Is the FDA heading toward age limits on caffeine products?

Federal regulators dipped their toes in the giant caffeinated pool that is the American lifestyle when they banned the production of caffeinated alcoholic beverages, like Four Loco, in 2010.

Now, they’re looking to wade a little further, according to recent announcement from the FDA: (pdf)

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has announced that, in response to a trend in which caffeine is being added to a growing number of products, the agency will investigate the safety of caffeine in food products, particularly its effects on children and adolescents.

For the children, of course. Right now, you can pretty much put caffeine in whatever you want as long as it follows basic guidelines and is listed on the ingredients list, but we can’t let that kind of freedom and consumer choice run rampant, now can we? The FDA does have a guideline for upper limits of daily consumption of caffeine— 400 mg, or 4-5 cups of coffee— which I’d wager millions of Americans exceed every day with minimal adverse affects. I know about a hundred or so of those people myself. There is no official guideline for children, though pretty much everyone but the cast of “Gilmore Girls” discourages rampant use among kids and adolescents.

So, what now? Well, the announcement is meant to be spook major brands and manufacturers into, ahem, voluntary action:

[W]e hope this can be a turning point for all to prevent the irresponsible addition of caffeine to food and beverages. Together, we should be immediately looking at what voluntary restraint can be used by industry as FDA gets the right regulatory boundaries and conditions in place. I’m hopeful that industry will step up.

And, on what science would this voluntary action be based? Eh, it’s sort of a gut feeling at this point, as the FDA admits, but why not restrict your freedoms preemptively?

But we believe that some in the food industry are on a dubious, potentially dangerous path. If necessary, and if the science indicates that
it is warranted, we are prepared to go through the regulatory process to establish clear boundaries and conditions on caffeine use.

Michael R. Taylor, deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine, addressed age limits specifically, but not in a very reassuring way for those of us who dig the freedom given he also references “clear boundaries and conditions,” and some bannings: “We are also prepared
to consider enforcement action against individual products as appropriate.”

We have to be practical; enforcing age restrictions would be challenging. For me, the more fundamental questions are whether it is appropriate
to use foods that may be inherently attractive and accessible to children as the vehicle to deliver the stimulant caffeine and whether we should place
limits on the amount of caffeine in certain products.

Both the FDA and Atlantic writer James Hamblin have an interesting take on how government regulation is supposed to work. Here’s Hamblin, echoing the FDA’s odd statement that the “only time FDA explicitly approved adding caffeine was for colas in the 1950s.”

The only time the FDA explicitly approved adding caffeine to anything was for use in colas in the 1950s, not long after increased caffeine replaced coca extract in soda — coca Coke having been implicated in a string of rapes. Much as the Second Amendment did not anticipate M45 Quadmount anti-aircraft machine guns, that mid-century caffeine allowance by the FDA was not meant to speak to today’s energy drinks: Red Bull, 5-Hour Energy, Monster, Full Throttle, CHARGE!, Neurogasm, Hardcore Energize Bullet, Facedrink, Eruption, Crakshot, Crave, Crunk, DynaPep, Rage Inferno, SLAP, and Venom Death Adder. Not to mention caffeinated water, gum, lip balm, socks (probably in development), etc.

As with guns, whether regulators like it or not, Americans are actually allowed to do a bunch of things without the government explicitly telling us we can. In fact, the default position in the land of the free is supposed to be that we can do all the things we’re not explicitly prohibited from doing. I realize many nanny-staters would like it to be the other way around, but as of now, we still require lists of things we can’t do (though that list is sadly growing exponentially), not an assumption that we’re not allowed to do anything until you tell us we can.

So, I’m off to add caffeine to my caffeine and then add that to my malt beverage. Because I can.

Update: Ahh, they’re already falling into line. Pathetic.

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