Caffeine as Our Drug of Choice

Every morning at 6am Pacific Standard Time you’ll find me in my kitchen in front of a silver machine concocting a cup of jump-start for my day. My well-used Gaggia Classic espresso machine relieves my caffeine deprivation every morning with an aromatic, high-octane blend of caffeine, water and milk. As I write this my 16-ounce unflavored latte steams by my right elbow.

I’m not alone when performing this ritual of drinking coffee before engaging my brain. 100 million Americans are also daily coffee drinkers and 60% of us consider coffee a mandatory part of our morning routine. There’s even a National Coffee Month each August to celebrate our addiction.

Although Americans purchase a large proportion of the world’s supply of coffee beans and are the home of Starbucks®, Seattle’s Best® and Dunkin’ Donuts®, we aren’t the world’s most dedicated coffee drinkers. In fact, we only rank 25th in per capita coffee consumption, out-caffeinated by the Top 5: Finland, Norway, Iceland, Denmark and the Netherlands.

Coffee is a definitely a worldwide beverage. Green, or unroasted coffee beans are the second most traded and valued commodity in the world, behind only crude oil. We call coffee “Java” because when coffee as a beverage first became popular in the 19th century the highest quality of beans came from the Philippine island of Java.

Why do we love coffee so much? Probably because it naturally contains caffeine, the most widely consumed stimulant in the world. Found in over 60 different plants, caffeine’s effect on the brain can be detected in amounts as low as 10mg, a fraction of the 100mg dose found in an average 8-ounce cup of brewed coffee.

As the most common psychoactive compound ingested in the world, caffeine is found in beverages all around the globe: coffee, tea, a South American drink called mate, and kola nut. Kola nut extract was originally added to carbonated beverages to flavor them, although today soda manufacturers use synthetic sources of flavoring and caffeine in their cola flavored products.

Enterprising entrepreneurs have added caffeine to other things besides soda. Need the pick-me-up quality of caffeine but don’t want coffee breath? Try one of the popular energy drinks like Red Bull® or 5-Hour Energy®. There’s even Stay Alert® chewing gum with 100mg of caffeine per stick, about the same amount found in a good ol’ cup of java. Not interested in drinking a beverage to get your day going? Wired Waffles® brings you 200mg of caffeine per waffle to jump-start your day or you can use their caffeinated pancake syrup.

If the thought of putting caffeine into foods bothers you, welcome to the club. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has concerns about the amount of caffeine in foods, particularly since waffles, pancake syrup, gum and candy are attractive to children.

As I sip my morning coffee, I wonder, “Should caffeine be allowed to be added to foods that don’t naturally contain it? Should we let other products besides our traditional beverages provide us with caffeine?”

One consideration is the fact that we vary in our sensitivity to caffeine’s side effects. Some of us can drink a pot of coffee and go right to sleep while others experience side effects like heart palpitations, tremor, anxiety and insomnia after only one cup. Some heart patients are advised to avoid caffeine completely because of the risk of increased blood pressure and heart rate.

The currently recommended limits of caffeine intake are 300-400mg per day in adults and 100mg daily in teens and young adults. The FDA is concerned about whether to approve food products containing caffeine as an additive because little is known about the effects of caffeine in small children, young adults, or in pregnancy.

In 2010 the FDA forced the withdrawal of caffeinated alcoholic beverages like Joose® and Four Loko® because of studies indicating that combined ingestion of caffeine and alcohol could lead to life-threatening situations. The FDA determined that caffeine consumption masks the sensory cues people use to track their level of alcohol intoxication. Young adults drinking the alcohol/caffeine combinations found in products like Four Loko® continued drinking well beyond what they usually drank with blood alcohol levels 2-3 times higher than those drinking beverages containing only alcohol.

You can find more information about caffeine in foods and other interesting topics on the FDA website under Consumer Updates: www.fda.gov/ForConsumers. Just don’t ask me any tough questions before I have my morning cup of Joe…

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