FDA Probes Wider Caffeine Use in Food

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Harvard Medical School
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FDA Probes Wider Caffeine Use in Food

May 3, 2013


News Review From Harvard Medical School -- FDA Probes Wider Caffeine Use in Food

Caffeine has been showing up recently in snack foods, candy and gum. Now U.S. food regulators are taking an interest. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says it will look at the effects of caffeinated foods on children's health and take action if necessary. The Associated Press wrote about it April 30. The announcement came in response to a new product that went on the market this week, Wrigley's Alert Energy Gum. The agency already is investigating the use of caffeine in energy drinks and energy shots. The FDA has given specific approval to the use of caffeine in a food or drink only once, for colas. That decision was in the 1950s. An official said the recent expansion of caffeine use in foods is "disturbing" and "beyond anything FDA envisioned." Other recent products that contain caffeine include Jelly Belly Extreme Sport Beans, snacks from ARMA Energy and Frito-Lay's Cracker Jack'd Power Bites. Labels say the products are for adult use only. But critics say they could be attractive to children as well.

By Mary Pickett, M.D.
Harvard Medical School

What Is the Doctor's Reaction?

Hi doctor,

I'll make it short. Could you please let me know if anything in this supplement might be harmful to me? I don't use it for weight loss but just something to help me with more energy.

Thanks for your advice in this matter.

I am a primary care doctor. I get questions from patients all the time about supplements, energy drinks, diet pills and herbal mixtures that have been advertised. This was a message I got last week.

Many of these "energy boosters" have caffeine as their active ingredient. That was true for the supplement my patient was asking me about in this message. Each pill had the amount of caffeine that you would get from two cups of coffee.

Caffeine boosters and snacks are in the news right now. This week, Wrigley started selling a caffeinated gum, calling it "the right energy, right now."

Food manufacturers have also recently put caffeine into candy, chocolates, jelly beans, trail mix, chips and other snack foods.

Some people are getting more caffeine through these energy snacks than they ever got from coffee. They are being marketed as a wellness product -- for more energy, better athletic performance. So are caffeinated snacks safe?

In moderation, they are probably not going to do harm.

However, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) received 92 reports in 4 years about illnesses, hospital stays and deaths that came after people drank an energy drink named 5-Hour Energy. The FDA has also received reports of several deaths possibly linked to Monster Energy Drink. These reports do not prove that the caffeinated drinks actually caused the deaths.

Caffeine has its effect in the body by triggering the brain to make extra adrenaline-type hormones. This can stress the heart and raise blood pressure.


What Changes Can I Make Now?

Caffeine is not a problem in the early part of the day, and in small amounts. But it is good for you to know the side effects of regular, heavy use of caffeine. If you want more energy, the healthiest way to get that is by exercising and by getting enough sleep, not by using caffeine:

  • Caffeine may be linked to an increased heart attack risk. Researchers focused on people with slow caffeine metabolism. This means that caffeine stays in their bodies for a long time. Among this subgroup, heart attacks were more likely to occur in heavy coffee drinkers. Drinking 2 to 3 cups of coffee each day seemed to be linked with a 36% increase in heart attack risk. With 4 or more cups each day, the increase appeared to be 64%. This study was not designed in a way that would tell us for sure that there is risk from caffeine.
  • Unfiltered coffee might ever-so-slightly increase your total cholesterol levels. Drinking 6 cups of unfiltered coffee (such as espresso) daily appears to increase total cholesterol by about 12 milligrams per deciliter. This small change is not much to be concerned about.
  • Heavy coffee intake might change your blood level of homocysteine. This is a substance that has been linked with heart risk. In one study, people who drank 6 cups of coffee daily had a higher level of homocysteine than people who drank no coffee.
  • Drinking 3 or more cups per day is linked with a higher risk of miscarriage in early pregnancy.
  • Caffeine can thin your bones. It causes some calcium to filter out of the body through your kidneys.
  • For some people, caffeine causes headaches. This is a common symptom of caffeine withdrawal. Other withdrawal symptoms are fatigue, foggy thinking and an irritated mood.
  • Caffeine reliably causes insomnia. This is true for caffeine consumed as early in the day as noon.
  • Coffee or tea with meals can make you absorb less iron from the foods you eat.
  • Caffeine can cause anxiety symptoms.

But there is good news, too.

  • Some cancers seem to grow less if you consume caffeine.
  • Caffeine can stimulate a bowel movement. Morning coffee helps people to stay "regular."
  • Sometimes, caffeine can take away a migraine headache.
  • Caffeine is linked with a slightly lower diabetes risk.


What Can I Expect Looking to the Future?

The Nurses' Health Study and the Physicians' Health Study each included tens of thousands of people. These studies showed no difference in diabetes or heart risk even for people drinking five cups of coffee per day. That is very reassuring about caffeine as a safe product.

But now caffeine is being packaged in a way it can be just popped into your mouth. So it is possible to get a much bigger dose of caffeine at one time. The FDA is talking about restricting whether ads for caffeinated products may target children.

Mostly, caffeine seems safe in moderate quantities. But we don't yet understand a "latte" about the full spectrum of risks or hazards of caffeine.

Last updated May 03, 2013

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