Who needs coffee for breakfast when you can pour Wired Wyatt’s caffeinated maple syrup over your Wired Waffles? Remember Cracker Jack? This year saw the advent of Cracker Jack’d Power Bites, with as much caffeine per serving as a cup of coffee.
Americans, it turns out, are willing to gobble up caffeine in all kinds of foods — from potato chips to sunflower seeds to beef jerky. Not to mention gummy bears and marshmallows. Energy-boosting foods racked up more than $1.6 billion in domestic retail sales last year, up nearly 50 percent from five years ago, according to the market research firm Euromonitor International.
The trend, experts say, reflects a rush by food manufacturers to cater to consumers’ increasingly frenetic lives — and to cash in on the popularity and profitability of high-caffeine energy drinks.
“This is something that’s going to continue to grow,” said Roger Sullivan, founder of Wired Waffles, based in Marysville, Wash. He says his product is popular with endurance runners, long-haul truck drivers and sleep-deprived college students. “It’s definitely a market where I think a lot of large companies are figuring out how to jump in.”
But the growing interest of big food companies might mean the party is over, at least for now.
The Food and Drug Administration threw a wet blanket on the caffeine-laced food craze recently when it asked foodmakers to take a timeout. Concerned about the potential health effects on children, as well as Americans’ cumulative caffeine intake, officials said they want to investigate whether new rules are needed to govern caffeine in foods.
“It’s a trend that raises real concerns,” Michael Taylor, the FDA’s top food safety official, said in an interview. “We’re not here to say that these products are inherently unsafe. We’re trying to understand, what are the right questions to be asking? . . . We have to figure out, what are the right ways to approach this?”
The agency, which has watched the proliferation of caffeinated foods with increasing alarm, took action after Wrigley launched a caffeinated gum, Alert Energy, in late April with full-page newspaper ads, a promotion at 7-Eleven stores and a NASCAR car plastered with the gum’s logo. Each stick contains the caffeine of half a cup of coffee.
“When you start putting [caffeine] in these different products and forms, do we really understand the effects?” Taylor said, describing the concerns he and others shared with Wrigley executives who met with FDA officials shortly after the rollout of Alert gum. “Isn’t it time to pause and exercise some restraint?”
The company, which declined an interview request, quickly pulled its new gum from the market. While noting that it had put the caffeine content on the label and marketed Alert only to people over 25, Wrigley said in a statement that it was halting production “out of respect for the FDA” while the agency developed “a new regulatory framework” for caffeinated food and drinks.
Taylor said FDA officials have long been aware of smaller manufacturers making niche caffeinated food. He said the agency became concerned when food giants such as PepsiCo — which owns Frito-Lay, the maker of Cracker Jack’d — and other companies began dipping their toes into the caffeinated food market.
What the FDA might do to revamp its oversight of caffeinated foods remains unclear, and it probably will take months or even years before it settles on any new rules. More detailed labeling requirements for caffeine in foods seem likely, and the agency eventually could decree that some products should not contain caffeine.
In any case, top officials decided the status quo was not working.
“We believe that some in the food industry are on a dubious, potentially dangerous path,” Taylor said recently, adding that, if necessary, “we are prepared to go through the regulatory process to establish clear boundaries and conditions on caffeine use.”
The only time the FDA explicitly approved adding caffeine as an ingredient was for sodas. That was in the 1950s, long before the agency could have predicted the proliferation in caffeinated food products.
Researchers have said 400 milligrams of caffeine per day — roughly 4 to 5 cups of coffee — is generally safe for adults. There is no set level for children, although the American Academy of Pediatrics has discouraged any caffeine consumption for young people, citing concerns about “its effects on the developing neurologic and cardiovascular systems and the risk of physical dependence and addiction.”
Manufacturers must include caffeine on their lists of ingredients, but they are not required to detail how much is in each product.
The FDA’s move to halt the increase of foods with added caffeine comes on the heels of other efforts to investigate the safety of beverages loaded with the stimulant.
In late 2010, the agency essentially forced a handful of products off the market after concluding that adding caffeine to alcoholic drinks was unsafe. More recently, the agency has been investigating the safety of caffeinated energy drinks.
Taylor said he is not especially concerned about an individual food product but rather about the cumulative amount of caffeine some people consume, particularly children, given the ever-widening universe of caffeinated products.
And why, exactly, has that universe been growing in recent years?
Roland Griffiths, a behavioral biology professor at Johns Hopkins University who has studied the effects of caffeine for decades, said the caffeinated food trend may be part of a larger cultural shift in how people consume caffeine. “Coffee used to be the primary delivery system,” he said, but “we have a whole new generation of people coming up who are not exclusive coffee drinkers.”
Abraham Palmer, a researcher at the University of Chicago who has researched how caffeine affects people differently, does not see much to worry about in the growth of caffeinated foods. The food merely acts as a different delivery vehicle for the drug, he said, and it is a lot harder to scarf down half a dozen Wired Waffles than it is to drink several cups of Starbucks coffee.
“Caffeine is a well understood drug; billions of people around the world use it,” Palmer said. “It’s hard for me to understand why these newer formulations are causing such alarm. . . . I fear that maybe this is much ado about nothing.”
Still, he agreed with Griffiths that companies should, at a minimum, disclose the amount of caffeine in their products.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents the largest food and beverage companies, has said it intends to work with the FDA to make sure the products on grocery shelves are “safe, wholesome, quality products.” But the group is not making any anti-caffeine promises.”Caffeine has been a part of the human diet for centuries. It is a naturally occurring substance found in leaves, seeds or fruits of more than 60 plants, many of which are staples in our diets,” the group said in a statement.
The nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest urged the FDA in November to crack down on caffeinated snack foods, saying they could lead to “troublesome or serious health problems,” especially if consumed along with more traditional caffeine products.
“I fear that we’ll see caffeine, or coffee, being added to ever more improbable drinks and snacks, putting children, unsuspecting pregnant women, and others at risk,” the group’s executive director, Michael Jacobson, wrote at the time. “How soon before we have caffeinated burgers, burritos, or breakfast cereals?”
The group also wrote to companies such as PepsiCo and Kraft, which produces caffeinated MiO Energy water-flavoring drops, arguing that caffeine “is totally inappropriate to be included in foods consumed by children.”
The nonprofit center acknowledged that the companies had not marketed products such as Cracker Jack’d directly to kids but said that “it’s hard to imagine that the products will not be attractive to children.”
With the big food companies attracting most of the attention, small-time purveyors such as Roger Sullivan have continued with business as usual.
Sullivan said he and his wife dreamed up Wired Waffles after the economic crash in 2008 prompted them to close their coffee distribution business. Their fledgling caffeinated waffle company has produced about $30,000 in sales since the fall, mostly online. Sullivan said he supports more detailed labeling requirements for caffeine and has been transparent about the caffeine content of his waffles and syrup.
But despite the FDA’s concerns, Sullivan does not plan to stop selling anytime soon.
“That’s not going to happen,” he said. “If we waited on the government to figure things out, we’d be out of business.”