Book Review: Murray Carpenter’s Caffeinated: How Our Daily Habit Helps, Hurts and Hooks Us

Caffeine. It is the most widely consumed drug on the planet, yet many of us know next to nothing about it.

Caffeinated.jpgWe know it’s found in our morning coffee, in the cola we get at the ballpark and in our poolside iced teas. But what about Orange Soda? Chewing gum? Women’s leggings? In fact, you can find caffeine in all of these products. Caffeine has gained across-the-board prevalence, mainly due to it’s unregulated nature. Most of us depend on the stuff in some way, whether it’s to wake up, to give us an extra boost before a run, or to pull an all-nighter before an exam. But how much do we know about where caffeine comes from? Look in your local convenience store, it’s wrought with products promising “energy boosts,” “natural energy” and a plethora of other ways of saying “it’s got lots of caffeine.”

Murray Carpenter explores caffeine’s cultural prevalence in his book Caffeinated: How Our Daily Habit Helps, Hurts and Hooks Us. In the book Carpenter discusses the traditional ways in which we humans have consumed caffeine throughout history; via coffee, chocolate and tea. His most interesting forays are found in his chapters describing the synthetic manufacture of caffeine, a bitter, white powder that is added to sodas and energy drinks, but is also found in some chewing gum -- Carpenter notes that this was a decision the Wrigley Company came to regret. Carpenter dissects how big companies have avoided governmental regulation over caffeine manufacturing by allowing the stuff to teeter between the designation of food additive and addictive drug. By skirting the edges of legality, caffeine manufacturing primarily takes place in massive facilities in China that have little or no oversight, and have been reported to be in putrid conditions. Caffeine itself may seem relatively harmless, save for jitters, but Carpenter reminds us that it only takes a spoonful of pure caffeine to kill. Popular consumption of caffeine has evolved from traditional coffee, to Keurigs, to MiO Energy syrups, these changes in caffeine consumption are driven by increasing prices of commodities, and Carpenter notes that the days of coffee’s dominance as our culture’s main source of caffeine are far behind us.

Do I think Carpenter’s book successfully dissects the issues surrounding caffeine in today’s culture? Yeah, I do, and I’d highly recommend this book to anyone with even a mild interest in food politics. Though, as a person who makes at least one stop a day to the Wise Bean or the Joint, it’s disheartening to see my beloved caffeine become such a nuisance. Why have a Red Bull when you could brew yourself a delicious cup of Ethiopian coffee? Who knows.

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