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Clandestine caffeine

It's not just energy drinks anymore, it's energy foods: The stimulant's in gums, candies, cookies - and has no place in a child's diet.

If you were unaware caffeine was creeping into foods until last month, when Wrigley was blasted for putting the stimulant in a new gum, here's the latest buzz.

The growing list of so-called energy foods includes such famous names as Frito-Lay's Cracker Jack'D. There's also Jelly Belly Extreme Sport Beans, Hershey's Ice Breakers Energy mints, and Kraft Foods MiO Energy liquid water enhancer.

Caffeine can now be consumed in waffles, maple syrup, cookies, gums, gummi bears, popcorn, marshmallows, hot sauce, jerky - and more - made by small Internet entrepreneurs.

Even the Food and Drug Administration was only vaguely aware of this trend. For one thing, these are novelty and niche products that aren't on grocers' shelves yet. For another, manufacturers don't have to tell the agency when they add the habit-forming, potentially toxic chemical to foods - not even candy and snacks likely to appeal to children.

All the makers have to do is list caffeine as an ingredient on the label. The total amount? They needn't say.

As caffeinated foods come on the market, "we've got no heads-up about them," said Michael R. Taylor, deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine at FDA.

Wrigley's Alert gum was the tipping point. Calling it "one more unfortunate example," Taylor said the FDA would investigate the safety of caffeine in foods, particularly the effects on children and teens. He anticipates a crackdown.

A regulatory buzzkill won't be quick or easy. So-called energy foods reflect cultural, commercial, and consumer factors, just like two other public health betes noires - caffeinated energy drinks and sugary sodas. Although Wrigley promptly said it would "pause" production of its Alert gum "out of respect" for the FDA, other companies are showing no such restraint.

"Until we're able to marshal the [scientific] evidence to take regulatory action, it's the decision of these companies whether they should be marketing these products," Taylor said.

Along with reams of research on coffee, the FDA and its advisers will no doubt review data on a newer source of zip: energy drinks.

A tsunami of brands flooded the U.S. market after Red Bull's 1997 debut, with many sold as dietary supplements, a barely regulated category. This year, projections are that $19 billion worth of energy drinks will be glugged, mostly by adolescents and young adults.

In moderate amounts, caffeine can ward off drowsiness and improve alertness. Caffeinated coffee, studies suggest, reduces the risk of gallstones, Parkinson's disease, diabetes, and suicide.

But moderation is not the mantra of energy drinks and shots, or of its main customers - young males. With names like Full Throttle, Monster, Rockstar, and Hardcore Energize Bullet, these quaffs typically have two to seven times as much caffeine as a can of cola.

Colas are the only foods with an FDA caffeine limit - 71 milligrams in a 12-ounce can - although most brands have far less. In comparison, a 5-ounce cup of coffee has about twice as much on average, or 115 milligrams.

Studies have linked energy-drink consumption to inadequate sleep, obesity, bad grades, depression, risky behavior such as unsafe sex, and "toxic jock identity" (basically, belligerence).

"Caffeine-loaded energy drinks have now crossed the line from beverages to drugs delivered as tasty syrups," said a 2010 editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

Despite such pointed (some would say overwrought) warnings, only a subgenre of energy drinks has been reined in. After reports of deaths and hospitalizations linked to caffeinated alcoholic drinks, the FDA in 2010 sent warning letters to the makers. The buzzed boozes, or at least the caffeine in them, vanished.

One reason caffeine is so lightly regulated is that it is "Generally Recognized As Safe" (GRAS) by experts when consumed normally, which for many years meant in coffee or cola. The FDA allows manufacturers to determine whether a new food ingredient, or a new use of an old ingredient, is generally safe.

"What we've seen, first with energy drinks, is caffeine moving into other products" besides coffee, Taylor said. "Manufacturers are adding higher levels of caffeine, and it's being marketed in a different way."

Overdoing caffeine has always been relatively common, and can cause j-j-jitters, restlessness, insomnia, headaches, and heart palpitations.

Overdosing is not common. Still, caffeine-related problems such as heart arrhythmias, seizures, and inhalation of vomit are growing full throttle. Energy-drink-related emergency-room visits doubled from 10,068 in 2007 to 20,783 in 2011, according to a national public health surveillance system. At least 16 deaths have been linked to the beverages since 2004.

In March 18 physicians and researchers sent the FDA a letter that concluded the caffeine levels in energy drinks are not safe under the GRAS standards.

That echoed the American Academy of Pediatrics, which in 2011 said the scientific evidence showed "caffeine and other stimulant substances contained in energy drinks have no place in the diet of children and adolescents."

Beverage makers say the alarms are unfounded and unfair.

Some food makers, meanwhile, say they have striven to keep their caffeinated products away from youths.

For example, Jelly Belly said its Extreme Sport Beans was "a sports performance product, not a snack or traditional candy. It is sold alongside sports nutrition and is not intended for use by children or pregnant women."

Wrigley said "we took great strides" to ensure that Alert gum was marketed "in a safe and responsible way to consumers 25 years old and over."

But Mars Corp., which owns Wrigley, made no adults-only claim for Snickers Charged, a wired version of the traditional candy bar that was sold as a "limited edition" in 2008. Nor did Nestle in 2009 when it temporarily sold Butterfinger Buzz.

Caffeinated foods are so new no one tracks them separately. Euromonitor International, a market research firm, reported sales of foods touted as "energy boosting" hit $1.6 billion in 2012, up $500 million from 2008. But most of these foods are cereal-based snack bars, some fortified with vitamins and protein, not caffeine.

Experts doubt the FDA will outright ban added caffeine in foods, but even if it does, regulation may be the mother of invention. Chris Bogdan, who cofounded Get Up and Go Caffeinated Baked Goods (brownies, cookies, muffins) in Ann Arbor, Mich., less than a year ago, is already braced for tougher rules.

"It's something we're prepared to work around," he said. "There are other stimulants you can put in food. We have alternatives. We have backup plans - and we have to."