Caffeine in the news again

By Amanda Johnson 10/05/2013

The caffeine debate has been reignited again following the 3 May announcement by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that they are planning to launch an investigation into the safety of caffeine in food products, particularly its effects on children and adolescents.

According to media reports, this latest review was prompted following the launch of a new caffeinated gum from Wrigley’s called Alert Energy, in the USA. Apparently a pack of gum is equivalent to ‘four cups of coffee in your pocket’. This had lead to concerns that children and young people may be exposed to excess caffeine intakes when the cumulative effects of all foods and drinks containing caffeine are taken into account. This week Wrigley’s has announced the withdrawal of the gum pending the investigation by the FDA.

News Reports here in New Zealand have picked up on the issue of caffeine intakes in children, with concerns expressed that caffeine intake is increasing in the general population, especially in the 13 to 19 age group.

According to the FDA, caffeine was first approved for use in colas in the 1950s, and the current proliferation of caffeine added to foods is “beyond anything they ever envisioned.”

In the USA, alongside energy drinks, caffeine is now found in jelly beans, marshmallows, sunflower seeds and other snacks, where it is added for its stimulant effect. However, I’m not aware of such foods being available in New Zealand. The main sources of caffeine for us are coffee, tea, cola, energy drinks and chocolate.

While the odd cup of coffee may be fine for adults, and might even be a good ‘perk-you-up’ in the afternoons, countering the post-lunch dip, the key concern with caffeine is the effect that excess intakes may have among children.

Caffeine is a psychoactive stimulant drug that acts on the central nervous system; adverse effects can include raised blood pressure, headaches, sleeplessness and gastric irritation. The latest Food and Nutrition Guidelines for Children and Young People, published last year by the New Zealand Ministry of Health, suggests that children may be more sensitive to the effects of caffeine that other groups of the population. An upper exposure of 2.5mg/kg body weight per day has been advised as a cautious toxicological upper limit, although this is based on limited evidence. To put that into context; a can of Diet Cola can contain as much as 49mg of caffeine per serve; and a V Drink 72mg/serve.

Currently in New Zealand, there are maximum permitted levels of caffeine allowed in cola-type drinks and energy drinks. Such products must also be labelled as ‘not suitable for young children, pregnant or lactating women and individuals sensitive to caffeine.’

It will be interesting to keep an eye on the results of the FDA review as this may well have an impact on New Zealand recommendations.