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NPR Commentary -- October 11, 1994

The Coffee Connection

by James Fallows

Since I'm no longer in eighth grade I suppose I shouldn't say "Duhhhhhh!" to the announcement that the caffeine in coffee is addictive. Instead I'll politely observe that this revelation falls a little short in the surprise department. My own pioneering research came a dozen years ago, when I spent a week with a family that had, without telling me, substituted decaf for all the coffee in the house. Each morning, as I guzzled cup after cup of the strangely unsatisfying brew, I wondered who exactly had driven a spike into the back of my head. Each afternoon, just before toppling over for my unplanned nap, I wondered why I had suddenly become 80 years old.

By the end of that cold-turkey week, I had freed myself from the grip of demon caffeine -- but soon I was back in the grip, because I saw no purpose to this kind of freedom. Even the authors of this latest study admit that caffeine is as benign an addiction as is known. Yes, too much coffee can make your heart pound, and it's not the best way to maintain that dazzling smile. But compared to the other main addictions -- to cigarettes, alcohol, sleeping pills, diet pills, hard drugs, chocolate, gambling, thinness, even being "addicted to love," as in the Robert Palmer song -- caffeine does less harm, and much more good.

Albert Einstein, or someone similar, once defined a mathematician as a device for converting coffee into formulas. Reporters, soldiers, policemen, and medical interns also rely on coffee as their basic fuel. Just as the modern city of Houston could not exist without air conditioning, so the northwest empire centered on Seattle would close right down if there were no coffee to jolt its people into alertness under drizzling skies. It is no accident that the Starbucks chain comes from Seattle, where its output sustains, among others, engineers at Boeing and programmers at Microsoft. The utility of coffee-borne caffeine is so great that we can almost forgive Starbucks for the cutesy concepts like "grande skinny latte" it's added to our life.

The truth is that coffee and caffeine are satisfying not in spite of their addictive power but because of it. The Johns Hopkins researchers listed the ways in which caffeine addiction resembles addiction to cocaine. The mounting physical craving before the hit. The psycho-physical satisfaction afterwards. The increased alertness with the stimulant, the droopiness and eventual pain of withdrawal. Riding the ups and downs of an addictive cycle adds a certain edge to life -- but at a price that's too great if we're talking gin, or heroin. The price is right with coffee. I need some now.

Copyright © 1995, by James Fallows. All Rights Reserved.
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