Caffeine lifts a tired nation, and FDA mulls safety

July 16, 2013

Other categories envy growth of energy drinks, but FDA calls industry to pause on adding caffeine to foods.

Energy drinks benefited from the recession and its sluggish aftermath—not because they taste so great, or are cheap, or are nutritional stalwarts.  

Rather, energy drinks give a quick caffeine lift—to one tired, drained nation.

Their sales surged so much that other food and beverage brands tried to jolt their own by adding caffeine to items in other categories. According to IRi, unit sales rose in only three of the 10 largest center-store categories during 52 weeks ended Sept. 9, 2012 across multiple outlets:  coffee (4.5%), energy drinks (18.7%), and bottled water (4.6%).  Adds Packaged Facts:  U.S. sales of energy drinks and shots exceeded $12.5 billion in 2012 and could reach $21.5 billion by 2017.

So caffeine is in various brands of gum, waffles, syrup, beef jerky, instant oatmeal, water-flavoring drops, potato chips, glazed popcorn, jelly beans, gummy bears and marshmallows—in addition to coffee, tea, chocolate, and carbonated soft drinks.

This growing presence had FDA “pause” the industry so the agency could first investigate caffeine’s safety in food products, “particularly its effects on children and adolescents,” says Michael R. Taylor, deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine.

No telling how long this study will take, what FDA will conclude, or how compliant major manufacturers will be. One early positive sign:  Wrigley temporarily pulled its Alert Energy Caffeine Gum this spring until FDA determines how to regulate caffeine-added food products.

“We believe some in the food industry are on a dubious, potentially dangerous path,” adds Taylor, in a recent FDA Consumer Update.  “If science indicates it is warranted, we are prepared to go through the regulatory process to establish clear boundaries and conditions on caffeine use. We are also prepared to consider enforcement action against individual products as appropriate.”

The Lempert Report urges at least one particular mandate by the FDA:  package labels should state the amount of caffeine in items so consumers can know how much they consume in a day, and make informed decisions that help keep them at “safer” levels—200mg to 300mg per day for most healthy adults, says the Mayo Clinic.