Most adults know how many cups of coffee they can have before they get twitchy. We're a race of well-practiced, high-functioning junkies. After all, regular human consumption of caffeine began at least 2,000 years ago, and until recently there was no reason to think our little global addiction posed any threat.
But recently companies began unleashing a barrage of unfamiliar products packed with extreme amounts of caffeine. The trend started with super-caffeinated energy drinks in the '90s, but more recently scientists and marketers have created caffeinated foods and even personal-hygiene products. In the past five years, according to the market research giant Mintel, firms have launched at least 126 caffeinated food products for sale in the U.S. Twenty-nine such products have been introduced this year alone. The offerings include things like Morning Spark oatmeal, NRG potato chips and my favorite, if only for the brazen attempt to draw kids into caffeine culture Jelly Belly's Extreme Sport Beans, which the company calls "Energizing Jelly Beans." You can also now buy caffeinated toiletries like Bath Buzz Caffeinated Lotion.
Public-health officials are worried about the new products for two reasons: first, people might simply add the new products to their typical ration of coffee or tea. That could increase their risk for caffeine intoxication, a condition that causes symptoms like nervousness, insomnia, tachycardia and psychomotor agitation. Caffeine intoxication is not uncommon: according to a 1998 study in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 7% of caffeine users have experienced it. The symptoms usually abate quickly when people quit caffeine, but in rare cases the symptoms can lead to death.
The larger problem with the new caffeinated inventions is that their labels don't typically disclose how much caffeine they contain. And yet some of them are crammed with the drug: Sumseeds, a brand of caffeinated sunflower seeds, contain 120 mg of caffeine per packet, 16% more than in a typical 6-oz. serving of coffee. Shower Shock soap is designed to deliver a crackling 200 mg of caffeine when lathered into the skin, twice the amount in that same cup of coffee.
Earlier this month, a Johns Hopkins neuroscience professor named Roland Griffiths, one of the world's leading caffeine experts, sent a letter to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) urging it to require specific caffeine labeling in light of all the strange new caffeinated products. Nearly 100 fellow scientists and public-health advocates signed the letter. Griffiths reminded the FDA that it has yet to decide on a 1997 petition filed by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) requesting caffeine labeling.
The FDA has not yet responded to Griffiths. FDA spokesman Michael Herndon told me in an e-mail that the CSPI petition is still "active and pending." When I asked why it has taken 11 years so far to review it, he replied, "Some petitions may take longer depending on agency workload and complexity of the issue."
But caffeine labeling is not a complex issue. Consumers should be able to make informed choices; people should know that a Starbucks venti drip coffee can have as much as 400 mg of caffeine.
Griffiths says there's no good epidemiological data yet to show whether the new caffeinated food and hygiene products are affecting public health. But he does worry about one group that can readily access these products: kids.
Doctors recommend that prepubescent kids not have any caffeine, and yet caffeinated candies and gums and chips have strong appeal for kids. Earlier this year, four middle-school boys in Broward County, Fla., had to go to the hospital after drinking energy drinks. The boys were sweating so much that school officials thought they might be having heart attacks.
That's an extreme but not isolated case. Those boys probably wouldn't have paid much attention even if the drinks' labels did include caffeine content, but the rest of us should be able to calibrate our addictions with more information.