The caffeinated chewing gum has pushed the FDA over the edge.
The federal agency held its tongue when caffeinated potato chips, jelly beans, chocolate, sunflower seeds and energy bars hit the market.
But the launch of Alert Energy Caffeine Gum, from venerable gum purveyor Wrigley, prompted an FDA official to say the agency is looking into the potential health impacts, particularly among children and teenagers. (Wrigley says the gum is "not recommended for children or for people sensitive to caffeine.")
The only time the FDA ever explicitly approved the use of added caffeine was in the 1950s, when it allowed caffeine in soft drinks as a flavor enhancement. FDA Deputy Commissioner Michael R. Taylor said Monday in a statement:
"Today, the environment has changed. Children and adolescents may be exposed to caffeine beyond those foods in which caffeine is naturally found and beyond anything FDA envisioned when it made the determination regarding caffeine in cola."
So the FDA is taking a "fresh look" at caffeinated foods and beverage, Taylor said, particularly at how having multiple caffeine sources in the diet affects health. The agency "if necessary, will take appropriate action."
That's the regulatory equivalent of firing a warning shot. So we may be seeing the beginning of the end of the more-buzz-is-better approach to food and drink.
Other caffeine-laced gums have been on the market for years, and Wrigley may have been in the unfortunate position of being one caffeinated gum too many. The new gum is upfront about its 40 milligrams of caffeine per tablet, which it translates as the equivalent of a half-cup of coffee.
In 2010, the FDA pressured manufacturers of caffeinated alcohol drinks to stop adding caffeine and other stimulants to the drinks, following reports of hospitalizations and deaths among young people who allegedly consumed them.
Both the FDA and the Federal Trade Commission are looking into the marketing of energy drinks that don't contain alcohol, because of reports of health problems in people who used them. The caffeine content of energy drinks can vary widely, from 50 mg, along the lines of a small cup of coffee, to 500 mg.
A wide and weird variety of caffeinated foods have been introduced over the years, from caffeinated potato chips to caffeinated chocolate truffles. Most gain little traction in the marketplace, unlike energy drinks, which remain wildly popular.
Does caffeine pose a risk to children and teenagers, aside from keeping them up past bedtime?
The American Academy of Pediatrics says yes. In 2011, the doctors' group said that children and teenagers should never use caffeine, because it interferes with sleep, boosts heart rate, increases anxiety, and can dehydrate.
But there's no research on the long-term effects of caffeine on children and teenagers, according to Steven Meredith, a researcher in behavioral pharmacology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
"We've got these products like energy drinks that are marketed to children," Meredith told The Salt. "Energy drinks contain quite a bit of caffeine and [are] consumed relatively rapidly. You don't chug a cup of hot coffee before you go out and play football."
Because most adults consume caffeine every day, "I think we forget that it's a psychoactive drug," Meredith says. "It's an addictive drug, like a lot of other drugs."