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Caffeine on the Radar

Caffeine is on the radar at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a growing number of new products with added caffeine are hitting supermarket shelves. That’s on top of a wide array of energy drinks and shots that have already expanded the availability of caffeine and changed habits of use.

As a first step to exploring the implications, the FDA asked the Institute of Medicine (IOM) of the National Academy of Sciences to hold a public workshop on the science and usage of caffeine. At the workshop last week in Washington, the presentations and discussions offered a deeper look into the issues as well as the FDA’s focus.

About 25 physicians and scientists gave detailed presentations touching upon the scope of caffeine intake, patterns and outcomes of use, physical and behavioral effects, safe exposure levels, and interactions with other compounds in energy products. Public participation was welcome, and several physicians, scientists and industry representatives offered questions and comments.

It quickly became clear that the meeting’s focus was on caffeine found in “unexpected sources,” such as the new foods to which caffeine is being added, which include jelly beans, sunflower seeds, marshmallows, pancake syrup, and even water. The variety was described by FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg in her introductory remarks as “mind boggling,” and she noted that energy drinks have “jolted the marketplace.” She also said that the FDA’s inquiry was not about caffeine in coffee and tea, but rather about “new foods where caffeine is added.” She also shared a particular concern for “vulnerable populations,” particularly children and adolescents.

The presenters offered detailed data and analyses of the various aspects of caffeine consumption being explored during the two-day meeting at the National Academy of Sciences headquarters near the National Mall. Among the topics covered were caffeine consumption levels and patterns, the pathways and impacts of caffeine on the cardiovascular and central nervous systems, data about emergency room visits triggered by energy product consumption by young consumers, potential interactions with other energy drink components such as taurine and carnitine, and areas where additional research could sharpen understanding.

Moving forward, the IOM will present the FDA with a transcript, or “proceedings,” ” of the meeting. The FDA had charged the IOM with conducting the workshop and delivering detailed proceedings without policy recommendations. The FDA will include the proceedings in deliberations on its caffeine initiative that could result in a new “guidance” document on caffeine. In light of evident Congressional pressure related to untoward outcomes from youth consumption of caffeine from new sources, the FDA is likely to act quickly this autumn.

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