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Michael Pollan has spent his career studying humans’ relationships to nature, food and plants in an effort to determine what’s good and bad for our health.

Illustration by Elena Viltovskaia

Our collective obsession about everything we eat, drink and put on our bodies has also captivated American author and journalist Michael Pollan, who has spent his career studying humans’ relationships to nature, food and plants in an effort to determine what’s good and bad for our health. In his new audiobook exclusively available via Audible.ca, Caffeine: How Caffeine Created the Modern World, Pollan explores how the most widely used psychoactive drug in the world has surreptitiously taken over our lives, beginning more than 1,000 years ago when an Ethiopian goat herder noticed how jumpy his animals were after munching on a coffee plant, to the present, when globally we consume two billion cups of java every day. To test his reliance on his daily dose of java, Pollan gave up caffeine for three months. He slept better, but his productivity was down and his brain power flagged. In the end, Pollan tells The Globe and Mail, he concluded the world – or at least his world – is better off with this ubiquitous plant.

Most things that alter the brain are perceived as bad, why is caffeine okay in your books?

Caffeine is not positive or negative, not in any kind of simple way. As a society are we addicted to caffeine? Absolutely. However, I think the word addiction [wrongly] represents some sort of moral failing. We need to re-examine this perception. If you are addicted to something that is not damaging your health, if you have a legal supply of it, if you can afford it and it makes you feel good, why is it a bad thing? We should not automatically assume that because something is addictive, it’s evil. In my books, the positives of caffeine outweigh the negatives but people have to judge for themselves.

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Clearly we’re not discussing people with caffeine use-disorder, those who drink eight to 10 cups a day. What are the benefits of consuming a moderate amount of caffeine?

I was happy to learn that coffee and tea are the leading source of antioxidants in our diet, which tells us an awful lot about how few fruit and vegetables we eat. They also appear to be proactive against several kinds of cancer, cardiovascular disease and possibly Parkinson’s [disease] and dementia. Chess players on caffeine perform better than players who abstain. Athletes perform better. From my personal experience, I found I think better, I remember things better and I’m more productive when I’m fuelled with caffeine. It’s no accident that employers began offering workers “coffee breaks” in the 1950s. Their output shot up exponentially.

Just how pervasive is caffeine in society?

Something like 90 per cent of humanity consumes it daily, children included by drinking pop. In other words, to be caffeinated has become a norm – or as I like to call it, a baseline consciousness. We are a whole species who can barely get out of bed without caffeine’s help. Civilization is so dependent on it – and has been for hundreds of years – that there is no turning back. Simply put, we function and think better with it. Caffeine has been a boon to civilization and a boon to capitalization. Whether it’s been a boon to humans as a species is another question entirely. If you look at the mess we’ve created with climate change you might wonder.

When did caffeine become a force to be reckoned with?

We know by the 15th century coffee was being manufactured to improve concentration, and throughout the Arab world, coffee houses popped up as places to gossip and catch up on the news of the day. They came to [Britain] in the 1650s and served as a substitute for alcohol, which was drunk morning, noon and night primarily because the fermentation process made it safer than drinking water. However, once the Industrial Revolution set in – and manual labour was no longer the norm – it became unacceptable to be buzzed at work, especially when work began to involve numbers, reading and machines. Coffee houses in Britain popped up everywhere and had great influence. Lloyd’s Coffee House became Lloyd’s of London, for instance. Caffeine and capitalism have had a very mutually beneficial relationship.

What is the most depressing thing you learned about caffeine?

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The only negative I was able to find was around sleep. If you stop drinking caffeine at noon it will still undermine your sleep, at least the kind of deep or “slow wave” sleep which is extremely restorative because it clears the desk-top of the day’s unimportant memories. A cup of coffee at noon is still circulating in your body 12 hours later.

Do you recommend a coffee fast?

Every person has to judge for themselves. I would recommend trying a vacation from coffee just to understand your relationship to it. As addictions go it’s one of the easiest to give up, certainly more so than nicotine. However, I was nostalgic for coffee two or three weeks after I gave it up. I was jealous of my wife when she had her coffee. Frankly, I prefer a caffeinated existence.

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