Caffeine: The Gateway Drug?

by Enrique Sebastian Rivas

A steaming cup of coffee is what many have every morning, right before they begin their day. For adults, coffee is the largest source of caffeine. On average, 400 million cups of coffee are consumed each day. However, energy drinks have grown into their own profitable market, with increased popularity among younger demographics. Caffeine has also become a trending additive in various foods and candy. Caffeine provides a boost of alertness that doesn’t last. To regain another boost, another dose is needed. What’s wrong with having another mocha latte, espresso, red bull, sports drink, iced tea? Or caffeine-laced enhanced water, chewing gum, potato chips, marshmallows, jellybeans, or oatmeal? Has this mild, daily cycle groomed dependent behaviors in adults? And are adolescents and children next in line because of easy access to these products?

“Energetic,” “alert,” and “vital” are common descriptors for what most, if not all, people associate with health. Caffeine helps achieve these desired effects. Caffeine is naturally occurring in over sixty plants, in varying levels. Major sources of caffeine come from coffee beans, a worldwide commodity in the commercial market. However, caffeine is also found in tealeaves, cocoa (used to produce chocolate), kola nuts, guarana, and yerba mate, to name a few more.

These caffeinated plants have been cultivated for consumption in coffee drinks and teas for centuries. Commerce and food culture have been significantly influenced by these botanical stimulants. It was the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that initially allowed caffeine to be added to carbonated soft drinks; the amount of naturally occurring caffeine already found in foods and drinks is not taken into consideration, because the FDA found it to be negligible.

According to Dr. Roland R. Griffiths, professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences of John Hopkins Medicine, the Coca-Cola Company once faced a lawsuit that claimed that the added caffeine in their products puts children at risk. This was in the early 1900s. Later, in the 1950s, regulatory measures were taken and the FDA categorized caffeine as Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) .

But caffeine is also a stimulant that falls in the category of Psychoactive Substances. Psychoactive Substances generally encompasses three categories: stimulant (i.e. nicotine, amphetamines), hallucinogen (LSD, nitrous oxide), and depressant (alcohol, narcotics, sedatives). These substances can cross the blood-brain barrier and alter brain function. This is why psychoactive substances take a short period of time to affect the central nervous system.

Caffeine can act as a mild diuretic. It can also cause psychological and physical dependence. Withdrawal symptoms are well documented. Restlessness, headaches, irritability, anxiety, addiction, and reduced fine motor functions are a few. Unlike other psychoactive substances, caffeine is legal and unregulated.

Ever since the FDA’s decision to label caffeine GRAS, the soft drink industry has referred to caffeine as a flavor enhancer, without acknowledging its role as a drug. Griffiths suggests that if there had been an acknowledgement of some kind, the regulatory measures that led to FDA approval for caffeine inclusion may have been different. Griffiths emphasizes the importance of recognizing that, “caffeine is indeed a mood-altering and behavior-changing drug that produces reliable effects.” But with the demands of a busy work life, who wouldn’t want or need energy or performance enhancements?

Today, daily routines are often jammed-packed with activities. The Huffington Post ranked New York City as number two out of the top ten most caffeinated cities; Chicago had the title that year. Walk around Grand Central during morning rush hour and a sea of handheld, white topped, coffees-to-go navigate all over, leading many to the start of their day. The Mayo Clinic points out that more than 500mg of caffeine is excessive—about six 7 ounce cups. While that may seem like a lot, many have become accustomed to super-sized coffees. Some may assume one large 20 ounce “venti” is only one serving or one cup. The National Institute of Health states that 250mg of caffeine—about three 7 ounce cups, is considered a moderate amount, though some disagree. But more on that later.

In the December 2012 FDA report, “Caffeine Intake by the U.S. Population”, conducted between 2003-2008, it is revealed that besides the average energy drink, a specialized version of energy drinks, known as “energy shots,” are the fastest growing in the energy drink market. Most energy drinks are sold in 12-16 ounce containers, and can contain up to 350mg of caffeine. Energy shots come in 2-4 ounce containers and can contain upwards of 300mg of caffeine.

There is no nutritional need for caffeine.[1] However, it’s found more and more frequently in a wide variety of products. A brief search on the website EnergyFiend  shows caffeine’s gaining popularity as an additive. It is a rather large compilation. The FDA also mentions that along with energy drinks, waffles, water, oatmeal, syrup, marshmallows, and jellybeans may also contain caffeine. CBS Miami reported that there are even potato chips that contain caffeine. To some, it’s a dream come true.

The vitamin or supplement market has plenty of products with various kinds of extracts that provide caffeine. The majority of products containing caffeine are weight management dietary supplements. In a double blind study by the Department of Human Biology at Maastricht University, subjects lost about 5.9 kilos (13 lbs.), give or take 1.8 kilos (3.9 lbs.), with a high caffeine intake. Is it any wonder that it’s a popular ingredient in many supplements?

Both the GNC and Vitamin Shoppe websites list hundreds of products that contain caffeine, ranging from beauty supplements, skin creams, performance powders, and concentrated tablets. There are many avenues where caffeine is available. And it’s profitable. NBC News reported in 2011 that the U.S. coffee market was valued over 30 billion.

The FDA recently announced plans to launch an investigation regarding the safety of caffeinated food products after Wrigley’s launch of Alert Energy Caffeine Gum. Was this the straw, so to speak? Plenty of consumable food and drink products have had caffeine added to them for many years. Why start now?

Deputy Commissioner for Food and Veterinary Medicine at the FDA, Michael R. Taylor, expressed concern at the aggressive marketing of energy drinks that include adolescents and young adults. The wide variety of new products, which would be readily available and attractive to children and adolescents, are his main concern, especially with the arrival of a pack of gum that would be like “having four cups of coffee in your pocket.”

The FDA noted in a consumer report that 80% of adults consume caffeine daily. They also noted that a study found that one-in-five junior high and high school students consume more than 100mg of caffeine per day. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that adolescents get no more than 100mg of caffeine daily.

Some baristas take pride in the service they provide. The coffee culture is long, and we’ve been acculturated to sip, enjoy, and savor the taste, aroma, and communal environment that surround this elixir, which provided us with a caffeinated boost. The same cannot be said with the advent of energy drinks. Griffiths points out that there’s an implicit or explicit imperative type of marketing going on. A “slam the can” type of direction comes with energy drinks.

In the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), caffeine intoxication is an actual psychiatric disorder that follows “recent consumption of caffeine, usually in excess of 250 mg,” which is about 2-3 seven-ounce cups of coffee or one and a half “venti.” In January 2013, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reported that there’s a health concern because in recent years energy drink-related visits to the emergency room has doubled in recent years. Still, the FDA cited that 400mg a day for a healthy adult isn’t “associated with dangerous, negative effects.” There appears to be varying expert opinions concerning a psychoactive substance.

The question was posed to Griffiths about the effects of these drinks. Theoretically, the daily drinking of coffee isn’t the problem. It’s these new additives that may be contributing to toxicity. There isn’t any data, as of yet, to suggest whether or not caffeine is the cause, but he is “most suspicious about caffeine being the bad agent.”

In 2010, the FDA enacted the withdrawal of caffeinated alcoholic beverages because studies indicated that the combination of caffeine (stimulant) and alcohol (depressant) could lead to life-threatening conditions. A study at the Department of Occupational Medicine, Aarhus University Hospital, which was conducted on 2,554 young Danish men, found that those with high caffeine intake had a lowered quality of semen, but a high concentration of testosterone. There is also evidence that high caffeine intake increases the rate of bone loss.

Is there a way to calculate the dose exposure that the average person gets from all available sources of caffeine? Coffees and coffee flavored foods, teas, chocolates, weight loss supplements, skin creams, pain-relievers, candy, water, oatmeal, it seems that caffeine is coming at us at from all directions. And this is not even taking into account what drug interactions there may be with caffeine. Drugs.com indicate that there are at least eighty-two. Professor Andrew F. Smith, food writer, author and professor of Food Studies at The New School University, has stated that caffeine blocks the absorption of iron from foods, something to think about when consuming caffeinated soft drinks with any meal.

In the business-minded drink and  food industry, I can see how an addictive, “flavor enhancer,” could be seen as a potentially lucrative additive. So, should government action intervene? Worried parents come to mind when I think of how easily available some of these products are. I remember how chewing gum used to come in evenly rolled cigarette facsimiles. As a kid, I was thrilled with how puffing on them sometimes produced two good puffs of whatever the powdered coating was.

With the entire hubbub concerning the Soda Ban, many view “Nanny” type of intervention as a negative. I’m definitely not a fan of micro-management. But I also understand that if I were completely stand alone—with my own private doctor and health facility for the rest of my life—then I would have no economic impact on the medical community.

Michael Moss’ book, Salt Sugar Fat, goes into detail about how the major food companies perfected new food recipes and formulas to “Hook Us.” Plenty of questions come to mind. And this was without caffeine as a flavor enhancer.

I was in military between the ages of 18-22. I used to drink coffee—black—about 6 mugs a day. I used to also smoke cigarettes, a pack and a half a day. I enjoyed it. I began drinking coffee at 14, smoking at 16. And then I was like a kid in a candy store. My life then was even more jammed-packed than my civilian life now. I’m also very familiar with governmental micro-management. I still have an espresso every now and then. I may puff on a cigarette once or twice a year. I would probably try some of these new products. But just as I didn’t like Uncle Sam interfering with my life, I personally don’t like being manipulated by ad campaigns or by the reworking of foods in order to illicit a “bliss point.” Americans defend their right to choose fiercely. Do parents need to be aware of what their children, teenagers consume? Yes. Nutrition awareness and education is always a plus. Does a Bloomberg type of mandate need to come down? Maybe. Lots more independent research is definitely needed. Is there anything wrong with having caffeine? In my opinion, it can be useful. Can overindulgence happen? Absolutely. Is caffeine being used optimally, or is it consumed like water, which is irrefutably essential to live? That’s a question for the individual. And that’s the challenge.


[1] Though caffeine has been shown to be beneficial in some studies in the US National Library of Medicine. One study showed that caffeine improved the processing of positive words in the left hemisphere of the brain. Another study sponsored by McGill University suggested that caffeine might be useful in treating Parkinson disease. And another study, from the Departments of Nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health, showed that there’s an association between caffeinated beverages and a lower risk of Type 2 Diabetes.

Enrique Sebastian Rivas is a Riggio Honors Student at The New School for Public Engagement. He is the Nonfiction editor for 12th Street Journal for Writing & Democracy. He is also a New York-based actor, writer, and artist. He wanders around NYC looking for interesting eats.

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