The additive that flows under the radar
The most popular drug in America is a white powder. No, not that powder. This is caffeine in its most essential state. And Caffeinated reveals the little-known truth about this addictive, largely unregulated drug found in coffee, energy drinks, teas, colas, chocolate, and even pain relievers.
We’ll learn why caffeine has such a powerful effect on everything from boosting our mood to improving our athletic performance as well as how—and why—brands such as Coca-Cola have ducked regulatory efforts for decades. We learn the differences in the various ways caffeine is delivered to the body, how it is quietly used to reinforce our buying patterns, and how it can play a role in promoting surprising health problems like obesity and anxiety.
Drawing on the latest research, Caffeinated brings us the inside perspective at the additive that Salt Sugar Fat overlooked.
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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. He lives in Belfast, Maine.
The Cradle of Caffeine Culture
The pyramids at izapa were not as spectacular as I had expected. They are low, stone- sided mounds of earth rising beside the main highway to Mexico City, a dozen miles outside of Tapachula, Chiapas. Diesel-spewing buses passed, stirring the plastic detritus at the roadside. A few sad roadhouses tried to capitalize on the location, but business was slow. A local family served as caretakers, selling Cokes and postcards from their porch and charging a small fee to wander the ruins. Roosters crowed from the nearby houses, pigs ambled down a dirt road, and as evening fell, the surrounding woods were full of bird- song.
Called the Soconusco region, this low, flat coastal plain along the Pacific Ocean is torrid—sweltering and rainy. The Soconusco is the birthplace of chocolate culture. The shaded lower tier of the woods that envelop the clearing, which is no more than five acres, is full of cacao trees, just as it has been for much of the past three thousand years.
The people who built these pyramids came after the Olmec and before the Maya. They were so unique that their culture is called Iza- pan, after this, the best known of their sites. In addition to ancient ball courts and public plazas—like the one at the center of this site—they left behind this tradition of cacao (pronounced kuh-cow). Farmers have been planting and nurturing cacao trees here ever since. This is the tree that grows the bean that gives us chocolate.
An archaeological dig at the nearby Paso de la Amada turned up traces of chocolate more than thirty-five hundred years old. This is the earliest evidence of the human use of chocolate, which in itself is kind of cool, but it’s more than that. It is also the earliest documented human use of caffeine. So far, no place on the planet can claim longer continuous caffeine use.
It is tempting to think of chocolate as a modern luxury, an indul- gence of self- proclaimed chocoholics. But even the most devoted of today’s chocolate lovers have nothing on the Izapans, Mayans, and Aztecs. They really loved their chocolate. They used it ceremonially, in rituals that sometimes included human sacrifice. They drank it spiked with chili and used special pitchers decorated with fierce faces to pour it from high above the cup, giving the chocolate a frothy head. They even used the little cacao beans as currency. The Aztecs rationed it to their soldiers.
During colonization, when chocolate became popular among the courts of Europe, Soconusco chocolate was a favorite among royal chocolate freaks like Cosimo III, the Grand Duke of Tuscany. In 1590, not long after chocolate made its way to Spain and Italy, a Jesuit au- thor noted that the Spanish, and especially the women, were addicted to it. Later, the coffee- and chocolate-loving libertine the Marquis de Sade did much to bolster chocolate’s long-rumored (but unproven) reputation for aphrodisiac qualities.
Another indication of chocolate’s lofty reputation in Europe was the name bestowed upon it by Carl Linnaeus, the eighteenth-century Swedish botanist who developed the binomial system for identifying species. His name for the tree was Theobroma cacao. The latter came from the Mayan word for the tree; the former, taken from Greek, means “food of the gods.” (Theobromine, an alkaloid very similar to caffeine, later took its name from the tree; it is far more abundant in chocolate than in caffeine, but it has minimal stimulant effects.)
Sure, chocolate tastes great. But “food of the gods”? A beverage to drink in concert with human sacrifice? A commodity so valuable that it stood in lieu of gold for money? It is hard to imagine exactly what caused this chocolate lust . . . unless we think about the caffeine.
These days, we don’t consider chocolate as a primary source of caffeine, but it would have been a big part of the attraction for the Izapans, and even the pre-coffee Spaniards.
We can’t know exactly how much caffeine was contained in the historic cacao drinks, but an analysis of modern chocolate gives some perspective. A Scharffen Berger 82 percent cacao extra-dark chocolate bar has forty-two milligrams of caffeine per forty-three-gram serving (the same size as a standard Hershey bar). That equals roughly a mil- ligram of caffeine per gram of chocolate. If the Izapans made drinks with seventy-five grams of cacao, they would have delivered about a SCAD, the kick of a Red Bull or a single shot of espresso. For anyone not habituated to daily caffeine use, that is a good, solid bump.
One of the reasons we no longer think of chocolate as a primary source of caffeine is that it has been so dramatically adulterated and diluted. A Hershey’s milk chocolate bar— forty-three grams—has but nine milligrams of caffeine. Hershey, like most mass-market chocolate makers, skates close to the edge of FDA regulations, which require that milk chocolate include a minimum of 10 percent chocolate liquor. (On nomenclature: Cacao, or chocolate liquor, is the pure product of the bean; cocoa is the dried, processed cacao, with the fatty cocoa but- ter removed; chocolate is the product we commonly consume, which can range from strong dark chocolate to dilute milk chocolate.)
To understand why chugging down a cold, frothy, unsweetened cacao drink might have appealed to an Izapan ruler (chocolate was then scarce enough that the plebes could not imbibe), it is helpful to understand what happens when we drink caffeinated beverages, whether they’re made from cacao or coffee or tea:
Set your stopwatch. Once the liquid hits your stomach, you have about twenty minutes until that gentle buzz hits your brain. Caffeine is unusually mobile in the body. A small molecule, it easily hurdles the blood-brain barrier. In the synaptic stew of our crania, the molecule blocks the uptake of a neurotransmitter called adenosine (pronounced uh-den- uh-seen). Adenosine tells the brain we are drowsy, but caffeine does not let the brain get the message. It is this simple trick, elbowing adenosine off the barstool and sitting in its place, that makes caffeine America’s favorite drug.
And it is not just hitting your brain. Caffeine has a number of sig- nificant, but sometimes contradictory, effects on your physiology. It stimulates your central nervous system. Your alertness increases, your reaction time decreases, and your focus sharpens. Your blood pressure will increase slightly. Your heart may race (but may, in habitual users, actually slow). And in your brain, despite your increased acuity, blood flow will decrease. (It is the inverse of this, the increased blood flow to expanding capillaries, that gives so many caffeine junkies the pound- ing withdrawal headaches we so dread.)
Once the caffeine locks in on those adenosine receptors, things look rosy; no is task insurmountable. Breaths come easily and deep. You feel so good, how about one more shot of that magical elixir?
Or not. That “sweet spot,” the zone where physical and mental perfor- mance is optimal, is not wide, and it is easy to blast right on past. Caffeine researcher Scott Killgore told me that caffeine does more than just block adenosine. It has a variety of effects on the mind and body. “At higher doses it can lead to alterations in your heart rhythm. So you can start to have increased heart rate, or tachycardia. . . . So you start to notice that your heart feels like it’s pounding very hard or very quickly or maybe skips a beat. And that’s a clear indication that you are probably taking too much caffeine in your diet and you need to slow down,” he said.
Another clue to excessive caffeine use is a bad mood. “It can make you irritable,” said Killgore, “make you more likely to respond in an irritable way to people.” Confusing matters, irritability can also be a symptom of caffeine withdrawal.
But these days it is hard to take too much caffeine from chocolate. Because it’s become so diluted and other caffeine delivery mechanisms so much more popular, a recent analysis showed that chocolate ac- counts for just 2.3 milligrams of Americans’ daily caffeine consump- tion (about 1 percent of our total caffeine intake).
In the Izapan era, cacao was the only caffeine in town. The hot, wet region was perfect for its cultivation. The demand for cacao was so great that historians surmise it was the reason for Izapa’s wealth. Today’s Izapan cacao groves are not farms in the traditional Western sense. They are managed agroforestry ecosystems bearing multiple crops—from the tall avocado and mamey trees in the canopy down to the cacao growing in the shade near the forest floor. It is an ancient form of agriculture, and one that is now under siege.
Early one bright, fresh morning in Tapachula, I met Rubiel Velas- quez Toledo at Red Maya CASFA, an organic growers’ cooperative. We were heading out for a tour of cacao country.
I had eaten a light breakfast at the hotel—fresh rolls, a fruit salad made with local mango, papaya, pineapple, and banana, and a couple of cups of café con leche. But out on the highway, Velasquez suggested a bit more sustenance and a taste of local cacao culture.
He pulled his battered Ford pickup over at a roadside stand with a clean cement floor, metal roof, and open sides. Two women stood at the ready, selling the cacao-based drink pozol.
Pozol is an ancient blend, a mixture of cacao and fermented, coarsely ground corn. To prep the drinks, the women rolled the corn and cacao into balls a bit smaller than a baseball. They placed these into a cup with water, used a broad wooden spoon to vigorously blend it, added a dipper of viscous cane sugar, then added ice.
About the color of a chocolate milk shake, pozol has a thick, rich texture, the cacao velvety on the tongue. Velasquez said the hearty drinks are popular with laborers, because the sustenance from the corn and cacao combined with the kick from the caffeine ensures that you don’t have to eat again until evening. All of this for eight pesos— about sixty cents.
This is not the only cacao-and-corn drink in the region. Janine Gasco, a California anthropologist and an expert on Soconusco cacao culture, gave me some background before my travels and told me I should also look for tascalate. After some searching, I found it on the menu of a café just off Tapachula’s zocalo, or main square. It is a deli- cious blend of cacao and toasted corn, colored red with the local dye achiote, and served cold. Tascalate feels granular on the tongue, with a bit of a corn tortilla flavor. This might evoke an image of a tortilla chip dipped in milk chocolate, but it tastes nothing like that—both the cacao and the corn are subtle, combining for a rich flavor.
With the exception of the sugar, an innovation that came with the European conquest, these drinks are similar to the frothy chocolate so beloved by the Izapans, the Mayans, and the Aztecs.
From the pozol stand, Velasquez took me rattling down a dirt road between farms near the town of Plan de Ayala. The villages featured thatched-roof huts, chickens, mules, and scrawny dogs sniffing out a living at the dusty roadside.
Velasquez pulled his truck over to point out a traditional cacao grove. It is the sort of tropical forest we can all easily imagine— verdant, full of exotic birdcalls, with all manner of strange reptiles likely hidden in the dank shadows of the understory. Cedar, oak, avo- cado, and mango trees grew high above, shading the cacao growing below.
Cacao is a small tree. But it is easy to pick out, even for this amateur naturalist, because its fruits are distinctive—the green, football-shaped pods grow straight out from the trunk. They look like trees
Dr. Seuss might have sketched.
Velasquez said this is the traditional, age-old style of cacao farm- ing, in diversified woods with crops at multiple levels. Each layer of the forest produces a cash or food crop—fruit, firewood, or chocolate. But then he pointed to the other side of the road, where a massive field was completely denuded of trees. A new crop of sugarcane was just coming up through the raw dirt. Up until last year, Velasquez said, this was a cacao plantation. Back in the truck, we saw the same story at farm after farm; mile after mile of formerly forested cacao groves had been cleared for not just oil palm and sugarcane but also grains like soy and fruits like papaya. These are massive monocultures, typi- cally owned by foreign agro-biz giants. Once cleared, the land is so raw that even here, with a hundred inches of rain annually, it must be irrigated.
It was siesta time when Velasquez and I reached the last stop on our tour of Chiapas cacao country: Chocolates Finos San José, a small- ish operation on a tidy lot.
Velasquez pulled the truck in, but we saw nobody about. He went to the house while I waited in the shade of a thatched-roof pavilion, where a slight breeze made the heat bearable. Roosters crowed in the distance, turkeys clucked, a listless dog lay in the dust, and a shirtless man in khakis and a rope belt snoozed in a hammock ten feet away, his jellies kicked off. I heard the faint strains of a Mexican ballad playing from a nearby house, the chorus a mournful cry answered by a blast of horns.
Velasquez soon returned from the house with Bernardina Cruz, the diminutive dueña. She looked tired. It turned out she had made a batch of chocolate the night before, a process she can’t start until nearly midnight, when the heat subsides (the chocolate melts at about ninety degrees). In fact, this is one of the secrets to chocolate’s enduring appeal—it is solid at room temperature but melts quickly over the tongue.
Cruz opened the door to her chocolate factory. It was not until we walked in and I smelled the rich chocolate and began to salivate that I realized I had not eaten anything, nor been a bit hungry, since we had the pozol more than seven hours earlier.
The factory is small: a barrel roaster in one room, a milling ma- chine and a refiner in another. Cruz hand-pours the finished chocolate into molds. It is chocolate production on a human scale. She makes about twenty cases of twenty-four chocolate bars daily, processing four tons a year. Some of the chocolate bars are exported to Italy, some go to Germany, and some stay in Mexico and are sold in Guada- lajara. At a table next to her small glass-front cooler—like a two-door soda refrigerator at a corner store—she gave me samples of her nibs and chocolate.
Nibs are pieces of roasted chocolate a bit bigger than coarsely ground coffee. Fairly stable in this form, nibs are often shipped as raw ingredients. And they are delicious. Since the cocoa butter has not yet been squeezed out, the crunchy little cacao shards have a hearty, nutty flavor. (Cocoa butter is the most valuable part of the cacao bean; once it is squeezed from the bean, it is often shunted off for use in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.)
I could eat the freshly roasted organic cacao nibs all day. It is hard to imagine how chocolate evolved to such an extent that most of us are unfamiliar with these nutty, caffeine-rich nibs, knowing only the pale shadow that is modern milk chocolate.
For years, some claimed the Soconusco region was more than the birthplace of chocolate culture, that it was also the ancestral home of the cacao plant. But USDA researchers showed genetic evidence that cacao was first domesticated in the Upper Amazon. Their published research went even further, refining cacao into ten genetic groups, all present in the small region that is the epicenter of cacao. In their view, cacao was domesticated in what is now northern Peru and so...
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