Brainstorm: The Buzz Behind Caffeine

Emma Edmund and Neya Thanikachalam

How much caffeine is too much caffeine? Brainstorm spoke to the experts to find out (and drank copious amounts of coffee while doing so).

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: Hi everyone! Long time, no listen. Sorry it’s been a while, I’ve just been grinding away at all of my schoolwork —

EMMA EDMUND: Now is that a coffee pun I hear?

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: Why yes, Emma, that was.

EMMA EDMUND: Well, I guess I should’ve heard that coming, considering you and I have a quintessential caffeine addiction. What cup are we on so far today? Two? Three?

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: I’ve honestly lost track.

EMMA EDMUND: I guess it also depends on if we’re just counting coffee, or if you’re including tea, energy drinks or even chocolate. You know, the four food groups.

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: Health is wealth. Speaking of health, welcome back to another episode of Brainstorm, a podcast about all things health, science and tech. And if you haven’t caught on yet, this is the caffeine episode. I’m Neya Thanikachalam… 

EMMA EDMUND: And I’m Emma Edmund. Cue the coffee shop music. There we go. I smelled beans roasting, and I needed to know what was going on.

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: Speaking of roasting beans… we spoke with Isaac Bloom, one of the co-founders of Backlot Coffee and a roaster himself. He showed me around Backlot’s roastery, which is in Evanston. 

Let me set the scene for you: There’s a large gas roaster and burlap sacks filled with green coffee beans, which turn deep brown when roasted. When Isaac gets a new batch of coffee beans from a vendor, he tests out the flavor profile of the beans by smelling them, roasting a small amount of the beans and making coffee from them. He uses cupping, a taste technique, to test the quality of the beans and judge their flavor.

ISAAC BLOOM: From the sample roasting and the cupping, I can get a general idea of how it’s going to perform on the big gas roaster.

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: Even when Isaac decides on the roasting style, there are other factors, like the humidity in the air and the temperature of the roastery that can affect the flavor of the coffee beans.

ISAAC BLOOM: In Chicago, in Evanston, as you know, we have some very drastic seasonal changes, so a hot, humid summer day is going to affect the roast in ways that a cold, dry winter day won’t. Over the past couple of years, I’ve had to learn how to adjust my roasting style to kind of fit the temperature and the humidity level.

EMMA EDMUND: Oh, sorry, Neya and I are just prepping our coffee beans. But that’s not to say there aren’t plenty of grab-and-go options in Evanston. Backlot is one of the 78,943 coffee shops on and around Northwestern’s campus. No, not actually, but there are a lot. In downtown Evanston, there’s Colectivo, Newport, Backlot, Patisserie Coralie, Philz, Peet’s and Sherbucks, the Starbucks on Sherman Avenue. Then there’s Norbucks, which is the Starbucks on campus, BrewBike, Coffee Lab for our north campus friends — by God, we all know they need caffeine — and some fun and flirty coffee shops in the form of Brothers K, Reprise and Dollop. And don’t get me started on the Chicago coffee shops —

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: All right, all right, I think they get the picture. Evanston loves its caffeine. And, specifically, Evanston loves the idea of getting coffee.

ISAAC BLOOM: It’s about giving time to something, making it special, making it a ritual, making it a part of your day, a part of your routine. So the experience of coffee lends so much to the final product that you take out into your day with you in a cup.

EMMA EDMUND: So what is it about that perfect cup of coffee, or tea, or whatever poison you pick, that makes it so addictive? NEYA groans. Sorry, sorry! It’s almost Halloween, I had to. But is it the coffee shop vibes, with the cool indie music? Or the way you can study with your friends and cry over finals together? Or is it the coffee itself, brimming with caffeine? 

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: I’d say it all depends on how much caffeine is in my drink — I like something strong, like an espresso or cold brew. Caffeine is great at keeping us up. Unfortunately, one of the effects of constantly drinking caffeinated beverages is developing a caffeine dependency. To speak more on this, I’m going to turn it over to Dr. Marilyn Cornelis, who has spent much of her career looking into the ways that caffeine affects our brains. Maybe she can break it down a little for us.

MARILYN CORNELIS: I would say that there is definitely a caffeine dependence trait that people do have. But interestingly, if people are very interested in cutting back on their caffeine, it’s very possible to do that by just slowly tapering off the amount of caffeine and eventually those withdrawal symptoms do go away.

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: As a frequent coffee consumer, that did make me worry a little bit about how much I depend on caffeine. So, how much caffeine can we have in a day? 

MARILYN CORNELIS: I wouldn’t be too worried about 400 milligrams of caffeine a day. So that’s about four to five cups of coffee a day.

EMMA EDMUND: OK, good to know how much coffee I can drink before keeling over. But why do I drink it? Or, for that matter, why do college students in general consume caffeine? Harris Lieberman, a research psychologist at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, might have an answer. He studies the relationship between nutrition and brain function, and he also does a lot of work looking at how stress affects human behavior and psychology. 

And as Neya said, the effects of caffeine can enhance mental and physical performance, making it of interest to the military, and, as it turns out, many soldiers are similar in age to us college kiddos. So Lieberman and his team researched caffeine use among college students as a marker of the civilian population compared to soldiers.

HARRIS LIEBERMAN: At some universities, they would administer it if the students volunteered, in-person, during a class, or after class had either ended or began.

EMMA EDMUND: Lieberman surveyed over 1,200 students at five colleges: Louisiana State, Kent State, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, California State University Fullerton, and Tufts. They represented the variety of four-year schools students across the country attend. The survey included questions on types of caffeinated products, including beverages, gum and medications. 

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: And the results? Did people consume caffeine?

EMMA EDMUND: Yes — oh yes. Ninety-two percent of respondents claimed to consume caffeine, with more females than males — which, you know, guilty as charged. And people cited all kinds of reasons why, from feeling more awake to improving mood to even just liking the taste.

HARRIS LIEBERMAN: I think what we were a little surprised about was that almost all college students who use caffeine said they used it in some way to enhance their mental, and to a lesser extent, physical performance. We kind of have studied that, for many years, but we weren’t sure that we were going to find that typical individuals out there explicitly said that’s why they use caffeine. If you talk to folks they’ll often say I do it because, you know, it’s just my usual habit in the morning.

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: Well, glad to see science confirms my caffeine habits.

EMMA EDMUND: The real question is, should we stop this podcast to make some coffee? 


NEYA THANIKACHALAM: Sounds like our espressos are almost ready. 

Let’s sign off real quick. From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Neya Thanikachalam.

EMMA EDMUND: And I’m Emma Edmund. Thanks for listening to another episode of Brainstorm.

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: This episode was reported and produced by me, Neya Thanikachalam…

EMMA EDMUND: … And me, Emma Edmund. The audio editor is Alex Chun, the digital managing editors are Molly Lubbers and Jacob Ohara, and the editor-in-chief of The Daily Northwestern is Marissa Martinez. The co-host of this podcast is me, and if you want Caffeine Part Two: Electric Boogaloo, let us know and we’ll make it happen. Maybe. It’s midterm season.

NEYA THANIKACHALAM (from far away): Emma!

EMMA EDMUND: Sorry, sorry! Have a brew-tiful day!

Email: [email protected]

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @emmaeedmund

Twitter: @neyachalam

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