Caffeinated Thinking

Caffeinated Thinking

A Conversation with Murray Carpenter, Author of Caffeinated: How Our Daily Habit Helps, Hurts, and Hooks Us

Photo Credit: Untitled by Danielle Denham-Skinner

Peggy La Cerra: What percentage of Americans do you think are dependent on caffeine?

Murray Carpenter: I think that we need more research in this area—and dependence can be a tricky term—but it looks like most people are going to experience some degree of withdrawal symptoms even at regular doses of 100 mg daily. So, if that’s the case then my guess is that more than 80 percent of the population is taking a daily dose sufficient to produce withdrawal symptoms if they quit caffeine abruptly.

Do you think that it’s fair to say that we, the consumers, are self-deceptive about our caffeine consumption?

Yes I do, and I think that it’s understandable in many ways. When we talk to our children about drugs, if nothing else we say, “You don’t want to be dependent upon a drug.” Use the term “dependent” or “addicted”—whatever, choose your term—most of us who are regular chronic caffeine consumers feel great when we take it, and we feel lousy when we don’t take it. It has many of the patterns of a drug of addiction. It’s easier to say, “Oh, I like my coffee,” or “I like my Diet Coke,” than to say, “It’s all about caffeine for me.” So, yes, I think there is some self-deception because I think if you just attribute the essence of the desire to the drug caffeine, it’s harder to rationalize our cravings and enthusiasm for it.

Let me ask you about your sense of the deception in the caffeine industry. It seems that you’re really clear that there have been marketing deceptions played upon the consuming public.

I guess that I would say, in the broadest terms, that I don’t think the industry either discloses or discusses the importance of caffeine in their sales and marketing. I don’t mean this like it’s some vast conspiracy; what I mean is that it’s an uncomfortable discussion and one that they’ve been able to avoid having for a long time. As a result, I think that a lot of people are unaware of the degree to which caffeine itself is driving their consumption.

In Caffeinated, you introduced the concept of a SCAD—a Standard Caffeine Dose of 75 mg in order to make it easier for us to understand caffeine doses and to learn to use the drug most effectively. The SCAD notion seems to overlie the consumption habits of consumers well.

Yes, when I was doing research for the book, 75 mg seemed to be a number that came up over and over again. One of the problems that we have with caffeine is that it’s quite challenging, for many different reasons, to quantify the dose, and without quantifying the dose, it’s hard to optimize our use of the drug. For one person, a SCAD may send them to the moon, and for another person it won’t wake them up, but if we have a standardized dose at least we know what we’re talking about. It gives us a point of departure.

You said that you usually drink coffee made from Colombian beans, freshly ground in Waldo County, Maine. How many milligrams of caffeine—or SCADs—do you take each day?

Generally, between 300 and 400 mg, or about five SCADs per day. I should say that that’s a guess because the caffeine content of coffee is so variable. It’s an educated guess, though, because I have switched off for days at a time to other “caffeine delivery mechanisms,” so I’m pretty comfortable with that estimate.

Read Peggy La Cerra's insights into our collective caffeine-addiction in Caffeine: The Addiction We Share … and Don't Talk About.

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