A Nation In Need of A Pick-Me-Up: Our Need for Caffeine

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Alert Energy Caffeine Gum

Energy drinks and soda? Yawn. Now it’s all about inserting caffeine into other foods, from potato chips to mints. What’s behind our need for more caffeine?

On Thursday, gum-maker Wrigley announced it is temporarily taking it’s newest product, Alert Energy Gum, off the market. The company says it is halting the production, sale and marketing of the gum due to concerns from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) over the safety of caffeinated products for kids and adolescents.

On Monday, April 29 the FDA announced it will take a closer look at how safe added caffeine is for kids and adolescents, who are often the biggest consumers of buzz-generating products. The announcement came after Wrigley had just released their caffeinated gum, which contains 40 milligrams of caffeine per piece, the caffeine equivalent of half a cup of coffee.

And last year, consumers and public health experts sued energy drink makers about the accuracy of the information about caffeine content in their products after the FDA received more than 90 reports of illness, hospitalizations and deaths related to 5-Hour Energy and reports of deaths connected to Monster Energy Drink.

Wrigley spokespeople released a statement saying Alert Energy Caffeine Gum is intended for adults aged 25 and older who are looking for foods with caffeine for energy. “We are exceeding current regulatory requirements on labeling and disclosure because we believe consumers should be informed on the amount of caffeine they are consuming in their food and beverage products so they can make smart choices. Alert competes in the well-established energy category,” they write.

Although the Alert Energy Gum may be the newest such product on the market, it’s certainly not the first to get the caffeine treatment. Frito Lay’s Cracker Jack’d and Jelly Belly Sport Beans are among the more stimulating fare that have emerged on grocery shelves in recent years. And despite public health concerns about the dangers of over-adrenalizing the body, they likely won’t be the last. But why the need for so many caffeinated products?

(MORE: Are Energy Drinks Fatally Caffeinated?)

The most common sources of caffeine in the diet include coffee, chocolate, tea and soft drinks. But after the success of energy drinks, which appealed to consumers with claims of being able to boost energy, other brands–including non-beverage manufacturers–are eager to piggyback on that wave, says Harry Balzer, chief industry analyst and vice president at the consumer market research company NPD Group. “I think other people looked at the initial success of energy drinks and that drove them to look at other opportunities for infusing a product with energy,” says Balzer, who is also author of Eating Patterns in America. “The food and beverages we consume are not a growing category. It is not like we are eating more new things. Whenever there is something that’s increasing, a lot of manufacturers want to get into it because it’s growing.”

Energy drinks may have spawned the growth of the caffeinated product market, but it’s consumers who are keeping the trend going.

(MORE: What’s In Your Energy Drink?)

For one, say food and industry analysts, we’re simply tired. “The demand for caffeinated products is palpable. People all over the world cite tiredness as one of their top health issues,” says Kantha Shelke, a food scientist at Corvus Blue LLC and spokesperson for the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT). According to Mintel’s Millennials Leisure Trends US February 2013 report, 39% of consumers say they don’t have enough leisure time. As a result, Shelke says we are seeing a growing market for products that claim to infuse people with some spirit to help them make it through their busy days.

Catherine Adams Hutt, the chief science and regulatory officer at Sloan Trends, which tracks and forecasts food, beverage and supplement industry trends, says there is high public interest in gaining both quick and sustained energy from food sources. “A lot of food products are coming out to address the consumer need because 75% of consumers say that having enough energy to do what they want to do is really important in determining how they feel,” says Hutt. “It is a very important category for the food industry and for consumers. There is data that suggests consumers are willing to pay 10% or more for a product in order to provide energy.”

That’s where caffeine comes in. Whereas products like Belvita Breakfast Biscuits and protein bars are popular buys for sources of sustainable energy, thanks to ingredients like protein, B vitamins and whole grains containing fiber, products with additive caffeine like energy drinks are quelling consumers’ need for a quick energy fix. “Caffeine is very important to the energy [market] because it works. It is an over-the-counter drug that’s a stimulant, and it works. That’s why caffeine is part of these energy beverages and any food prescribed to include energy,” says Hutt.

(MORE: 5-Hour Energy Cited In 13 Deaths and ‘Spontaneous Abortion’)

According to Shelke, it’s common knowledge that caffeine can boost energy and keep people feeling alert. “However, people are not very comfortable about energy drinks and energy shot, and only a minority of the population–about 17%–consumes energy drinks and energy shots. It is these people who are creating the demand for caffeinated foods, believing them to be safer than energy shots,” says Shelke. “These products are also pitched to the young and they promise not only energy, but also enhanced libido and second-winds for non-stop partying. Expect to see more coffee ice cream and coffee cakes and coffee cookies as a way to introduce caffeine into these bakery categories.”

For most people, caffeine in moderation is safe. Some sources of caffeine, such as coffee, may also have additional health perks like lowering inflammation, which can contribute to heart disease. In November, when news of potential risks for 5-Hour Energy drinks were reported to the FDA, Andrea Giancoli, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, told TIME that drinking caffeinated products in moderation likely isn’t a problem, but consuming caffeine in excess is what nutritionists and public health defenders are concerned about.

“For coffee drinkers, the real issue we are concerned about is, Do you have trouble sleeping? If you do, maybe you do need to cut down on your caffeine. Are you agitated? Do you have stress that might be related to being jumpy from caffeine? If you do have symptoms that could be related to caffeine, then maybe you need to be tapering down. As far as avoiding it altogether, that’s not necessarily something we need to be doing if we can tolerate it. If we enjoy that cup of coffee there is no reason we shouldn’t drink it,” said Giancoli.

Although different people can handle varying amounts of caffeine, consuming more than you are used to can make you feel jittery. If you take in more than your body can handle, that’s when the side effects can become more dangerous. “You can get heart palpitations and feel agitated and nervous and like you’re bouncing off the walls,” Giancoli told TIME. “You can feel your heart pounding very quickly, and your blood pressure goes up. Imagine if your body were undergoing this, times 10. It would land you in the emergency room. Your heart can only handle so much, and you are probably going to pass out.”

(MORE: What You Should Know About Caffeine)

That’s presumably what happened in many of the cases cited in the lawsuit against 5-Hour Energy, in which adolescents needed to be hospitalized after drinking too many cans of the heavily caffeinated beverages. And with more products, such as energy bars, chewing gum, chocolates and chips boasting caffeine, some doctors worry that young people, and even adults, may not be aware of how much caffeine they are consuming until they experience some of these potentially dangerous symptoms.

In its natural state, the stimulant, which is found in coffee beans, tea leaves and some cocoa nuts, is terribly bitter and adding even small amounts can affect the taste of the food or beverages. According to Shelke, it is virtually impossible to make a great tasting product that is also very high in caffeine content. Which is why many caffeinated products — sodas and coffee, for example — are also high in sugar to sweeten up the bitterness — another reason they may be less than healthy choices.

Will the trend last? If history is a guide, it will likely continue to peak and wane. Only a generation ago, caffeine-free products were in-demand, as Americans were far more concerned about their dependence on caffeine in the late 1970s and early 1980s, according to Balzer. During his consumer research at the time, Balzer asked individuals about how concerned they were about their sugar, fat and caffeine consumption, as well as about their cholesterol levels. Caffeine was always the top concern.

Responding to the demand, in 1983 Coca-Cola rolled out it’s caffeine-free version, and Pepsi followed with its contribution in 1982.

Now, however, as social media and other digital assets keep us plugged in to others and to our favorite activities around the the clock, maintaining flagging energy levels is the top priority. As quickly as it emerged, however, the trend could shift again. “We are a species who loves new things,” says Balzer. “That doesn’t mean they are going to stick. It just means we are willing to try. We love novelty. It is part of our DNA.”

Public health experts that better regulation is needed to monitor the various (and sometimes disguised) forms of caffeine that can appear in products, so consumers can be more aware of how much of the stimulant they consume each day. (Taurine, for example, is another ingredient often found in energy drinks that contains caffeine.) Currently, the FDA does not regulate the amount of caffeine added to foods like energy drinks and often the amounts listed–if they’re listed–are inaccurate.

“Consumers do not necessarily have a problem with caffeine. They have a problem with insufficient information about the caffeine content in the product,” says Hutt. “This is where energy drinks have run amok. They are not transparent about the caffeine content.”

That’s why the FDA decided to take a closer look at the ways caffeine is marketed to consumers. The agency is planning to assess whether these products, which are often marketed to young children and adolescents, and easily accessible to them, are safe. Agency officials are meeting with  companies that are releasing new caffeinated products, and have said that if studies show that energy drinks or any other foods were linked to deaths, they would force the manufacturers to take their products off the market. Until then, it’s up to customers to get educated about the caffeine content in their favorite products, and make educated decisions about how much is enough for them.

Update: This story was updated to reflect Wrigley’s May 9 announcement that it is temporarily halting production of Alert Energy Gum.