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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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In a culture where we worry about unregulated chemicals and food additives, it’s shocking how little we know about one of the most common ones: caffeine. We spend a lot more time consuming the drug than we do thinking about it, says author Murray Carpenter. Meanwhile, none of the companies peddling it have been willing to talk about it. And the FDA, up until very recently, has been remiss in not regulating it.

“It is a topic that many of us feel we know a lot about,” Carpenter said. “But the more I got into it I found out that a lot surprised me.” What he found was a mixed picture: Caffeine isn’t all bad, but it certainly isn’t all good, either. And the information we need to maintain a healthy relationship with it is, for a large part, inaccessible to us.

I was several coffees in when I reached Carpenter to talk about his new book, “ Caffeinated,” which delves into the history, science and industry interests surrounding the mind-sharpening white powder. As befits two addicts talking about their shared addiction, things got a bit confessional. As such, this interview has been edited for length, clarity and personal details.

Is caffeine just another drug? Is it something that people are forming real addictions to? And if not, how do we distinguish it from something that is completely unregulated or, say, bought on the street?

Well, yes to your first question. It is just another drug. It’s been well-established for over a century that people know it’s a drug that has very predictable effects when you take it.

In terms of addiction, it’s really fraught, of course. It is certainly addictive in the sense that it has a number of characteristics that we associate with addictive drugs. You crave it, develop a tolerance to it, and certainly most people who are at least moderate to heavy users will undergo some withdrawal symptoms on ceasing its use. These are qualities that we associate with addictive drugs. There are some people who, of course, argue that without some kind of really negative social connotations, a drug doesn’t really deserve the term “addiction.” So some people like to call it a “mildly addictive” drug. This is to say people aren’t missing work because they’re jonesing for caffeine or holding up a bank or ruining their family relationships because they’re addicted to caffeine.

There are also some people who — and this is another characteristic of addictive drugs — either want to moderate or eliminate their consumption of caffeine for various reasons who have a hard time doing it.

Yeah, I’ve been there.

Right, I think a lot of people have. So why did you try to quit? Was it for pregnancy, for fun or for sleep?

No. I’ve just gotten to the point where I’ll get a headache if I don’t start my day with a cup of coffee, which makes me think it can’t be healthy.

So did you quit cold turkey?

I’ve never quit cold turkey. No.

Yeah, OK. But have you gone down to zero?

Not since I really became a daily coffee drinker. I can’t. 

And, you know, this is really interesting. This is one of the things. I think you’re aware of this, but I think for a lot of people, it’s almost like wallpaper. Not just physically in our brains and in our bodies, but the habit is so reflexive that people just tend to take their coffee every day. A lot of people who don’t think about it very much don’t remember the last time they didn’t have a cup of coffee. I’ve certainly talked to people who have for decades not skipped their coffee and still don’t think caffeine is a particularly big deal to them.