FDA investigates caffeine-added foods, with world-wide implications

Posted by AFN Staff Writers on 8th May 2013

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has announced that it will investigate the safety of caffeine in food products, particularly its effects on children and adolescents.

The investigation is a response by the food safety authority to a growing trend in the US for caffeine-added food products, and the announcement came just weeks after confectionary company Wrigley’s began promoting a new chewing gum that contains caffeine.

Launching the new caffeine-added gum, Alert Energy Caffeine Gum, in the US in April 2013, Wrigley’s said the new product was designed for adults aged 25 to 49 years. But critics have said that Wrigley’s products are generally available to all ages, so children could access the caffeinated gum.

“The gum is just one more unfortunate example of the trend to add caffeine to food,” said Michael R. Taylor, deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine at FDA. “Our concern is about caffeine appearing in a range of new products, including ones that may be attractive and readily available to children and adolescents, without careful consideration of their cumulative impact,” he said.

“One pack of this gum is like having four cups of coffee in your pocket. Caffeine is even being added to jelly beans, marshmallows, sunflower seeds and other snacks for its stimulant effect,” Mr Taylor said.

The FDA said it had already met with some food manufacturing companies to hear the rationale for adding caffeine to various products, and to express concern. The authority said it had also made contact with the American Beverage Association, which represents the non-alcoholic beverage industry in the US, and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents food, beverage and consumer-products companies.

Current US standards

Currently, US food and beverage manufacturers can add caffeine to products if they decide it meets the relevant safety standards, and if it is included on the ingredient list. But Mr Taylor said the only time the FDA has explicitly approved caffeine being added to food and beverage products was when it was added to colas in the 1950s.

“Existing standards never anticipated the current proliferation of caffeinated products,” Mr Taylor said.

For healthy adults, the FDA has cited 400 milligrams of caffeine a day, which is about four or five cups of coffee, as an amount not usually associated with negative effects. The FDA has not set a safe consumption level for children, but the American Academy of Pediatrics discourages the consumption of caffeine and other stimulants by children and adolescents.

“We need to better understand caffeine consumption and use patterns and determine what is a safe level for total consumption of caffeine,” Mr Taylor said. “Importantly, we need to address the types of products that are appropriate for the addition of caffeine, especially considering the potential for consumption by young children and adolescents,” he said.

Caffeine and alcohol

In 2010, the FDA brought about the withdrawal from the US market of caffeinated alcoholic beverages, citing studies that indicated the combined ingestion of caffeine and alcohol may lead to hazardous and life-threatening situations. The FDA said caffeine can mask some of the sensory cue that people might usually rely on to determine their level of intoxication.

Europe investigates caffeine safety

Meanwhile, Australian Food News reported in February 2013 that the European Commission (EC) had decided to ask the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to investigate the safety of caffeine.

As part of the EFSA’s risk assessment on the safety of caffeine, the authority collected data on the consumption of energy drinks in Europe, finding that the age group most likely to consume the drinks was adolescents. Of the respondents who consumed energy drinks, 68 per cent were adolescents. The study also found that energy drinks consumed by children aged 3 to 10 years accounted for an estimate 43 per cent of their total caffeine exposure.

Australian perspective

In Australia, the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code restricts how much caffeine can be added to cola-type soft drinks and energy drinks. According to Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), foods containing added caffeine must also have a statement on the label showing that the product contains caffeine.

Foods containing guarana (a South American plant with high levels of natural caffeine) must also be labelled as containing caffeine.

In cola-type drinks, the total caffeine content must not exceed 145 mg/kg in the drink as consumed. The Standards allow a maximum of 320 mg of caffeine per litre in energy drinks. Also stipulated are additional labelling requirements advising that the products are not suitable for young children, pregnant or lactating women and individuals sensitive to caffeine.

In January 2013, Australian Food News reported that US reports about the “dangers” of energy drinks had also stirred up Australian concerns, and that current policies were being reviewed.