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Hidden caffeine lurks in more than just energy drinks

By Marie McCullough

The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA — If you were unaware caffeine was creeping into foods until recently, 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, gummy 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 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. Calling it “one more unfortunate example,” 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.

“Until we’re able to marshal the (scientific) evidence to take regulatory action, it’s the decision of these companies whether they should be marketing these products,” Taylor said.

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 milligrams 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 milligrams.

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).

“Caffeine-loaded energy drinks have now crossed the line from beverages to drugs delivered as tasty syrups,” said a 2010 editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

Despite such pointed – some would say overwrought – warnings, only a sub-genre of energy drinks has been reined in. After reports of deaths and hospitalizations linked to caffeinated alcoholic drinks, the FDA in 2010 sent warning letters to the makers. The buzzed boozes, or at least the caffeine in them, vanished.

One reason caffeine is so lightly regulated is that it is “Generally Recognized As Safe” (GRAS) by experts when consumed normally, which for many years meant in coffee or cola. The FDA allows manufacturers to determine whether a new food ingredient, or a new use of an old ingredient, is generally safe.

“What we’ve seen, first with energy drinks, is caffeine moving into other products” besides coffee, Taylor said. “Manufacturers are adding higher levels of caffeine, and it’s being marketed in a different way.”

In March, 18 physicians and researchers sent the FDA a letter that concluded the caffeine levels in energy drinks are not safe under the GRAS standards. That echoed the American Academy of Pediatrics, which in 2011 said the scientific evidence showed “caffeine and other stimulant substances contained in energy drinks have no place in the diet of children and adolescents.”

Beverage makers say the alarms are unfounded and unfair.

“It’s something we’re prepared to work around,” he said. “There are other stimulants you can put in food. We have alternatives. We have backup plans – and we have to.”