June 1st, 2005

Brad @ Burning Man

Two of the Five: Sucrose and Caffeine

(Sorry this went up so late; I got busy and then distracted.)

I saw a lot of links the other day to a recent article in Science Daily. Two researchers at Tufts announced that "Preliminary Data Suggest That Soda And Sweet Drinks Are The Main Source Of Calories In American Diet." Not the majority source, if you read between the lines, but the single largest source. Somebody over at SlashDot responded by linking to the formula for OpenCola.

I'd never heard of it either. It turns out to be an educational and political project, trying to demystify the Open Source debate for ordinary people by showing how the principles of Open Source apply to ordinary things that people are familiar with, like soda pop, as well as things that most people don't really understand, like the business of writing and selling software. I don't know how well it's working. They do mention, though, that somebody has set up a bottling plant and is distributing cans of OpenCola at trade shows.

Anyway, the reason this got linked was that in the process of reverse engineering Coca Cola, the chemists trying to duplicate it found out that modern soft drinks literally can not be made any sweeter, at least not with anything other than chemical sweeteners. If you're using sucrose, whether in the form of cane sugar, beet sugar, or corn syrup, the amount of it dissolved in a modern soft drink equals 100% saturation; if you add any more, it automatically precipitates out. Cola, in particular, is a slurry of sugar dissolved in carbonic acid, with tiny traces of color, flavor, and caffeine added in. The recipe links to the MSDS, the Material Safety Data Sheet, for caffeine (at an out-of-date URL, the correct link is here). They also dedicate a lot of verbiage to making absolutely sure that they have warned you, repeatedly and in multiple places, just how damned dangerous chemically pure caffeine is:
Inhalation: Inhalation of dust may irritate the mucous membranes and respiratory tract. High concentrations may produce effects paralleling ingestion.
Ingestion: Toxic. The adult mean lethal dose is approximately 10 gm. Large doses may produce palpitation, excitement, insomnia, dizziness, headache and vomiting.
Skin Contact: Causes irritation to skin. Symptoms include redness, itching, and pain.
Eye Contact: Causes irritation, redness, and pain.
Chronic Exposure: Excessive use of caffeine may lead to digestive disturbances, constipation, palpitations, shortness of breath and depressed mental states. Possible teratogen. May cause congenital malformation in the fetus.
All of which reminded me of another of the experiences that I've had that very few of you probably have: I've actually seen someone who took the median lethal dose of caffeine.

It was in late 1978, my freshman year in college, and during the runup to exam week I was walking down the hall to talk to someone else in the dorm. I walked past an open dorm room door; lots of guys left their doors open most of the time, so their friends could wander in and out. As I walked by this one room, I saw this guy holding a box of NoDoze, and heard him ask his roommate, "I've never used this stuff before. How many of these should I take?" His roommate, being flippant, answered, "About 20. I don't know, look it up on the box." By then, I'd walked past, but I found out later that the moron, rather than read the box, did in fact wash down 20 500mg tablets of NoDoze with a cup of coffee.

He was almost finished with his second cup of coffee when the seizures hit. When I came back the other way, three guys were holding him down, trying to keep him from suffocating on his own tongue, while people ran in both directions to get to the nearest phones to call 911 and to get the Resident Assistant. If you do the math, 500mg = 0.5 grams, times 20 equals 10 grams - he took the dose that is lethal to 50% of the population, the LD50, of caffeine, and washed it down with two caffeinated drinks. He lived, but he never returned to school.

(The title of this essay is a side-reference to something the late Terrance McKenna said. He said that the American personality is defined by our five official legal drugs of abuse: caffeine, sucrose, nicotine, alcohol, and television.)