Having opined on caffeine for various publications, including the New York Times and Wired, Carpenter delivers a compelling compendium of facts and figures on this “largely unregulated drug.”
The author readily admits his addiction to the stimulant. While his favorite caffeine delivery system is coffee, others prefer sweet sodas, high-octane energy drinks, or caffeine-laced gum, pills or gels. “What few of us are willing to admit,” he writes, “is that the essence of our longing is this bitter white powder.” Carpenter blends intriguing historical episodes with interviews, accounts of treks to caffeine-related locations and a multitude of test results. The author’s barrage of facts and statistics is initially intriguing but eventually leaves readers buried within the aggregation of data. More gripping are Carpenter’s accounts of the long-running corporate marketing tactics designed to underplay caffeine’s ability to cause panic attacks, insomnia or anxiety—not to mention addiction. The author details the military’s ongoing search for products designed to keep soldiers “amped up” with caffeinated foods—e.g., a caffeinated apple pie in a package resembling a toothpaste tube. Carpenter uncovers other bizarre applications as well, such as caffeine-infused pantyhose that are marketed with the promise of weight loss. The author also recounts his visits to coffee farms in Guatemala, a coffee roasting plant in Vermont and the University of Maryland’s School of Public Health. Refused access to the world’s largest synthetic caffeine factory in China, Carpenter notes that the industry is far from transparent; inspections are rare, and conditions are not always sanitary. “Just three Chinese factories exported seven million pounds of synthetic caffeine to the United States in 2011,” writes the author, “nearly half of our total imports.”
Carpenter’s entertaining narrative dissects caffeine’s circuitous route into consumer culture and its tenacious hold on the human mind and body.