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Caffeine: it's hiding in the fizz of more than just colas

By Alf SiewersSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / August 26, 1981


Hold on to your hammock. That cold soda you're sipping may not be as "soft" as you think. Some consumer groups and food scientists are concerned because Americans are drinking large amounts of caffeinated soda, often without even realizing it.

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Many of the most popular soft drinks contain varying quantities of caffeine, a stimulant that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers a drug. Small amounts of caffeine occur naturally in cola nuts, which form the basis for many cola-flavored drinks. But some manufacturers add greater amounts of caffeine to their drink recipes, saying that it enhances the flavor.

Some experts, saying that caffeine is first and foremost a stimulant, are voicing concerns about caffeine, especially its effect on children, and are prompting action by consumer groups. Several organizations are conducting research, informing the public, and even lobbying for a ban on caffeine in soda pop.

Per capita soft drink consumption in the US has increased from 132 12-ounce servings in 1960 to 400 in 1980, according to the National Soft Drink Association. A 12-ounce can of caffeinated soda has about one-third of the caffeine in a 5-ounce cup of coffee, but can equal the effects of a cup of tea.

"You can develop a caffeine habit . . . it's mildly addictive," says Dr. Edward Groth, director of public service projects at the Consumers' Union, which is concluding a study of caffeine in soft drinks to appear in the October issue of Consumer Reports.

"You certainly can suffer withdrawal symptoms from drinking large amounts," even from soda drinks, Dr. Groth says.

Dr. Groth says he knows about the effects of caffeine from personal experience, explaining that he used to drink cola soft drinks by the six-pack. Sometimes when the drink was unavailable, he says that he would experience various physical and mental effects, which he likens to withdrawal symptoms.

He says that he quit drinking cola when he concluded that these problems, and especially a difficulty in sleeping, might be related to caffeine in his drink.

"I just stopped, and started drinking ginger ale" and decaffeinated beverages , Dr. Groth says.

Not just colas and "pepper" drinks (Dr. Pepper, Mr. Pibb) have caffeine today. Brands like Mello Yello and Sunkist Orange do also. Consumers are often unaware that other drinks contain as much or more caffeine than colas.

Dr. Michael Jacobson, director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C., says that he is concerned about soda-drinking children who may have difficulty handling caffeine.

"It's crazy to have a drug in a food that's so widely used by children," says Dr. Jacobson, whose group is lobbying for a ban on caffeine in soda pop.

Dr. Jacobson says caffeine in soft drinks also may affect adults, citing studies indicating negative effects of a large caffeine intake, particularly on pregnant women.

The FDA has proposed taking caffeine off its GRAS list (a list of additives "generally recognized as safe"), and putting it on an "interim" list for safety testing. The FDA also has proposed that caffeine no longer be required in cola and pepper drinks, as it is under current law.