Saturday, June 23, 2007

A Life of Caffeine

So I went to the doctor today (yes, on a Saturday) for a checkup. While I'm sitting in the waiting room, I pick up an old copy of US News and World Report. The cover story was on our society's dependence on caffeine to do all the stuff we do.

I didn't get a chance to actually read the article; for once, the doctor came a bit too quickly for my taste. But when I went to put up the magazine, I happened to see the advertising on the back of the cover. I have no idea what it was attempting to sell, but the tag line? "Who knew two vanilla lattes could be so relaxing" or some such nonsense.

Don't magazine publishers check to make sure that the ads they're placing in the magazine don't contradict any articles in the edition? Doesn't it just demonstrate no attention to detail at the level of the editors? If that's the case with something as simple as advertising, what does that mean about the articles they publish? 

But since I am a geek, lets talk about caffeine. 

According to, caffeine, or 1,3,7-trimethylxanthine, as its known chemically, is "the most widely consumed pharmacologically active substance in the world." Geeks have depending on caffeine for decades, but we picked that up from others. says that Chinese emperor Shen Nung drank strong, hot brewed tea. Coffee was first located in Africa around 575 AD. We in the US switched to coffee in the eighteenth century, perhaps only partly because of the Boston Tea Party

A 12-ounce can of Coca Cola has 34 milligrams (mg) of caffeine. lists several other amounts, such as 5 ounces (150 milliliters) of regular filtered coffee has 60 mg. Most of the web sites I've seen suggested 300 mg/day as a safe level for most people, but some individuals are very sensitive to caffeine and should not have anywhere near that much. 

The concern in the US News and World Report article is the huge increase in consumption of caffeine for all age groups but especially growing children. According to the article, there have been no studies of the effects of caffeine on growing children. Then they proceed to trot out individual kids who have are using insane amounts of caffeinated beverages or moving up to methylphenidates to get serious long-term highs. The article goes into "upcoming medical crisis" mode. 

First, you cannot make decisions about products based on individual stories. No matter how many times television news programs or written news articles trot out someone to be their example of the problem in question, such low-number experiential data points don't count. We can say something about caffeinated sodas, which have been consumed as a result of being in the market in their current forms for over fifty years (and closer to eighty years).  And in the decades since these cola products have been on the market, there has not been any problem that warrants intervention. The quantities of caffeine in these products has been at a reasonable level and children have been properly monitored by parents to limit intake. In a quick search, the most I could find was holding Coca-Cola accountable for activities in Colombia and killing vending machines

(And while I can appreciate why parents are concerned about their kids being on Ritalin and whether it is being incorrectly prescribed to too many children, I have a different take on it: I know two family members who took it, and in them the result of being on the drug was a remarkable improvement. Ritalin is not evil, especially when it is properly dispensed.)

To me, the problem is not the caffeinated beverages, even the new ones like Red Bull, Cocaine, and such. As long as the product is not inherently dangerous, in our capitalist society they should have the right to make and sell such a product. The problem is a lack of oversight by parents. Why aren't parents watching what beverages their children consume? My family watched over me, and I watched over my children. Why can't the US News article bring the focus around to "Parent, be aware of this." Instead, it just seems to sound a "woe is us!" kind of tone. 

Update, 6/28/2007: Just fixed some typos in the text.