FDA officials claim they were spurred to take action after the recent introduction of one product, Alert Energy Gum, a new caffeinated gum made by Wrigley.
The agency argues that such a novel product necessitates a longer look at all foods and beverages that contain added caffeine.
While the FDA’s interest in caffeine is hardly new, neither is caffeinated gum. The idea has been around at least since 1980.
Coincidentally, it was during that same period that the FDA helped foment a minor hysteria around the presence of added caffeine in foods.
FDA rules consider a food additive to be generally recognized as safe, or GRAS, when it’s "adequately shown to be safe under the conditions of its intended use." FDA regulations had explicitly recognized the GRAS status of caffeine added to "cola-type beverages" since 1961.
But in October 1980, the FDA launched proceedings that could have imposed severe restrictions on the presence of caffeine in all foods.
When the agency didn't move quickly to revoke caffeine's GRAS status, it was sued by the Federation of Homemakers, a 1950s-sounding consumer group dedicated to "protecting the integrity of food products."
News reports from the time give a broader picture of the anti-caffeine climate of the early 1980s.
A 1981 Christian Science Monitor article, for example, repeats the hilarious claim of some anti-caffeine activists that "Americans are drinking large amounts of caffeinated soda, often without even realizing it," implying that eating and drinking is some sort of passive process that frequently happens to people without their knowledge.
The article also reports that the Center for Science in the Public Interest was at the time "lobbying for a ban on caffeine in soda pop."
In spite of the hysteria, a federal judge ruled against the homemakers.
That might have been the end of the story were it not for FDA documents uncovered by angry coffee drinkers and other supporters of caffeinated drinks. They argued correctly that caffeine has been consumed safely for hundreds of years and that this fact should largely take the substance out of the FDA's regulatory purview—granting caffeine a status known annoyingly as a "prior sanction." (A Janus word, “sanction” here means “approval” rather than “disapproval.”)
By 1987, according to a short and interesting summary in Food and Drug Law, the definitive FDA law school casebook, the "FDA proposed to recognize a prior sanction for caffeine in nonalcoholic carbonated beverages[.]"
This would have been the sensible thing for the agency to do.