Friday, May 16, 2014

Murray Carpenter's "Caffeinated"

Murray Carpenter has reported caffeine-related stories for the New York Times, Wired, National Geographic, NPR, and PRI’s The World. He has also written for the Boston Globe, the Christian Science Monitor and other media outlets. He holds a degree in psychology from the University of Colorado and an MS in Environmental Studies from the University of Montana, and has worked as a medical lab assistant in Ohio, a cowboy in Colombia, a farmhand in Virginia, and an oil-exploring “juggie” in Wyoming.

Carpenter applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Caffeinated: How Our Daily Habit Helps, Hurts, and Hooks Us, and reported the following:
This book grew from my belief that caffeine does not get the respect it deserves, and the drug’s role in shaping our behavior, affecting our moods, and boosting commerce are underappreciated. Most Americans take caffeine daily, and we consume most of that caffeine in coffee, in which it is a natural constituent. But over the last 60 years, we have increasingly been getting our caffeine fix from soft drinks and, more recently, energy drinks. Page 99 is where I was unraveling a vexing mystery.

Researching the book, I became intrigued with the industry that supplies the pure, powdered form of the drug. We import 15 million pounds of powdered caffeine annually, most of which is blended into soft drinks. Some of that is extracted from plant products, such as coffee or tea. But these processes account for less than half of the powdered caffeine we consume. Where does the rest of that caffeine come from?

It turns out that page 99 covers two of my unexpected findings: most of the powdered caffeine we use in the United States is not extracted from natural plant products, such as coffee or tea, but chemically synthesized in pharmaceutical plants; and Monsanto was one of the first large-scale caffeine producers in the United States.

From page 99:
“Tea wastes are the largest single source in domestic solvent extraction processes, and far more important than coffee which provides the chemical through decaffeination,” Chemical and Engineering News reported [in 1945]. “A practical process for the production of caffeine by complete synthesis would probably displace foreign sources for theobromine and caffeine in this country. . . . Wholly synthesized caffeine,” the journal reported, cost twice as much as extracted caffeine, which then sold for less than three dollars per pound.

Later that year, the same journal reported that an American firm was taking up the challenge, by diversifying from its tradition of producing natural caffeine: “Monsanto Chemical Co. has disclosed its intention to free the United States from dependency on foreign-produced natural sources of caffeine through construction and operation of what will be the world’s first large-scale plant for the manufacture of synthetic caffeine.”

Caffeine synthesis, assembling the chemical from its building blocks instead of carving it away from plant material, was a German innovation. The chemist Emil Fischer pioneered the process in 1895, using uric acid as the primary building block. (This was one of the achievements that earned him the Nobel Prize in 1902.)

And it turned out that Germans had also pioneered the industrial production of synthetic caffeine, a few years ahead of Monsanto. The German company Boehringer Ingelheim had built a large synthetic caffeine plant in 1942, though Americans may not have been aware of it. Then, as now, all of the major caffeine-consuming nations in Europe and North America lacked any commercially viable caffeinated crop. Chocolate, coffee, and tea are imported from less developed countries, to sate our appetites for legal stimulants. It can be challenging to keep the supply lines open, even in peacetime, but the war years were especially fraught, on both sides of the Atlantic.
Ford Madox Ford’s test works well for this book. The distinctions between the caffeine that naturally occurs in coffee and tea and the powdered caffeine that is blended into beverages are primary themes throughout the book. And the historical tensions between the two forms of caffeine linger today. The Food and Drug Administration is now investigating the safety of energy drinks and other products with added caffeine. Most of that caffeine is now synthesized in pharmaceutical plants, but Monsanto is no longer producing caffeine.
Visit Murray Carpenter's website.

--Marshal Zeringue