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caffeine

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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Coffee, not Caffeine

There’s always a lot to do in any given day – or so it seems. Household chores, work deadlines, family demands, financial pressures, to name just a few. So, it’s no surprise that many of us crave an extra dollop of energy or a dash more stamina. Happily, there’s a natural compound that helps supply the little boost we seek.

Caffeine is found in varying amounts in the leaves, seeds and fruit of a variety of plants, including coffee, cocoa, tea, kola and guaranà. Many foods and beverages made from these plants retain the source caffeine, along with hundreds of other natural plant compounds including proteins, carbohydrates, phytochemicals and antioxidants. Coffee, for example, contains about 2,000 compounds, including some potent antioxidants that science says deliver some significant health benefits.

While many look to their morning coffee for the added energy or stamina they seek, caffeine accounts for just 2% of coffee’s makeup and is just one aspect of consumers’ much broader engagement with the beverage. Market research shows that consumers reach for coffee for multiple reasons, even satisfying different needs for different occasions or dayparts. Consumers may look for a simple sip to get the day started, a gourmet coffee beverage at lunch and a high-end single-origin taste experience at dinner. And consumer appetite for an expanding universe of taste, variety, experience and occasion seems to outpace the ever-broadening menu.

This complex, personal and even sensual relationship with coffee makes the consumer interface unique. Even beyond taste and variety, there are cultural and social attributes that contribute to the overall coffee experience. Coffee is craved, savored, shared. It’s a travel companion on morning commutes and business trips. It’s an anchor for social meetings, discussions groups, even first dates.

This larger relationship with coffee explains why consumption habits are distinctive. By nature, coffee is prepared and served, blended to taste, sipped, lingered over, even dallied with over conversation. The coffee experience is much greater than the sum of its 2,000 parts. Even as a morning or afternoon pick-me-up, coffee is a lot more than the 2% that is caffeine.

That sets coffee apart from a growing list of foods, beverages and supplements that are geared to delivering caffeine. Coffee’s rich, complex and unsweetened taste does not lend itself to quick or rapid consumption. Coffee is rarely, if ever, “chugged,” but sipped over time by nature of its flavor as well as established cultural and social habits. Energy drinks, on the other hand, are made available as a slightly chilled beverage in small volume containers, designed for quick and easy ingestion. Unlike intrinsic caffeine in small proportions in coffee, caffeine, plus other minerals and sugar, are added to energy drinks to provide the intended “boost” consumers seek in the product.

Also, unlike energy drinks and supplements, coffee drinking is inherently self-limiting. The stimulating effects of coffee’s caffeine become evident to coffee consumers gradually, and continued consumption wanes naturally when tolerance levels are felt. Energy-drink consumers, on the other hand, are vulnerable to exceeding caffeine tolerance levels before natural physical effects are perceived. Also, coffee consumers are highly familiar with modulating caffeine intake for individual comfort levels. These distinctions are fundamental to consumer awareness and staying within one’s caffeine comfort zone

Coffee is a very complex beverage that delivers a wealth of natural benefits. That morning boost is one of them, but just a small part of a much larger story with strong roots in its chemical makeup, physical properties, consumer engagement and cultural accoutrements. Coffee is many things to many people, far outweighing the 2% that is caffeine. It’s two thousand compounds, blended naturally into a beverage that is much more than the sum of its parts.

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