Why is the FDA Worried About Your Daily Caffeine?

Caffeine was once a stimulant found only in simple cups of coffee or black tea, and once the the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved use for a single food in the 1950s, cola was added to that list. Now, sixty-years later, a bizarre range of caffeinated products occupy grocery-store shelves — from Wrigley’s Alert Energy Gum to Wired Waffles to an espresso bean candy called Crackheads — and the FDA has become a little worried about the effects of all this caffeine on the health of America.

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The agency is considering placing limits on just how much caffeine manufacturers can stick in their food products, restricting what foods can be infused with the substance, and requiring mandatory labels warning that these highly caffeinated products are not intended for children.

Already for NCAA athletes, too much caffeine is considered a performance-enhancing drug, and science has detailed quite a list of the disturbing side effects of the drug: restlessness, mood swings, and dehydration. It can even contribute to heart problems such as mild arrhythmia…

“What we’re finding disturbing is this progression of caffeination of the food environment,” Michael Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for food, told The Wall Street Journal. “There may be a need to impose some limits on the amount of caffeine in certain products.” Caffeine infusion may not be appropriate at all for some products, he added.

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The primary concern is that the culinary landscape of America has changed and caffeine has cropped up in foods that federal regulators would never have imagined in the 1950s. “The only time that FDA explicitly approved the added use of caffeine in a food was for cola and that was in the 1950s,” said Taylor in a statement on April 29. “Today, the environment has changed. Children and adolescents may be exposed to caffeine beyond those foods in which caffeine is naturally found and beyond anything FDA envisioned when it made the determination regarding caffeine in cola.”

Because of these new sources of caffeine, the FDA has determined it must examine the potential impact that the stimulate may have on health, especially with regard to vulnerable populations like children…

The FDA’s investigation has taken a few tentative steps forward; the agency has contacted several companies — including Mars, Kraft (NASDAQ:KRFT), and PepsiCo (NYSE:PEP) — about its caffeine concerns, which include energy drinks. “We’ll gather as much information as we can on the products that are out there and look at what should be the limits and what are the options for us to put some boundaries on the proliferation of caffeine in foods,” the deputy commissioner explained.

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It is not any one particular item on the market that has drawn the attention of the FDA, but rather the “proliferation” of foods with added caffeine. “Any individual product is not a public health problem, but how do we look at the [increased] cumulative intake, and the norms that should govern this?” said Taylor.

Currently, there are no requirements for labeling or limiting the addition of caffeine to foods, except for soda where the stimulant is restricted to 200 parts per million. One possible option under consideration by the FDA is to add a cautionary warning on products about the appropriate use of the product. The only problem is that in caffeine-crazed America, it is unclear whether such a label will deter or inadvertently appeal to consumers.

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