It’s a perennial problem. Thanksgiving rolls around and, try as we might, the post-lunch sleepiness threatens to get the better of us. Thank goodness for coffee – the most beloved pick-me-up and all-round savior of the day. But, unlike your post-prandial espresso, the new generation of caffeine-infused edibles are conspicuously lacking cGMP and HACCP information – should we be worried about their potential risk to our health? Read on to learn more…
Once again, it is that time of the year. No, not the time of food poisonings and recalls (although that too is likely so stay tuned) but of festivities and feastings. Indeed, that quintessentially North American holiday – Thanksgiving – is almost upon us and, for the majority of folks celebrating this year, it means an overindulgence in the dual markers of the season: food and family. And, much as we love our relatives, it can be a time when we see a little too much of them, leading many of us to escape into overindulging that other holiday tradition: the turkey. And anyone who has ever piled their plate high with turkey, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes and Great-Aunt Enid’s Famous Green Bean-Jello Casserole will know where this leads: satiety, somnolence, and oftentimes snoring. Hopefully while someone else clears away the dishes. For those hosting the annual get-together, however, post-meal somnolence can lead to strife, when the guests have left and all that remains between you and an over-wrought spouse is a sad turkey carcass and a slowly warming bottle of Veuve Cliquot Brut you were saving for later…
So with familial harmony in mind, we reviewed the possible antidotes to that tryptophan-induced sleepiness and found that one of the most common ways in which we pull ourselves out of the food coma that is Thanksgiving afternoon is to reach for a shot of that trusty stimulant stand-by, caffeine. A substance naturally occurring in coffee beans, cacao, tea leaves, and guarana, caffeine is a member of the methylxanthine family of drugs which act on the central nervous system, stimulate the heart muscle, act as a diuretic, and regulate blood flow through the endothelial system. With a long and beloved history as discussed in our earlier article, How Do You Take Your Coffee – with Wine or Cockroach Milk?, caffeine is available to us via the socially graceful delivery system of the daily cup of coffee. But among the young, hip consumer sector the humble cup of joe is being pushed aside in favor of a delivery mechanism that boasts a more impactful dose of our favorite pick-me-up, with energy drinks like Red Bull apparently becoming the de facto response to sleepiness. In fact, since its introduction in 1987, Red Bull has fast become the leading player in the energy drinks market, not only selling over 68 billion cans to date but defining an entire market segment along its journey. Containing around 80mg of caffeine which is somewhat comparable to a cup of regular coffee, Red Bull also incorporates B-Group vitamins and taurine, a ‘conditionally essential’ amino acid, meaning it is in part synthesized by the body and in part derived from diet. Particularly concentrated in the brain, heart, and in the blood, taurine is necessary for building proteins within the body, especially in repairing muscle, and supplementation may be an effective way of protecting against atherosclerosis, stroke, and heart attack.(1) So perhaps, after ingesting way too much animal protein in the form of a turkey’s leg, taurine is exactly what our hearts may need…
But not everyone has either access to or a taste for energy drinks. So for those of us who are not on board the Red Bull train or who just don’t have the digestive bandwidth for another full beverage, what can we do? Fortunately a veritable plethora of caffeine-powered alternatives await the sleepiest of us within easy reach at the grocery store.
Just as East Coast favorite Dunkin’ Donuts rebrands to the abbreviated Dunkin’ (prompting coffee drinkers from Connecticut to Maine to wonder: “Wait – that was their full name?”), a novel way to enjoy their signature brew has hit the market in an innovative and elegantly portable package. Tierra Nueva, a private label manufacturer based in Miami, FL, pivoted in 2012 from specializing in confectionary manufacture, distribution, and retail to creating edible coffee. And the chocolate manufacturing legacy of Tierra Nueva has stood it in good stead for creating a product that screams sweet indulgence while offering potent stimulant functionality. Thanks to the company’s proprietary process, Dunkin’s coffee has been ‘transformed into a silky-smooth square that is combined with natural ingredients to create an incredible, edible taste sensation.’(2) Coffee Thins™ might just look like the bite-sized squares of chocolate that we often pick up as impulse purchases at the checkout but they are pure coffee, and are already available at major retailers in single servings or in 12-count bags.
For some consumers, however, nibbling a caffeine square that so closely resembles chocolate may result in a full-on chocolate binge, so fortunately Coffee Thins™ are not the only caffeinated snack in town. The Caffeine Bullet, for instance, is a chewable mint-flavored product developed for endurance athletes – think marathon runners or triathletes – or those in training. Formulated with 100mg of caffeine and a blend of the four most critical electrolytes, the Caffeine Bullet offers a fast delivery of the stimulant that can easily be consumed during intense activity such as during a race, with four individual chews delivering the recommended 400mg over time instead of in one jolting shot. In addition, a consumable like the Caffeine Bullet skirts the issue of empty calories, extra carbohydrates, and digestive bloat associated with energy drinks and the pre-measured 100mg doses make it easy to remember how much of the supplement has been ingested over time. And thinking about extending the delivery window brings us to the next issue: when it comes to caffeine, how much is too much?
According to a news report from Reuters, an otherwise healthy 16-year-old died last year after drinking a fast food latte, a highly-caffeinated energy drink, and a soda within a two-hour timeframe. Suffering a ‘caffeine-induced cardiac event causing a probable arrhythmia,’ Davis Allen Cripe collapsed in his South Carolina high school classroom and could not be revived.(3) Gary Watts, county coroner of Richland County, SC, ruled however that it was not the amount of caffeine consumed that caused the death but the speed with which it was imbibed: ‘“This is not a caffeine overdose,” Watts said. “[…] it was just the way that it was ingested over that short period of time, and the chugging of the energy drink was what the issue was with the cardiac arrhythmia. […] We’re not trying to speak out totally against caffeine […but] we believe people need to pay attention to their caffeine intake and how they do it, just as they do with alcohol or cigarettes.”’(4)
The physical effects of excess caffeine are serious and range from confusion and disorientation to vomiting, spiking blood pressure, seizure, chest pain, and – as we’ve seen – death. Yet, despite the danger, caffeine is a common ingredient in a host of drinks and supplements that the average consumer may not even be aware of. Some vitamin-infused drinks, for example, contain the compound, as do sodas, and some OTC cold/flu therapies. Although we cannot know the exact dose of the stimulant Cripe ingested during his beverage binge, a quick tally of the caffeine content of the latte, soda, and energy drink would equate to approximately 500mg – or 100mg above the daily maximum amount recommended by the Mayo Clinic in a report issued in March 2017. And that 400mg is the dosage recommended for adults – as a minor, Cripe should ideally have kept his intake at or below 100mg according to guidelines developed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.(5)
Advising manufacturers that their products may be ‘dangers and present a significant or unreasonable risk of illness or injury to consumers’ the FDA’s commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD, acknowledged that ‘these products are sometimes being used in potentially dangerous ways’ and that the ‘highly concentrated forms of caffeine that are being sold in bulk packages are generally illegal under current law’ when sold directly to the end user.(6) These include bottles and packages containing multiple doses of the drug that consumers measure out for themselves but when a half cup of concentrated liquid caffeine can contain 2000mg of the stimulant and a single teaspoon of the powdered product can offer 3200mg, these represent a toxic dose.(7)
And caffeine is especially problematic is insofar as we, as consumers, tend not to take it overly seriously: after all, we’re not talking about street drugs here, just our early morning Starbucks. But the danger is nonetheless very real. With 2.5 teaspoons of bulk processed liquid caffeine delivering 200mg of the drug and manufacturers selling the product in gallon containers, the potential for overdose is acute. Moreover, as the FDA points out in its news release of April this year, the clear liquid may easily be confused with other common household items such as distilled water or white vinegar.(8)
So perhaps it is time for us as consumers to start taking the dangers of caffeine as seriously as we take our often overly-complicated custom coffee orders. Perhaps we should acknowledge that the afternoon ‘Black Eye with an extra shot’ may be going one dose of caffeine too far, especially on a day which may have started with a triple-venti-soy-misto-no-foam-three-pumps-and-a-shot at the drive-thru. Or is that just going too far…?
Do you worry about your caffeine intake or do you rely on your morning coffee to power up the day? We’d love to hear from you!