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Caffeine overload: Is this the best we can do?

June 4, 2013

Mark L. Friedman, MD, FACEP, FACP

Americans have a love affair with caffeine. We seem unable to work or play without a Starbucks or another coffee shop nearby. Even in remote Western North Carolina, now that tourist season has opened, so have the coffee shops. You walk into Ingles, one of the South's largest supermarket chains, and there, smack in the middle of the entrance, is a Starbucks.

Not only is caffeine in coffee, tea, energy drinks and soft drinks, but Wrigley recently indicated that they want to caffeinate a spearmint-flavored chewing gum, Java Gum, with 40 mg a piece of caffeine. Recently, Colgate-Palmolive filed a patent application for a toothbrush (or similar oral care device) that could deliver various flavors, stimulants, or medications to your brain when you are brushing your teeth. According to the recently made public patent, "There is a need for a toothbrush that provides a biochemical sensory effect when in contact tissues of the mouth and supports a method to visually communicate the sensory effect to a user prior to use." Who knew?

Other companies have plans to add caffeine to everyday foodstuffs like waffles, sunflower seeds, trail mix, and jelly beans. However, my favorite new product introduction comes from the ingenious people at the Pjur Group in Luxembourg, which has introduced pjur espresso, a water-based lubricant powered by caffeine. Pjur's new Sexy Six collection works directly on the skin and increases blood flow to deliver a caffeinated "jolt" to the area it is applied.

Caffeine is, according to New Scientist, the planet's most popular "psychoactive drug." In the United States alone, more than 90 percent of adults use it every day. The Food and Drug Administration is concerned about the total amount of caffeine we consume each day. And the number of people seeking emergency treatment after ingesting energy drinks doubled to more than 20,000 in 2011, according to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

In fairness, the science about caffeine is mixed. There have been documented cases of fatal overdoses caused by "caffeine toxicity," though these are very rare. Scientists at Johns Hopkins University, studying its addictive properties, found that withdrawal symptoms included tiredness, headaches, difficulty concentrating, muscle pain, and nausea.

However, there is far from any kind of scientific consensus that caffeine use is harmful. A recent study by the Harvard School of Public Health suggested that "coffee drinking doesn't have any serious detrimental health effects" and that drinking up to six cups a day was "not associated with increased risk of death from any cause." The March of Dimes disagrees and counsels women who are pregnant or are thinking about getting pregnant to not consume more than 200 mg of caffeine per day, which is about one 12-ounce cup of coffee.

According to the lobbying arm of the supermarket industry, The Food Marketing Institute, the average supermarket carries 38,718 items. Is adding caffeine to candy, toothpaste, waffless and sexual enhancers the best the new product development people can do? I think not.

Full disclosure: I enjoy two cups of coffee a day.

Jeff Nedelman has more than 30 years of experience in various industries, including a stint as a Chief of Staff to a U.S. Senator and chief lobbyist for the nation's largest food trade association. In all those years, Jeff has learned that the shortest distance between two political points is not a straight line.

Originally published Jun 4, 2013 10:00:25 AM.