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.