Caffeine has been creating a buzz lately, and not just in the brain of the user. The ingredient stepped into the regulatory spotlight yesterday with the news that Phusion Projects would remove caffeine and other stimulant ingredients from Four Loko, its signature line of flavored malt liquor beverages.
This came in response to a warning letter to Phusion from the Food and Drug Administration. The product had already come under pressure from state regulators, including in Washington, where Four Loko was recently banned after some students at Central Washington University became ill after consuming the beverage. The drink had already been banished from some university campuses in other states for similar reasons. Major players in the brewing business, like Anheuser Busch, had stopped using caffeine in any of their products in 2008.
What this means for the energy category
These developments pertain to the formulation of alcoholic beverages, and so bear only tangentially on the realm of functional foods and supplements. But the calling of caffeine onto the carpet as a potentially harmful ingredient is significant given that the stimulant forms the active core of so many shots and supplements in the energy category, and to some degree the weight-loss category, too.
“It magnifies the risk (for the energy category),” said longtime industry insider Anthony Almada. “That risk continues to grow.”
Red Bull and other energy drinks and shots have been the foundation of alcoholic cocktails mixed by underage and just-of-age consumers for a while now. And some of these products have been aggressively marketed to young consumers.
“We have a significant unknown component with these energy drinks – putting aside alcoholic beverages that are spiked with caffeine – because we don’t know the safety of the cocktail. We know the safety of the individual ingredients. When you start mixing in a drug, there could be negative or untoward interactions,” he said.
Red Bull at least seems to have invested in significant research with their product. Almada said the company has seven published university conducted studies, though he didn’t know if any of those were long-term safety studies. “Nobody knows about them because they don’t need to wave the flag,” he said. “But when the regulatory agency calls, that’s one thing they can show.”
But the science dossier of the rest of the category is pretty thin, according to Almada. Claims of “synergy” between various ingredients have been made, but not clinically studied, he said.
What about coffee?
Despite the weakness of the category’s science underpinning, the pressure it is enduring is somewhat unfair, Almada said. The amount of caffeine in a can of Red Bull, for instance, pales in comparison to the punch packed by America’s favorite caffeine delivery system: a venti-sized coffee at Starbucks, which can contain six to nine times as much caffeine. And step into most any Starbucks after school hours and you’ll see a phalanx of texting 15-year-olds polishing off coffee drinks. Starbucks doesn’t actively market to underage consumers, but it doesn't turn them away, either.
But java gets a pass, because it’s on the food side of the equation and there is a whole cultural construct connected to the consumption of coffee. Energy shots and dietary supplements are consumed primarily for their functionality, and as such these products are unlikely to drop the caffeine anytime soon. A consumer has to actually feel the stimulant effect, to feel the product working, to attach any benefit to it, Almada said. And because these products exist in the supplement realm, they are tinged with the “tainted, unregulated” patina and an aura of potential danger that consumers do not usually associate with foods.
So what’s a company to do? The answer is not dissimilar to the answer given to manufacturers of other kinds of products: Manufacture carefully, market responsibly and back your product to the best of your ability with studies on safety and efficacy.