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The FDA Eyes a Caffeine Crackdown

The FDA is concerned about new caffeinated products such as candy, ice cream, and gum

Photograph by Henrik Sorensen

The FDA is concerned about new caffeinated products such as candy, ice cream, and gum

Looking at the bizarre range of caffeinated products at the grocery store—from the new Cracker Jack’d Power Bites to ice creams—it feels quaint to remember that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration once approved the added use of caffeine in a food in the 1950s for only one product: cola. Sixty years later, groggy consumers can resort to any number of foods for a strong pick-me-up, from a new Wrigley product called Alert Energy Gum to an espresso bean candy called Crackheads.

This concerns the FDA, which is starting an investigation of foods containing added caffeine to determine if and how they should be regulated. (For NCAA athletes, too much caffeine is considered a performance-enhancing drug.) The FDA is targeting foods such as Alert Energy Gum (which was introduced this week), Wired Waffles, and Mio Energy. The FDA has contacted companies including Mars, Kraft (KRFT), and PepsiCo (PEP) about the issue. It also is investigating the safety of energy drinks.

The unease, says Michael Taylor, FDA deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine, is that in addition to traditional sources of caffeine such as tea and coffee, there is now a “proliferation” of foods with added caffeine. Some, such as the candies, are appealing to children. “Any individual product is not a public health problem, but how do we look at the [increased] cumulative intake, and the norms that should govern this?”

Some of the negative effects of caffeine include restlessness, mood swings, and dehydration. It is also related to heart problems such as mild arrhythmia.

At the moment, there are no requirements for labeling or limiting the addition of caffeine to foods except soda (limited to 200 parts per million). That is left to the discretion of companies. “We’ll gather as much information as we can on the products that are out there and look at what should be the limits and what are the options for us to put some boundaries on the proliferation of caffeine in foods,” says Taylor.

One option, he says, would be adding a cautionary statement on products about appropriate use of the product. Still, in a market where one coffee company named its super-caffeinated product Death Wish Coffee, it’s unclear whether a label will deter or inadvertently appeal to consumers.

“We’ve thought about that and would have to consider that, for sure,” says Taylor. “Maybe the way to address that is to set limits on the amount.”

Wong is an associate editor for Bloomberg Businessweek. Follow her on Twitter @venessawwong.

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