Boston — 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.
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.
The Virginia-based Federation of Homemakers, like Dr. Jacobson's group, wants the FDA to ban caffeine in soft drinks. But federation director Ruth Desmond says that close connections between the soft drink industry and the FDA make this effort difficult. She notes that the former head of the FDA's bureau of foods, Dr. Howard Roberts, now is a vice-president of the National Soft Drink Association.
Mrs. Desmond says that her group is concerned by reports that cola drinks have become the staple drink of many children, especially among the poor.
"Milk is gone, fruit drinks, none of them stand up to the caffeinated drinks, " she says, adding that early consumption of large amounts of caffeine may give children a taste for later drug use.
Mrs. Desmond says that manufacturers do not need to use caffeine for drinks to have a cola taste.
Soft drink manufacturers generally argue that caffeine is a flavoring agent which enhances the taste of their products, and is not a chemical additive designed to artificially stimulate drinkers.
"Caffeine is a classic bittering agent and it blends very well" with sugar in soda, says Jay Smith, spokesman for the National Soft Drink Association.
But caffeine's flavor effect is "extremely minor," according to Dr. Jacobson, who says it is used mainly for its stimulatory effects.
And not all manufacturers think caffeine is an essential flavor ingredient.
"We didn't think it [caffeine] was needed," says Edward Kiesel, a quality assurer for Safeway stores. Safeway markets a house brand of cola, Cragmont, which has no added caffeine. "We feel that it [caffeine] does not help our formulation."
Mr. Kiesel notes that Cragmont does contain a small amount of caffeine from its cola nut base, but says that the consumer would have to drink 350 cans of Cragmont Cola to receive the caffeine of one can of Coca-Cola.
Cragmont Cola is not a national best seller, but Mr. Kiesel says that Safeway stores sell more of the cola than of their other Cragmont brand drinks. He says that many inquiries about the cola come from Utah, the home region of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons), a religious denomination that discourages caffeine use.
Royal Crown Cola introduced a diet, caffeine-free cola onto the market last year, called RC 100. Caroline Horstman, market research manager for RC 100, says the drink has been successful, with a 1 percent share of the soft drink market after its first year.
Miss Horstman also says that company tests showed a lack of caffeine would not harm the drink's flavor.
"We have found that in the taste-testing among consumers," Miss Horstman says , ". . . they can perceive no difference" between the taste of unlabeled caffeinated and decaffeinated diet colas.
Both Mr. Kiesel and Miss Horstman say their companies feel that there is a good market for caffeine-free soft drinks.
Miss Horstman says RC 100 appeals to consumers for health and religious reasons, or because they simply don't like caffeine.
Caffeine in soft drinks (milligrams per 12 ounce can) Sugar-free Mr. Pibb 60 Mountain Dew 54 Mello Yello 52 Tab 46 Coca-Cola 45 Shasta Cherry Cola 44 Shasta Cola 44 Shasta Diet Cola 44 Sunkist Orange 40 Mr. Pibb 40 Dr. Pepper 40 Pepsi-Cola 38 Diet Pepsi 36 Pepsi Light 36 RC Cola 36 Diet Rite 36 Fresca, Fanta drinks, Teem, 7-Up, RC 100, Canada Dry Ginger Ale, Hire's Root Beer 0 Source: manufacturers' figures