Warning: FDA Wants to Regulate Your Caffeine Buzz

Health officials ponder the safety of caffeine in food, candy and gum

While rummaging through the cupboards for a snack the other day, I came across the last Clif Bar in the house. As I tore it open, I looked down at the package and read, “Contains Caffeine.” It was 3pm, and, though tired, I wasn’t sure if a caffeinated buzz was exactly what I needed, especially as I was already drinking a glass of homemade iced tea. Nonetheless, it was the most convenient snack on-hand and I needed something quick. It satisfied my hunger, but the tradeoff was a galloping heart 30 minutes later.

It used to be that the only grocery items that contained caffeine were tea, coffee and soda. Now, food manufacturers are rushing to add a feel-good jolt to everything from granola bars and energy drinks to even bottled water. Not surprisingly, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is feeling jittery over this new development.

The latest item to hit the shelves this week -- Wrigley Alert Energy Caffeine Gum --has prompted FDA officials to reexamine the safety of caffeinated products, especially those marketed towards kids and teens. Besides the recent ban on alcoholic energy drinks, this is the first time since the 1950s -- when they granted cola drinks permission to use the ingredient -- that the FDA has looked at caffeine as a food additive.

The FDA currently lists caffeine as a “generally recognized as safe” ingredient, when it makes up .02 percent of a cola beverage. However, it has not been regulated in other contexts.

Because the food landscape has changed so much since then, the FDA believes it’s time to set new standards on what is acceptable. The point, they say, is not to vilify caffeine, but to ensure that no one accidentally ingests more than what is safe. “FDA is taking a fresh look at the potential impact that the totality of new and easy sources of caffeine may have on the health of children and adolescents, and if necessary, will take appropriate action,” said FDA spokesperson Mike Taylor, in a statement. “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.”

While one serving of caffeine-spiked gum or jelly beans isn’t likely to hurt anyone, we all know that kids have a sneaky way of getting into things they’re not supposed to -- especially when they look like candy. And that’s exactly what the FDA wants to avoid.

As I found out earlier this week, too much caffeine from a variety of sources can lead to agitation, anxiety and sleeplessness. Though uncomfortable, the symptoms in my case were thankfully benign. Still, were a child to get into a seemingly harmless stash of snacks, the results might not be so harmless. In severe cases, a caffeine overdose can be life-threatening. The FDA will soon determine if that’s a risk they’re willing to let food manufacturers take.

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