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Spider Webs and the Battle Over Federal Caffeine Limits Spider Webs and the Battle Over Federal Caffeine Limits

Spider Webs and the Battle Over Federal Caffeine Limits

by Nicola Twilley

April 2, 2011

A fascinating article in Monday's New York Times looks at the long debate over safe limits for caffeine consumption in the United States. "Long" in this instance means 100 years—journalist Murray Carpenter tells the story of the USDA vs. Coca-Cola, which went to trial a century ago this month.

At the time, Coke contained 80 milligrams of caffeine per serving, as much as a Red Bull today. To defend themselves against the government's charge that caffeine was a harmful ingredient, they hired a scientist to look at the effects of the stimulant on the mental and motor skills of both abstainers, occasional, and heavy users. No one had gathered this kind of data before.

The study report, as quoted by Carpenter, is charming: After the equivalent of a cup of coffee, one subject reported a "gradual rise of spirits till 4:00. Then a period of exuberance, of good feeling. Fanciful ideas rampant." Another participant, dosed only on placebos, complained that he "Felt like a ‘bone head’ all day."

The case was dismissed at the request of Coca-Cola, and so "the jury issued no verdict on the larger questions argued in the courtroom":

How much caffeine is too much? Is it different when added to soft drinks than as a natural constituent of coffee? Is it habit-forming? Should it be marketed to youths? And how should the federal government regulate it?

I'm a true addict, so I don't know whether this broken web evidence is scary enough to keep me away from coffee—but if spiders are any guide, then it's more than time for the FDA to fill the gaps in our knowledge about caffeine.

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Spider Webs and the Battle Over Federal Caffeine Limits