analysis or carbon dating to distinguish between the two, but I’ve seen nothing to suggest that physiologically they would have any different effect on you. If one has some impurities or the other has some impurities that would be in effect. But other than that, no. What little I saw of the Chinese caffeine industry I would say, maybe consumers don’t have as much assurance that their caffeine is coming from a clean plant as it might if it was made in the U.S.

So how about you? Did you try to quit while writing the book?

I did. I did. I quit. I was writing a chapter on withdrawal and I thought, “God, this sounds horrible. Can it really be this bad?” So I tapered and went down to zero and I didn’t really like it very much and I ramped back up. So, yeah. I did it.

Yeah, but you don’t recommend it, huh?

Not unless you have a great reason to do it. I do think I’ll do it again. One of the cool things about quitting is that you do pretty quickly reset your baseline. So from zero, a Coke or a Pepsi feels pretty great. A small amount of caffeine.

Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.