The Times West Virginian

Opinion

May 1, 2013

Disturbing trend of adding caffeine to foods must be examined closely

Disturbing.

That’s how Michael Taylor, who serves as deputy commissioner of foods for the Food and Drug Administration, described the current proliferation of caffeine that’s being added to foods.

It is pretty disturbing when you consider all the foods that are being pumped with caffeine. Candy. Nuts. Even gum.

The reason? Companies add caffeine so the food provides an energy boost to the person consuming it.

But that’s caused a growing concern, so the FDA has decided it’s time to investigate these foods’ safety.

As reported by The Associated Press, the agency’s new look at added caffeine and its effects is in response to a caffeinated gum introduced this week by Wrigley. Called Alert Energy Gum, it promises “the right energy, right now.”

Taylor said the FDA will look at the potential impact these “new and easy sources” of caffeine will have on children’s health and will take action if necessary. He pointed out that the agency will look at the added caffeine in its totality — that means that while one product might not cause adverse effects, the increasing number of caffeinated products on the market could mean more adverse health effects for children.  

Many of the companies adding caffeine to their products have labeled them as being for adult use only. But critics say it’s not enough for the companies to say they are marketing the products to adults when the caffeine is added to items like candy, which is naturally attractive to children.

Even more troubling? The AP reports that major medical associations have warned that too much caffeine can be dangerous for children, who have less ability to process the stimulant than adults. Caffeine has even been linked to harmful effects on young people’s developing neurologic and cardiovascular systems.

So if steps to regulate caffeine aren’t taken, where does it end?

“Could caffeinated macaroni and cheese or breakfast cereal be next?” said Michael Jacobson, who serves as director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “One serving of any of these foods isn’t likely to harm anyone. The concern is that it will be increasingly easy to consume caffeine throughout the day, sometimes unwittingly, as companies add caffeine to candies, nuts, snacks and other foods.”

This is the second time in recent months that the use of caffeine has been an issue.

In March, more than 50 percent of voters in the Times West Virginian’s weekly online poll agreed that energy drinks should be regulated, saying children especially should never be allowed to purchase such drinks.

Those voters were responding to a question of whether the FDA should put the brakes on children being allowed to purchase energy drinks, which contain more than 200 milligrams of caffeine in just one two-ounce bottle. To put that in perspective, a regular cup of coffee has 95 milligrams of caffeine. And it’s usually not gulped in one swift drink.

The FDA is investigating the safety of energy drinks and energy shots, prompted by consumer reports of illness and death. The decision to also investigate the safety of added caffeine in food is a smart step in the right direction.

As Taylor said, the use of caffeine in foods is a disturbing trend, and one that must be examined closely.

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