LEWISTOWN - After announcing the launch of Alert, a new caffeinated gum, last month, Wrigley's has withdrawn its new product and paused distribution while the FDA investigates the need for caffeine regulations.
"After discussions with the FDA, we have a greater appreciation for its concern about the proliferation of caffeine in the nation's food supply," said Wrigley's President Casey Keller in a statement to The Associated Press. "There is a need for changes in the regulatory framework to better guide the consumers and the industry about the appropriate level and use of caffeinated products."
The main controversy around Alert gum is the ease of accessibility it would have created for children, adolescents or people sensitive to caffeine to unknowingly overdose on the drug, said Dr. Raselette Hunt, family medicine physician at Geisinger-Lewistown.
The Food and Drug Administration plans to investigate the safety of caffeine in food, especially when it is added to foods not normally associated with caffeine that could be easily accessible to children. The inquiry comes on the heels of Wrigley’s launch of ‘Alert,’ a caffeinated gum, right, currently being withheld from the market while the FDA reviews regulations on caffeine.
In response to the gum's original launch, the FDA announced a plan to investigate the safety of caffeine in food products, particularly its effects on children and adolescents, said Michael Taylor, deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine at FDA.
"The gum is just one more unfortunate example of the trend to add caffeine to food," Taylor said. "Our concern is about caffeine appearing in a range of new products, including ones that may be attractive and readily available to children and adolescents, without careful consideration of their cumulative impact."
Such unsuspecting products include Morning Spark oatmeal, Sumseeds sunflower seeds and Bang ice cream in addition to the already popular energy drinks and energy bars.
The problem, said John Ring, pediatric cardiologist with Geisinger Health System, is not just the variety and increase of caffeinated products, but the probability that people will begin to use them in combination.
"For instance, someone will wash down their caffeinated jerky with a Red Bull, or something like that," Ring said. "Very few people end up dosing caffeine appropriately. Rather than feeling hopeful and upbeat, you feel depressed and irritable and anxious."
Too much caffeine can also cause the body to go into overdrive, resulting in a number of dangerous health conditions, Hunt said. High caffeine intake causes excess stimulation in the nervous system which triggers the cardiovascular system, causing palpitations, arrhythmias, induced panic and cardiac arrest, she said.
"It's important to remember that caffeine is a drug and it can be abused like any other," Hunt said. "It actually isn't even approved for children younger than 12. In many cases, caffeine can affect a child's brain development."
The approved amount of caffeine for a healthy adult is 400 milligrams per day, or roughly four and a half cups of coffee, Taylor said. The FDA has not yet set a level for children, but the American Academy of Pediatrics discourages the consumption of caffeine and other stimulants by children and adolescents, he said.
Though Taylor believes enforcing age restriction for those purchasing caffeinated products is impractical, the FDA is prepared to create some type of regulatory system, he said.
"We believe that some in the food industry are on a dubious, potentially dangerous path," Taylor said. "If necessary, and if the science indicates that it is warranted, we are prepared to go through the regulatory process to establish clear boundaries and conditions on caffeine use."
In the meantime, it's important that consumers take a proactive approach toward what they put in their bodies, Hunt said. Take the time to read the ingredient label for new or questionable products before trying them, she said.
"The caffeine industry is all about money and any health concerns are on the back burner," Hunt said. "Until the FDA sets regulations, nothing is going to change and the market will most likely get worse. So it's up to the consumer to be aware."
A list of some caffeinated products currently on the market can be found online at the Center for Science in the Public Interest website, www.cspinet.org/new/cafchart.htm. For more information from the FDA, visit www.fda.gov.