We Need to Talk About Caffeine

Picture from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tAtaIZD0Ebs

Nearly a year ago a man successfully drank 12 Monster energy drinks in 10 minutes. In sheer volume that is more than a gallon and includes 1.92 grams of caffeine and over a pound of sugar.

The result of this challenge put the man in the hospital, infected his pancreas, and put three bullets into a Russian roulette trigger pull against death. Assuming this all even happened.

I saw this story pop like it was live. Then found out it was originally posted online in September. And that the man up there is just an actor recreating the events. The saddest part is I don’t even know if this energy drinker really loved Gengar or not.

What I do know is when I saw the article, I clicked on it, because it was highly relevant to my interests and health.

The health experts all agree that humans tend to be nearly consequence free around the 400 Milligram level. As long as you’re a non-pregnant, healthy, and active adult then the medical organizations expect that caffeine will not have much impact on you.

Oh wow, only 400, huh? Guess it’s time to measure your caffeine intake using all the modern marvels of exact science. And quickly realize that we have no real idea exactly how much caffeine is in anything. It varies (slightly).

Typically, you’re looking at about 60 mg per espresso shot and 90 mg per cup of coffee. Energy drinks typically have their caffeine content listed, but that’s still just a guess. The only thing I can say for sure is my fridge probably has too much caffeine in it.

So, let’s say you have five cups of coffee. What can you expect?

  • Headache
  • Insomnia
  • Nervousness
  • Irritability
  • Frequent urination or inability to control urination
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Muscle tremors

To be clear, when I look for what’s going wrong with me on WebMD, I don’t stop going down the symptom rabbit hole until I see cancer, heart failure, or blindness. I then say to myself, “I’m sure my slight cough is cancer, but oh well.”

So, you’re telling me if I consume more than 4 cups of coffee I might experience irritability? Like that would stop me for a single second. I might have to pee more? I might have trouble sleeping? I might be nervous? I experience all of those things just vibing in my life without caffeine.

Lets look at other largely legal, over the counter, drugs. Smoking skyrockets your risk of cancer, heart attack, and stroke. We call them cancer sticks and we know it’s about as safe as buying huff bags of asbestos.

Drinking has a ton of chronic conditions associated with it and higher mortality, but a big part of the lethality is impaired behavior, driving while drunk, or waking up to the realization “drunk you” texted a whole lot of people “sober you” never wants to talk to.

And don’t get me wrong, caffeine isn’t a joke either. If you’re snorting energy drink powder, 12 energy drinks in 10 minutes, or 12 a day for a year than there are serious impacts on your health. If you have underlying health issues, caffeine can be straight up dangerous. Even young, healthy people can have reactions they don’t expect.

But there is also a gym rat who drank a gram of caffeine every day for years. And WebMD? They have several listed possible positive impacts for lowering risk of heart attack, type 2 diabetes, and death from all causes.

It’s wild to me that we’ve been messing with this for thousands of years and the best guess we have today is probably don’t consume too much, it might help, it could hurt, and definitely stay away from the 2 gram level.

But let’s look at how we talk about coffee in media.

In 2003, Justice League aired their 31st and 32nd episodes titled “Only a Dream.” This episode features a villain who is able to attack the superheroes in their dreams and trap them in their worst nightmares.

Batman avoids this fate by staying up for days, while trying to locate the villain’s lair and physical body. He does this by stopping by a coffee shop and ordering a triple. This familiarity with the process, the location of the shop, and the confidence of the order indicate the behavior of a coffee expert.

This is not Batman's first triple nor will it be his last. He clearly uses and abuses caffeine to fight crime. The reason caffeine lowers risk of death from all causes is because of the many times Batman has saved the world.

If you’re thinking that coffee shops are easy to navigate, I’ll tell you my first trip to a coffee shop had me ordering a single espresso. I had no idea what it was. They served me a tiny little cup, on a tiny platter. I took it to a table and drank it slowly as though it was exactly what I wanted. It was not.

Today, I can’t tell you the difference between each named beverage at a Starbucks, what the size is called, or anything. I point, I make noises, and pay the kind people money and a drink comes into hand. I ask them to add two espresso shots. I ask them to do that to anything I order. I have no idea what I’m doing. A coffee shop to me is a different world and I don’t speak the language.

But Batman wasn’t the only pro-caffeine show 1990s and early 2000s kids. No, we also had Futurama telling us it would literally give us superpowers.

After 100 cups, Fry turns into a glorious golden god and blurs through a burning building to save everyone. This episode aired just two months before the Batman episode I just described.

But it goes even further back than that, dear reader. It goes all the way to 1998, when Dexter Lab aired the episode “Topped Off”. This episode features the kids Dexter and Deedee getting into their parents’ coffee and becoming addicted to the magical and energetic impacts of it.

The end of this episode is a speech about how the parents need coffee as their ignition switch. We see them helpless and disheveled without it. We see the father breaking down at the sick injustice of there not being any coffee because the kids had drunk it all.

And as a kid watching this episode, the message was clear. I could have super powers. Media has been telling me all my life that caffeine is the same thing as a miracle.

Not just my life, as I researched caffeine for this article, I discovered something deeper and darker about caffeine. I discovered that this drug was the bedrock of America. We drank coffee in defiance of the English.

No real American would be caught dead drinking tea. And after all, we had railroads to build too. We have a few centuries of industrialization and war to get on with and caffeine would be our glorious mascot. If humans were cogs in the machine of capitalism, the grease that turned them was caffeine.

And that machine? It has but one purpose. Number Must Go Up.

Originally, we were happy with just a cup of hot Joe in the morning. He smelt fantastic, said all the right things, and made us feel alive. We’d have them at diners, there would be coffee pots in the office, and most of us would just have one or two in a day.

But around the 1980s, Starbucks really industrialized the coffee game. Coffee wasn’t just in your office breakroom or kitchen, it was everywhere. In the early 2000s, Comedian Lewis Black joked about the end of the universe being a Starbucks right across the street from another Starbucks.

And this wasn’t your mom’s coffee. It wasn’t your McDonald’s cup of lava hot bitter syrup burning the genitals right off old ladies. This wasn’t your workman's coffee. This was your selfcare, pretty in a ribbon, special treat, creamy foamed dessert in a cup.

Coffee in the old days was bitter and drank not for taste, but for the high. Now we combine desert with caffeine and put stores that sell it in every block. We never stood a chance.

But in addition to all of these Starbucks, we also saw energy drinks start to revolutionize soda. Mountain Dew, Pepsi, and Coke were all boasting about 30 mg of caffeine per 12 ounce can. Real baby shit. They relied on the sugar rush more than caffeine and were the yummy way to get real amped up, back when coffee was still hooking up with donuts to seem appealing.

But Red Bull really changed the game when they entered the market with the bold idea of drugging kids for profit in 1997. They aggressively marketed their awful “gives you wings” commercials to a whole generation of young adult men and teenage boys.

Energy drinks were sold as health supplements, which to my understanding means they don’t need to actually follow any of the normal FDA regulations on food and drink?

I don’t totally understand the high level nuance of this, but half the articles you find about energy drinks warn that we basically have ‘no idea what is in them, how much of that stuff is actually in it, or what it really does to you’. Things like Taurine, Creatine, SUPER-Creatine, and finally ULTRA DELUXE-Creatine. Ơ̶̬͍̎̌M̴̡͇̪̂Ȅ̶̹͗̋G̷͕̯͖͒̋́Ã̶̯͍͌̆-Creatine is rumored to be in production in the near future.

Don’t forget BCAA Amino Acids, Coenzyme Q10, Electrolytes, Vitamin B(X), L-leucine and Hydrogen Dioxide, among many other scary sounding chemicals.

But Red Bull was traditionally sold in 12 ounce cans, with just over 100 mg of caffeine and a ton of sugar. It was effectively just an adult mountain dew and not that much different than cup of caffeine. But it was easy. It came in a can and tasted good cold. You could slam a can with no problem.

What Red Bull did was make getting caffeine extremely easy. And it awakened a mighty beast in our culture that found itself addicted to caffeine and needing more and more to meet its fix.

In the first decade of the 2000s we started to see energy drinks really explode. We started to see about 150 mg per can, that moved into 200 mg, that moved into 240 mg, that eventually settled on the kings of caffeine today the 300 mg sleep enders (G Fuel, Bang, Reign).

And this is where I come in. I hate the taste of coffee, but upgrading from a mountain dew to a Full Throttle just felt right. I used to work in kitchens, which is a nightmare hell job that you do your best to survive in. Honestly caffeine was probably the tamest drug in a kitchen staff’s bloodstream, but you would shotgun a drink before rush and did your best.

We used to pour 2 ounce shots into portion cups and kept them in the cooler. We’d called them health and mana potions and any cook could go and take shots.

I dabbled in the 200 mg market for a number of years. Just one can a day. Then I shifted to two 120 mg cans. Kept that going for a year or two, but finally Bang exploded into the Midwest market. The holy grail of zero calories and 300 mg of caffeine.

The biggest problem with soda, Red Bull, and most mainline energy drinks was they all relied on heavy amounts of sugar. This meant they were also 200+ calories per can. And as a woman who has been conditioned into thinking love and weight are an inverse correlation, I’m hesitant to pick up a drink with so many calories.

But Bang or Reign energy drink? That’s free. It tastes great. It injects a third of a gram of caffeine straight into my system and gives me the power to take on gods.

And you don’t get carded. You don’t get limited. A friend of mine once said they tried cocaine at a party. I asked them what it was like. They said it felt like a slightly more intense Bang energy drink that lasted way longer.

Describing caffeine like this isn’t new. George Carline did a whole stand-up routine about it literally 50 years ago:

When they talk about drugs, they don’t talk about all of them; that’s the problem. They don’t mention coffee. The low end of the speed spectrum, I grant you. But there are coffee freaks and they’re walkin’ around; nobody, y’know, worried about it or anything. Mrs. Olsen never tells you about that mild speed lift, y’know…’cause she’s shooting freeze dried Folger’s, right? You’ve seen the coffee freak in the office, haven’t ya? Guy who drops eight or nine cups every morning.

This was fifty years ago, back when you were drinking coffee hot, had a union, and enough money to actually buy a home or take care of a family. What happened? How did so many millennials get suckered into trading their house down payment for a couple of lattes and avocado toast?

When we step back to add all of this together, a very clear picture starts to emerge. Caffeine was intrinsically built into American culture and identity. It makes people feel great, alert, energetic, and focused. It becomes physiologically and psychologically addictive.

Coffee was there at the birth of America. And it birthed a country that rapidly grew, conquered, and industrialized. This drug is so much part of our identity, we don’t think about it like we think about alcohol or tobacco. We don’t think about it like we think about speed, cocaine, or heroin. You are totally free to abuse caffeine with no judgment from anyone.

So we do.

And we do because what is the impact of caffeine? It makes us feel less tired, less fatigued, more awake, and more energetic. When 40+ hour work weeks are draining us of our time and energy, how else do we cope? We have the term Sunday Scaries to refer to the actual acute psychological reactions people get from the prospect of having to suffer through another week of work trauma.

We have a term called Revenge Bedtime Procrastination for people who sacrifice sleep for leisure time because they feel like they never have enough time.

But if you do that, you’re going to feel really tired, unless you drink caffeine. Right? Let’s look at the year compensation and productivity got a divorce.

https://www.epi.org/productivity-pay-gap/

Wait a darn minute, 1980s is the decade Starbucks started to become a national chain. Wonder what was fueling the demand for coffee? Guess it could be anything. Comment if you have any idea!

Anyways, we can look at all kinds of charts showing a similar correlative relationship between income disparity and increased consumption in caffeine.

It is like most people are just burned out, spinning wheels going nowhere, and the only way they can make it is with drugs. Caffeine is socially acceptable, because capitalism would collapse without it.

And when we look at the meme of millennails drinking so many lattes they can’t afford a home, we can understand something a lot more depressing and horrific about the statement. We as a country are so overworked and traumatized with exhaustion, that the pocket change we’re awarded just goes into more drugs to keep the cogs spinning. Sisyphus allegory and all that.

A famous study into rats found that in controlled settings with nothing to do, a rat would prefer drugged laced water over regular water flavored liquid. So much so, they’d consume to the point of overdosing and dying.

At the time, scientists thought this meant the impact of drugs were all consuming, dangerous, and crippling. But other scientist started asking questions about this. A rat locked in a cage with nothing else to do probably is using the drugs to cope with their situation. What if the rat had their own fulfilling rat life. A rat family. A rat career, dream home, and aspirations for their rat future? Well, the rats did a lot better.

What do you think is more accurate for our life situation at the moment? Are we rats living good little rat lives or are we trapped in a cage (despite our rage), where if we run on the spinny wheel for 8 hours a day, we’ll get to drink water or drugs? And what choice will we make when the two bottles are presented to us as “Options”. Do you want to feel good for the night or prolong your life with the “healthy” choice for the reward of more wheel spinning tomorrow!

They’ve done a lot of research on rats and drugs, but generally they find that rats with access to good social structures have significantly reduced abuse of drugs.

So, why do we need so much damn caffeine anyways? Well, we’re set up to fail, overworked, and traumatized. But what does the system do with drug users? It penalizes them, arrests them, prohibits their housing and treatment unless they follow cold-turkey models, stigmatizes them, and judges all their failures as personal faults. The cog is deficient you see. The machine is perfect, no matter how many cogs it destroys or shatters.

But what society hates is not drug users. We make too much money on alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine to really hate drugs no matter the moral panic. Rich people abuse drugs all of the time to no social consequence. What society hates is people who can’t spend money on or make money for industry. The only value society has for a person in our country is in their ability to contribute to the system.

A person may hate an unhoused person begging for money because of a belief they’ll use it to go buy alcohol, while they themselves are on the way to a bar. Funny that. We also seem to hate that food stamps could be used to buy steak or other “luxury” food. And all of this is mixed with racial prejudice, profiling, bias, and good old fashion politics.

I’d bet good money that within the next few years we will see an energy drink with 400 mg of caffeine. It will come with warnings that say for people over the age 18, who are healthy, and not pregnant. But anyone will be able to buy it.

It’ll have some epic name like Epic. No, that’s already taken. Elixir is also taken. Hell, even Fuck You is taken. I guess I have no idea what it’ll be called. Suggestions in the comments please.

Anyways, it'll be zero calories. The cans will be bold and colorful to attract a younger demographic. They’ll have the next textured coating to create the perfect hand feel. It’ll cost four dollars.

Keep in mind as we develop a caffeine tolerance, naturally we’ll need more and more to meet the ever growing demands of productivity. Energy drinks have always been there to rise up to our new challenges and the market will adjust.

I’m a heavy caffeine user. I’m aware of the risks and we definitely live in challenging times.

A year ago I was sick for a few weeks. I stopped drinking caffeine at the time, because my throat hurt. I had gone long enough without any caffeine that there was no real urge in my system for it. I wasn’t tired nor did I need to be more alert to function at a healthy pace.

But.

Life without the filter of caffeine wasn’t something I particularly liked. I made the conscious choice to continue drinking it, because life in general is exhausting. The risk in general seems low. And I’m American damnit.

And I never stopped to think about how we got here. How we as a nation got to hosting millions of coffee shops, slamming lattes, ordering triples, and just struggling to survive as cogs put under more and more pressure.

I didn’t know before writing this article just how intrinsically American caffeine and coffee are. That our entire country would look incredibly different if we chilled the fuck out and didn’t spend generations hopped up on low-grade speed. And how insane we are as a society in general.

In my article about frozen pizza, I talk about how it is one of the very few truly American cultural identities that exist. I see I can add caffeine to this as well, so welcome to the land of caffeine and frozen pizza. A land built on graves, full of disconnection, and giant monuments of steel and wire.*

And I think about this while thinking about video games like Final Fantasy Seven or Silent Hill and it’s amazing to see just how well they understood American culture.

*Ninth Editor’s Note: This is a stronger stopping point. Your audience will not connect to twenty year old video games. Nor are they related to coffee or caffeine. Your next section should be cut as well. I am surprised I have to tell you this, but do not include incomplete sections in a published article.

Also, I’ve reviewed your previous piece. I’m disappointed. We had workshopped a strong 2,000 word article. Please upload the original and do not speak of “Ĕ̴͈̓r̸̖̆͊o̴͍͛”.

Hey fans, I’m so close to finishing Silent Hill 4! Then I can really bring this article home. Join me back here in a few weeks for the exciting conclusion to this article on caffeine!

https://fayeseidlers.medium.com/silent-hill-american-horror-57ad3e1f01bc

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Faye Seidler

I write essays on literature, pop culture, and video games. I mostly deconstruct and do comparative analysis on many topics in both a serious and goofy way.