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COLUMN: Moderation is key for caffeine consumption

Friday, November 19, 2010 | 1:10 p.m. CST

A caffeine crisis is brewing.

It all started, as most catastrophes in my life do, with an everyday occurrence: Me, spilling a cup of coffee.

Mishandling a scalding hot beverage is a personal routine that I have come to cherish. Some people go for a run every morning. Others start the day with a hearty breakfast of two grapes and an almond. Still others watch a morning television program, like The Early Show (though these last people are mostly masochists). I, for one, like to greet the day by buying a cup of coffee, only to spill it approximately one minute later on the sidewalk, an unsuspecting passerby, a chipmunk or, most often, myself.

So, when I overturned a cup of coffee a couple of weeks ago, it should have been no big deal — except, instead of landing on my shirt as is our standard operating procedure, the coffee maliciously drowned my laptop.

Never in all my years of drinking coffee had I witnessed a caffeinated beverage lash out so violently, unprovoked. I wanted to diagnose the problem, but with the left half of my keyboard suddenly rendered impotent, "WebMD" was transformed into an ineffective "M." With limited options, I turned to Google.

There, on the Google News home page, it seemed that approximately one half of all news stories addressed caffeine’s role in people getting drunk and/or dying. Sometimes only the latter, but always in that order. Headlines like "Caffeine Kills," "Man Dies After Caffeine Overdose"  and "States Consider Banning Alcoholic Energy Drinks" assaulted me from my computer screen.

As a journalism student, I've been taught to trust everything I read and to take it on faith that the news presents me with a representative worldview. Consequently, I was overwrought with concern. Did my computer represent just one in a string of victims murdered by a serial killer named Joe? Could I, like my laptop and so many thousands of hapless, sleepless innocents, face death by espresso?

The effects of my fear were immediate. Motivated by my instincts of self-preservation and a desire to be around for the next season of "Glee," I took a vow of abstinence and bravely shunned caffeine — for a full 30 minutes — until I began experiencing blurred vision, clouded judgment and a headache the size of William H. Taft.

You must understand that caffeine fixes are a vital part of my life and reputation. On most days I am attached to a cup of coffee, to the point that it has become my most recognizable physical feature. Baristas in town know my first name, my middle name, my dog's name and probably my Social Security number, too. I am a bona fide addict.

Except, apparently, caffeine might kill me. I didn’t think it could, but then some guy ate enough caffeine powder to fuel 70 Red Bulls, and he actually died. The whole episode would have seemed outrageous and silly if it weren't so dire, much like Christine O'Donnell.

And then, in a separate but equally horrifying vein, there’s Four Loko: a diabolical blend of caffeine and alcohol sold in a can at high-class gas stations across America (except where it's banned).

In the press, Four Loko has been portrayed in the same way sex is addressed in high school biology class: It exists and people do it all the time, but it will kill you no matter what.

Most college students use a basic knowledge of economics to justify Four Loko as efficient and, thus, not that bad. A friend of mine called it a recession in a can: Cheap, and with lots of alcohol. Sober, responsible adults see things differently, but they also didn't understand "Jackass 3-D."

Under normal circumstances, I would not even categorize Four Loko as a caffeinated beverage. It could be Snooki, if Snooki were a caffeinated beverage: It stays out late, acts stupid, gets arrested and ultimately makes all of the other caffeinated beverages look bad. I used to think coffee and tea were out of its league.

Now, I wasn’t so sure. If the alcohol in Four Loko was sending college students to hospitals in droves, did that not make caffeine its partner in crime? This aluminum-clad outlaw, it seemed, was just as much a part of the larger mocha massacre as was regular coffee.

Fortunately, all I needed was a trip to Starbucks to calm my nerves.

There, as I predictably and gracelessly emptied a cup of coffee onto a small child who had innocently ventured into the spillage zone, everything became abundantly clear: Caffeine is suffering from an image crisis, yes, but through no fault of its own.

As with so many trend stories in the age of the Internet, reality has ballooned out of proportion. Millions of people aren't overdosing on caffeine, just on articles about it.

Killer caffeine certainly makes for a sexy, intriguing story — but just as moderation is the key to drinking coffee, it can apply well to other areas, like news judgment, too.

I mean, five cups of coffee a day is moderate...right?

Rebecca Berg is a reporter and assistant city editor for the Columbia Missourian. She doesn't really drink five cups of coffee every day ... usually.


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