Finally, FDA decides to study caffeine in foods

May 10, 2013

Mark L. Friedman, MD, FACEP, FACP

Finally, after months of inaction, the FDA says it will, in response to a trend in which caffeine is being added to a growing number of products, investigate the safety of caffeine in food products, particularly its effects on children and adolescents.

A recent study showed annual energy drink-related trips to the emergency room have doubled in just four years from 10,000 to 20,000. The FDA has been asked to look into 15 deaths possibly connected to the drinks. However, the FDA moves at glacial speed, in part because it has too many things to do and too few people and resources with which to do them. As a result people die. The Congressional sequester that will cut the agency's budget by 12 percent will only make things worse.

Caffeine in energy drinks had been the main issue. Some companies are transparent and indicate how much caffeine is in their products. Others do not. Nevertheless, the marketing geniuses in the food industry have decided the country needs a bigger jolt. It is not just caffeine in coffee or soft drinks (diet soft drinks contain more caffeine than regular soft drinks), now they are adding caffeine to almost any food product including jellybeans, instant oatmeal, marshmallows, sunflower seeds, water, syrup, and chewing gum. Marines, serving in combat zones, use highly caffeinated chewing gum to stay alert at night, but do our kids and young adults need it? I think not.

Michael R. Taylor, deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine at the FDA, says adding caffeine to foods is "unfortunate." Is that the best he can do? He compares having one pack of this gum to having four cups of coffee in your pocket. He says, "FDA needs to better understand caffeine consumption and use patterns and determine what a safe level for total consumption of caffeine is." The FDA has not looked at the issue since the 1950s.

While the FDA fiddles, the American Academy of Pediatrics discourages the consumption of caffeine and other stimulants by children and adolescents. Taylor believes that "the food industry [is] on a dubious, potentially dangerous path." He adds: "We are also prepared to consider enforcement action against individual products as appropriate." What does that mean?

In the meantime, the marketing people in the industry will continue to say, "Our competitors are doing it and if we do not follow, we will lose market share and money." The internal consumer safety folks just roll their eyes and wait for the next death or major negative news story. The marketing folks always win. There is no place in the child and adolescent market for these "wired" products. Company statements that these products will be marketed to young adults are too silly to believe.

Every major food manufacturer lists a consumer response 800 number on its products. Email the FDA. Contact the local consumer reporter at your television station or newspaper. Use all these resources to register a complaint; the companies do listen. When they realize these products are more trouble than they are worth, they are often quick to pull the offensive product.

Originally published May 10, 2013 10:00:08 AM.