By Marie Mccullough The Philadelphia Inquirer
If you were unaware caffeine was creeping into foods until last month, when Wrigley was blasted for putting the stimulant in a new gum, here’s the latest buzz.
The growing list of so-called energy foods includes such famous names as Frito-Lay’s Cracker Jack’D. There’s also Jelly Belly Extreme Sport Beans, Hershey’s Ice Breakers Energy mints, and Kraft Foods MiO Energy liquid water enhancer.
Caffeine can now be consumed in waffles, maple syrup, cookies, gums, gummi bears, popcorn, marshmallows, hot sauce, jerky — and more — made by small Internet entrepreneurs.
Even the Food and Drug Administration was only vaguely aware of this trend. For one thing, these are novelty and niche products that aren’t on grocers’ shelves yet.
For another, manufacturers don’t have to tell the agency when they add the habit-forming, potentially toxic chemical to foods — not even candy and snacks likely to appeal to children.
All the makers have to do is list caffeine as an ingredient on the label. The total amount? They needn’t say.
As caffeinated foods come on the market, “we’ve got no heads-up about them,” said Michael R. Taylor, deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine at FDA.
Wrigley’s Alert gum was the tipping point.
Taylor said the FDA would investigate the safety of caffeine in foods, particularly the effects on children and teens. He anticipates a crackdown.
A regulatory buzzkill won’t be quick or easy. So-called energy foods reflect cultural, commercial and consumer factors, just like two other public health betes noires: caffeinated energy drinks and sugary sodas.
Although Wrigley promptly said it would “pause” production of its Alert gum “out of respect” for the FDA, other companies are showing no such restraint.
Along with reams of research on coffee, the FDA and its advisers will no doubt review data on a newer source of zip: energy drinks.
A tsunami of brands flooded the U.S. market after Red Bull’s 1997 debut, with many sold as dietary supplements, a barely regulated category.
This year, projections are that $19 billion worth of energy drinks will be glugged, mostly by adolescents and young adults.
In moderate amounts, caffeine can ward off drowsiness and improve alertness. Caffeinated coffee, studies suggest, reduces the risk of gallstones, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes and suicide.
But moderation is not the mantra of energy drinks and shots, or of its main customers: young males. With names like Full Throttle, Monster, Rockstar and Hardcore Energize Bullet, these quaffs typically have two to seven times as much caffeine as a can of cola.
Colas are the only foods with an FDA caffeine limit — 71 mg in a 12-ounce can — although most brands have far less. In comparison, a 5-ounce cup of coffee has about twice as much on average, or 115 mg.
Studies have linked energy-drink consumption to inadequate sleep, obesity, bad grades, depression, risky behavior such as unsafe sex, and “toxic jock identity” (basically, belligerence).
One reason caffeine is so lightly regulated is that it is “Generally Recognized As Safe” by experts when consumed normally, which for many years meant in coffee or cola.