Health News Digest

May 14, 2012

Caffeine: Is There Really “A Welcome Lift In Every Cup”?

Caffeine rush

By  Michael D. Shaw

Readers of a certain age might recognize this tag line from a 1950s era promotional campaign, ran on behalf of the Pan-American Coffee Bureau. Back then, the stimulant effect of caffeine was regularly touted, along with an equal number of commercials in which taste was the most important thing. (Mountain grown…the richest kind!)

It should hardly come as a surprise that caffeine is by far the most widely consumed psychoactive drug in the world. In his 2005 article in New Scientist, science fiction/fact writer and Renaissance man Richard A. Lovett notes that “In North America, around 90 per cent of adults report using caffeine every day.” The major dietary sources of this compound are coffee, chocolate, and cola drinks.

Here is some dosage data:

purple asterisk Drip coffee–200 mL (6.8 oz)140
purple asterisk Tea–200 mL (6.8 oz)  80
purple asterisk Dark chocolate–30 g   35
purple asterisk Milk chocolate–30 g   15
purple asterisk Caffeine pill–per pill  50-200
purple asterisk Energy drink–250 mL   80
purple asterisk Typical cola–330 mL  32

Even though people love their caffeine, Lovett reminds us that we also feel uneasy about it. After all, it can be addictive, and all sorts of scientific papers have been written warning us about its dangers, as well as a few touting its virtues.

Perhaps the best known scare study came out in 1980, and was done by FDA scientist Thomas Collins (no relation to the cocktail). Collins force-fed pregnant rats ridiculously high doses of caffeine, said to be equivalent to 200 cups of coffee in one gulp. Not surprisingly, a large number of birth defects appeared in their offspring. However, when Collins redid the study in 1983, he simply added the caffeine to the rats’ drinking water, and the dose was spread out through the day. This time, the birth defects returned to whatever the normal level is for lab rats.

When the dust settled, the consensus became nothing more than common sense: Caffeine taken in moderation, via conventional dosing methods, poses no danger to most people. This viewpoint is echoed by respected holistic physician Wayne R. Bonlie, MD of Timonium, Maryland. But then, folks don’t always have common sense.

In 2002, caffeinated alcoholic beverages—known as “blackout in a can”—were introduced, and became quite popular, especially with college students. The appeal was the low price, combined with the unique effect. Caffeine reduces the sedative effects of alcohol, so the kids feel empowered to drink for longer periods of time. Since caffeine and alcohol both increase dopamine levels, an enhanced feeling of “reward” is often experienced. Moreover, the resulting state of “alert intoxication” can be mistakenly perceived as a reduction in the typical alcohol-reduced state of impairment.

By 2010, there were reports of incidents such as a case in Washington state in which nine students were hospitalized, after consuming such drinks at a party. The blood alcohol levels of the students—who were all under the age of 21 at the time—ranged from 0.123 to 0.35. (A blood alcohol concentration of 0.3 can be lethal.) At this point, the FDA issued warning letters to several caffeinated alcoholic beverage manufacturers, and the products were modified or taken off the market altogether.

Authorities argue that these beverages created more potent effects than simply mixing energy drinks with alcohol. That said, according to the CDC…

Drinkers who consume alcohol mixed with energy drinks are three times more likely to binge drink (based on breath alcohol levels) than drinkers who do not report mixing alcohol with energy drinks.

Drinkers who consume alcohol with energy drinks are about twice as likely as drinkers who do not report mixing alcohol with energy drinks to report being taken advantage of sexually, to report taking advantage of someone else sexually, and to report riding with a driver who was under the influence of alcohol.

A relatively new category in this space is so-called energy powders, whereby you can make your own “energy shot,” by mixing it with any convenient liquid. One of these products is Fein®, developed by Anthony L. Almada. As explained on the product’s website, Fein uses a unique, single form of caffeine (caffeine citrate), not found in any energy drinks.

Almada and others are quick to point out that their products contain less caffeine than a cup of coffee, even if Fein’s website also notes that coffee contains naturally occurring ingredients that block the action of caffeine that you absorb into your blood. Besides, coffee is usually consumed hot and therefore slowly, whereas shots are usually consumed in one gulp.

Almada was interviewed in January, 2011 by Hank Schultz in the trade publication, and was asked to respond to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association that was critical of the shots, calling them as big a threat as the caffeinated alcoholic beverages. Three reasons were cited by the authors:

Caffeine’s pharmacological effects themselves pose health risks for susceptible people such as children and pregnant women; energy shots are frequently mixed with alcohol; and habitual caffeine usage may confer an increased risk of dependence on alcohol or other drugs.

Almada remarked that it was unfair that the authors focused solely on energy beverages, if caffeine is the boogeyman. “It’s caffeinated beverages, period. Colas, coffee, energy drinks, energy shots. Don’t focus on a certain category when the drug in discussion is caffeine, irrespective of where it comes from.”

Almada believes that coffee (with far more caffeine than energy drinks) gets a pass because “it’s a historical beverage that is protected because it is [regarded as] a food.” Perhaps.

I attempted to contact Almada to ask him about some disturbing material on his company’s website. Included in a list of those who use Fein are “Social people who want to Conquer the Night and Take on the Day!” In fact, “Conquer the Night and Take on the Day” is shown as a registered trademark, so clearly, this is an important point to be made in the product’s marketing.

What other meaning can this have besides primarily appealing to the very youth that the FDA deemed to protect by eliminating caffeinated alcoholic beverages? After all, his product can be easily mixed with any beverage, right?

Yet, he complains about coffee getting a “pass.” People in glass houses…