Thursday, June 26, 2014

Good Read: Caffeinated

I recently finished reading Murray Carpenter's Caffeinated: How Our Daily Habit Helps, Hurts, and Hooks Us.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I'm not much into caffeine. And after reading Carpenter's book, I'm into caffeine even less.

Rather than total abstinence, however, I plan to use it more strategically. But more on that later.

Part one of the book addresses what Carpenter calls traditional caffeine, specifically the kick derived from cacao beans, tea, and coffee. For reasons unknown, he only mentions guarana and yerba mate in passing. Perhaps their stories are not nearly as romantic as those of the other three, or maybe they provide little of Americans' total caffeine consumption, I don't know. In either case, the omission is odd since Carpenter felt that caffeine deserved a 288-page treatment in the first place. What's another 30-60 pages to enlighten us on two caffeine sources that I only knew about through conversations with former missionaries who'd served in South America?

Part two, on modern caffeine, tells of the extraction of the bitter white powder from coffee or tea for use in other products, primarily soft drinks and energy drinks, and the laboratory synthesis of caffeine from urea, a byproduct of guano. No, that does not mean that we are drinking bat or bird feces when we have a Coke. (I don't think the urea is actually harvested from guano.) The greater concern with synthetic caffeine is that it's mostly made in China, where regulations governing food additive purity are probably not that stringent.

Chapters 10 and 11 of part three, which discuss the use of caffeine by athletes and the military, were of greatest interest to me, as an exercise scientist with a nutrition background. Caffeine has been shown to increase mental acuity and physical endurance, accounting for its popularity in events like the utterly insane, though no less impressive, Ironman triathlon.

The International Society of Sports Nutrition, for example, published a 2010 position stand on caffeine and performance, concluding that there is clear evidence that endurance athletes and participants in intermittent sports, like soccer or rugby, can see definite performance enhancements (yes, caffeine is, by definition, a performance enhancing drug, albeit a legal one, according to most sport governing bodies) along the lines of enhanced vigilance and whatnot.

The jury is out regarding the effects of caffeine on strength-power performance, though, anecdotally, when I take caffeine prior to resistance training, my vigilance definitely sees a noticeable enhancement. Whether my force production is actually increased, and I think that is what the researchers are looking for, I feel stronger against the weights I'm pressing and pulling. As any good researcher would say, more research—and, therefore, grant monies—is needed.

In any case, as I alluded to at the beginning, in the future I'll probably strategically restrict my caffeine consumption to just prior to my workout. (And to the occasional diet soda.)

Part four, entitled Corralling Caffeine, discusses the amazing—some might say alarming—proliferation of caffeine-containing products, from traditional sodas to energy shots to gum, and the difficulties the Food and Drug Administration has in regulating them. There are some legitimate concerns, to be sure, but as with most things these days involving food, there is bound to be a bit of overreach by public health officials in their approach to regulating caffeine. (Case in point.)

That said, we ought to be concerned with the consumption of caffeine by infants, children, and adolescents, and about sourcing synthetic caffeine from countries with iffy regulatory oversight of their own, like China.

Anyway, Caffeinated is, on the whole, stimulating reading, if you'll forgive the pun. Check it out.

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