WASHINGTON — For people seeking an energy boost, companies are increasing their offerings of foods with added caffeine. A new caffeinated gum may have gone too far.
The Food and Drug Administration said Monday that it will investigate the safety of added caffeine and its effects on children and adolescents. The agency made the announcement just as Wrigley was rolling out Alert Energy Gum, a product that includes as much caffeine as a half a cup of coffee in one piece and promises ‘‘the right energy, right now.’’
Michael Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner of foods, indicated that the proliferation of new foods with caffeine added — especially the gum, which he equates to ‘‘four cups of coffee in your pocket’’ — may even prompt the FDA to look closer at the way all food ingredients are regulated.
The agency is already investigating the safety of energy drinks and energy shots, prompted by consumer reports of illness and death.
Taylor said Monday that the only time FDA explicitly approved the added use of caffeine in a food or drink was in the 1950s for colas. The current proliferation of caffeine added to foods is ‘‘beyond anything FDA envisioned,’’ Taylor said.
‘‘It is disturbing,’’ Taylor said. ‘‘We’re concerned about whether they have been adequately evaluated.’’
Caffeine has the regulatory classification of ‘‘generally recognized as safe,’’ or GRAS, which means manufacturers can add it to products and then determine on their own whether the product is safe.
‘‘This raises questions about how the GRAS concept is working and is it working adequately,’’ Taylor said of the gum and other caffeine-added products.
As food companies have created more new ingredients to add health benefits, improve taste, or help food stay fresh, there are at least 4,650 of these ‘‘generally recognized as safe’’ ingredients, according to the nonpartisan Pew Charitable Trusts. The bulk of them, at least 3,000, were determined GRAS by companies and trade associations.
Caffeine is not a new ingredient, but Taylor says the FDA is concerned about all of the new ways it is being delivered to consumers. He said the agency will look at the potential impact these ‘‘new and easy sources’’ of caffeine will have on children’s health and will take action if necessary. He said that he and other FDA officials have held meetings with some of the large food companies that have ventured into caffeinated products, including Mars Inc., of which Wrigley is a subsidiary.
Wrigley and other companies adding caffeine to their products have labeled them as for adult use only. A spokeswoman for Wrigley, Denise M. Young, said the gum is for ‘‘adults who are looking for foods with caffeine for energy’’ and each piece contains about 40 milligrams, or the equivalent amount found in half a cup of coffee. She said the company will work with FDA.
‘‘Millions of Americans consume caffeine responsibly and in moderation as part of their daily routines,’’ Young said.
Food manufacturers have added caffeine to candy, nuts, and other snack foods in recent years. Jelly Belly ‘‘Extreme Sport Beans,’’ for example, have 50 milligrams of caffeine in each 100-calorie pack.
Critics say it is not enough for the companies to say they are marketing the products to adults when the caffeine is added to items such as candy that are attractive to children.
Many of the energy foods are promoted with social media campaigns, another way they could be targeted to young people.