Parrying the Caffeine and Sugar One-two Punch
In 2010 the FDA warned producers of caffeinated alcoholic beverages that when combined with
alcohol caffeine is an “unsafe food additive”.Caffeine in this context was not “generally recognized as safe” and the products together “pose a public health concern”. This statement was based on evidence that caffeine inhibits consumers’ ability to monitor their intoxication, implying that they cannot self-regulate their alcohol consumption and its consequences.
If drinking-age adults cannot control their consumption of a substance with negative health
consequences when it is caffeinated, why do we expect children and adolescents to? Combining caffeine and sugar in beverages is potentially more damaging to public health than is caffeinated alcohol and the damage may be particularly acute for our most vulnerable population. Severing their link could deliver a powerful counterpunch to diabetes and obesity.
Consider each ingredient separately. Caffeine is the most popular stimulant drug in the world.
It is habit-forming and as such is associated with intoxication and withdrawal.The FDA implicitly acknowledges its habit-forming properties by limiting its inclusion in soft drinks to 200 ppm.Although coffee has been associated with a decreased risk of Type II diabetes, this is true for both regular and decaf.Other studies identify adverse effects of caffeine on glucose metabolism among patients with Type II diabetes, limiting their ability to manage the illness.Direct health effects aside, humans have a strong affinity for caffeinated beverages, caffeine’s most common delivery system.
Fructose, found in similar quantities in both sugar and high fructose corn syrup, is the knockout
punch to caffeine’s rope-a-dope. Growing evidence points to sugar’s culpability in the rise of obesity and diabetes in recent decades. Sugar and sugar-sweetened beverage consumption increased in concert with these health conditions while that of other nutrients such as cholesterol and saturated fatty acids decreased.Sugar-sweetened beverages have been repeatedly associated with obesity in population studies.Recent studies of metabolic syndrome demonstrate a causal pathway linking fructose to insulin resistance, reduced physical activity, weight gain, and diabetes.Sugar has also been identified as habit forming, and fructose metabolism exhibits relevant similarities to that of ethanol (i.e. alcohol).
According to a comprehensive online catalogue of caffeine in beverages, there are 82 different
sodas and 277 different energy drinks available for sale containing caffeine, comprising the overwhelming majority of listed sodas and energy drinks. If caffeine and sugar are separately habit-forming then it’s no wonder that consumption of beverages containing both has surged as their price has fallen.Consumers find themselves in an unfair fight against weight gain.
Several policies to tax or otherwise create incentives to reduce sugar-sweetened beverage
consumption have been proposed, but they have not gained political traction and their effect remains uncertain. Furthermore, consumption tax policies may most negatively impact low income households who could see a larger increase in the share of household income going towards consumption, and this may be particularly true for beverages with habit-forming characteristics.
A ban on caffeinated sugar-sweetened beverages identifying caffeine as an “unsafe food
additive” would target a combination of substances that has adverse public health consequences. It would impact a wide range of consumers, and it would not disproportionately hit the wallets of low income households. Even implementing this policy just for children and adolescents could make inroads in the population for whom prevention is most critical and for whom the ability to self-regulate is most limited.
The effectiveness of such a policy should be evaluated in practice or in controlled trials, but the
motivation is clear. If caffeinating a substance we believe adults are usually responsible for renders them irresponsible, how can we expect children and adolescents to handle its addition to a substance we know they can’t control?
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