BATH, Maine — Murray Carpenter is sipping a medium roast at Cafe Creme and talking rapidly about America’s favorite drug.
Baristas sling lattes at the bar. A coffee-fueled crowd chatters all around and the Belfast writer tells me just how little we know about the jolt in our joe, the kick in our cola.
“Caffeine is underrated in this country,” says the freelance journalist for NPR and the New York Times. “It needs a better agent.”
Right now, Carpenter is it.
His first book, “Caffeinated,” published by Hudson Street Press, is due out March 13. After its release, Carpenter plans to spend a month giving readings, interviews and taking to the airwaves to tell the world “how our daily habit helps, hurts and hooks us.”
“It’s next to impossible to know how much caffeine you are consuming,” Carpenter says, which is the reason he set out to give the socially accepted, addictive and much-loved stimulant a closer look.
After months of research and travel to Colombia and Guatemala, America’s former coffee hub New Orleans and cacao farms in Mexico, Carpenter sheds new light on an old standby. He delves into the history of caffeine and examines the powder that gives Red Bull its zing.
The focus of the book is not coffee as much as the substance slipped into soft drinks and so-called “energy drinks.”
“A lot of people have written beautifully about coffee and I’m glad they have. But the powdered caffeine industry has gotten so little coverage,” Carpenter says. “It took me so long to figure it out. It was a real puzzle.”
The pieces started to come together with Monsanto. The Missouri chemical giant made caffeine for Coca-Cola starting in 1905, Carpenter discovered.
“They extracted caffeine from waste tea leaves,” the former MPBN reporter says.
“There is no institutional memory there anymore,” Carpenter explains, saying he looked at government records and congressional testimony to piece together Monsanto’s past. “They were the pioneers of the synthetic caffeine industry in the U.S.”
“[In the early 1900s] Coke was almost their sole customer and that ended up being the most interesting part of the book,” he says.
In the last 15-20 years, like much U.S. manufacturing, “the powdered caffeine industry has entirely been offshored. There is no finished caffeine being produced in the U.S.,” says Carpenter, who wants people to be aware where their pick-me-up is coming from. “I was surprised that most of our caffeine is made in overseas pharmaceutical plants.”
And caffeine delivery systems — from NoDoz to Sheets strips to Monster Energy drinks — are multiplying. Americans now consume 15 million pounds of powdered caffeine a year.
“Enough to fill a freight train two and and half miles long,’’ Carpenter says.
Just how much you ingest when taking these products is anybody’s guess. Some companies, such as Lipton, have started to voluntarily list the amount of caffeine in their beverages, but “energy drinks that are loaded with caffeine are not required by the Food and Drug Administration,” and need more scrutiny, he says.
“The whole market grew organically. Monster and Rockstar, it’s a billion dollar market that FDA has not regulated,” Carpenter says.
After caffeine and alcohol products such as Four Loko turned fatal in 2010, consumer pressure started to mount. Books such as “Caffeinated” that take an unbiased look at the trade could create transparency. Carpenter would like to see caffeine milligrams listed on menus and chalkboards at cafes.
With Starbucks and specialty coffee on the rise, it’s no shock to hear Carpenter pronounce: “We are living in a golden age of coffee.”
But is consumption down?
During World War II, “Americans drank 46 gallons annually, nearly 20 pounds of beans per person,” he writes.
“Around the 1950s there was always that pot of coffee going in the office. It was a very consistent presence,” he says.
There are more coffee options than ever today, but companies “don’t talk a lot about the caffeine, they talk about the golden top notes,” he says, and other “excessive adjectives” to sell the experience.
“There is a lot of talk about sustainability,” but the main reason we reflexively reach for our morning java is masked.
“If you go into Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, they have a whole education center, you almost feel like you are in an environmental nonprofit,” says Carpenter, who reported on the Vermont coffee giant for the New York Times. “‘This is really about the farmers,’ they’ll say … nothing about the caffeine.”
And that’s where the lines blur. Just how much of the drug people introduce into their bodies is a mystery.
“Coffee drinkers are well aware that we are here for the caffeine,” Carpenter says, working through his third cup of the day. “Products like colas and iced teas, these are all ways we use to funnel caffeine into our bodies. I hope to give people information to make their own decisions about their caffeine use.”
While tackling the subject of withdrawals, the author weaned himself off the drug to get the full effect. After five days of muscle pains and moderate headaches, “I couldn’t wait to go back. I just couldn’t.”
Caffeine can cause insomnia, anxiety and panic attacks, which even regular users don’t realize. After a doctor Carpenter interviewed during his research told him he might be better off if he scaled back, he paid attention.
“I cut down. I moderated. I don’t know if it’s dramatic,” he says of his controlled caffeine habit. “But I feel good.”
Carpenter is scheduled to read from “Caffeinated” from 3 to 4:30 p.m. Sunday, March 16, at Left Bank Books in Belfast, and at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 3, at Longfellow Books in Portland. For other “Caffeinated” events, visit facebook.com/CaffeinatedtheBook.
Correction: A previous version of this story quoted Carpenter as saying, “It’s next to impossible to know how much coffee you are consuming." The story should say “It’s next to impossible to know how much caffeine you are consuming."