Caffeine in food? Leave the jump-start to java, please

The News Tribune The News Tribune The News TribuneMay 6, 2013 

New gum contains caffeine equivalent to half a cup of coffee per piece.

WM. WRIGLEY JR. COMPANY

When it comes to imbibing caffeine, we here in the Northwest take a back seat to no one. You can hardly drive a mile in these parts without passing at least two Starbucks and one or two bikini barista stands.

When we buy a coffee drink, we know what we’re getting by ordering one shot, two or more of espresso. We also know that we can be getting caffeine from sodas. But now caffeine is being put into so many other non-beverage items – from gum and jellybeans to nuts and waffles – that we can be ingesting a lot more of the addictive chemical than we might realize.

That’s bad enough for adults, but much worse for children and teenagers – who often are also downing so-called “energy drinks” like Red Bull, Monster and Rockstar. Youngsters aren’t as able as adults to process caffeine, which the American Academy of Pediatrics says can have negative effects on their developing neurological and cardiovascular systems.

So it was welcome news last week that the Food and Drug Administration will investigate the safety of added caffeine and its effect on children and teens. Given the number of children medicated for attention-deficit disorders, the agency should also look into how caffeine interacts with those drugs.

The FDA is already studying the safety of highly caffeinated energy drinks and shots due to the many reports of illnesses and deaths linked to them. Some research already has been done that should give parents and school officials the jitters.

According to a 2009 study, one reason a lot of teens are sleepy in school is that many of them down energy drinks to fuel late-night gaming, web use and texting; this is disrupting their normal sleep patterns. Caffeine consumption was found to be on average 76 percent higher among students who fell asleep during school.

In reasonable doses, caffeine has been found to have benefits – primarily as an antioxidant that fights free radicals such as those linked to Alzheimer’s and heart disease. Various studies also have found that it improves liver function and memory.

Ninety percent of the world’s adults drink caffeinated beverages – and research suggests it’s safe in moderation. But we need to know more about how children are affected by its growing use in a wide range of products. In the meantime, parents need to monitor what caffeinated products their children are drinking – and eating.

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