In coffee, sodas or energy drinks, the stimulant has had its share of adherents and detractors
By John Keilman
A few years ago, when Illinois Institute of Art student Alex Smyth was a hard-core competitive video gamer, caffeine was the elixir that fueled his all-night Halo rampages. He chugged a dozen energy drinks a day and never felt any ill effects, he said.
“I love caffeine,” said Smyth, 21, who has since moved on to coffee. “It makes me live.”
He’s far from alone in his affection for the world’s most beloved stimulant: In North America alone, some research has concluded, up to 90 percent of adults say they consume caffeine regularly. Yet for centuries, it has been occasionally attacked as an unhealthy even immoral substance.
Consider coffee, a potent caffeine delivery system. According to coffee trader and historian Antony Wild’s book “Coffee: A Dark History,” the beverage was first widely consumed in the 15th century by Yemeni Sufis, mystic adherents of Islam who depended on coffee to stay awake for nighttime rituals. But by 1511, after the drink had arrived in Mecca, some had become suspicious. Kah’ir Bey, ruler of the city, banned coffee after a long debate about its spiritual purity. The decree, however, didn’t last long: When the coffee-loving Ottoman Empire conquered the region in 1517, Wild writes, two doctors who had supported the ban were chopped in two at the waist.
Coffee criticism, though, continued to surface in the Middle East and eventually Europe, where the drink caught on in the 17th century. In his coffee history, “Uncommon Grounds,” author Mark Pendergrast writes that some Englishwomen in 1674 issued a manifesto blasting “the Excessive use of that Newfangled, Abominable, Heathenish Liquor called Coffee, which … has so (unmanned) our Husbands and Crippled our more kindgallants.”
More challenges came in the 20th century, when caffeine became a crucial part of the nascent soft drink industry. In 1911, the federal government sued Coca-Cola for selling a beverage that contained the supposedly harmful ingredient. Ludy Benjamin, who chronicled the lawsuit for the American Psychological Association, wrote that while the company lost the case, it was not forced to remove caffeine from its product.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration took another hard look at caffeine in 1980 and initially proposed eliminating it from soft drinks. Soda companies countered that it was a “flavor enhancer” that should be allowed, and the agency eventually agreed. “If caffeine had not been accepted as a flavor enhancer, but had been regarded as a psychoactive ingredient, soft drinks might have been regulated by the FDA as drugs,” wrote a trio of Johns Hopkins University scholars, summing up the controversy in a 2009 research paper.
In the aftermath, the FDA suggested a caffeine level for soft drinks of 0.02 percent, or 71 mg per 12 fluid ounces, the researchers said. But FDA spokesman Douglas Karas said that amounts to guidance, not a hard rule. Officially speaking, caffeine is “generally recognized as safe,” and so far, the agency has not gone after energy drink makers whose beverages far exceed the 0.02 percent level. Karas added, though, that the FDA continually monitors scientific research for signs that ingredients might be causing health problems. Asked if the agency was looking into energy drinks, he declined to comment.