FDA Considering Age Limits For Caffeinated Beverages?

Recent comments from an FDA official raise the prospect that the agency is considering minor's access to caffeinated beverages.


Recent comments by an official with the Food And Drug Administration have led some to wonder if the agency is considering more heavily regulating the use of caffeine as a food additive:

A few European countries have moved toward regulation — in Sweden, for example, many grocery stores do not sell energy drinks to people under 15. The United States is not likely to lead the charge into federal regulation tomorrow or next year, but when Michael Taylor, deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine at the Food and Drug Administration, was asked last week, “Is it possible that FDA would set age restrictions for purchase?” he responded:

We have to be practical; enforcing age restrictions would be challenging. For me, the more fundamental questions are whether it is appropriate to use foods that may be inherently attractive and accessible to children as the vehicles to deliver the stimulant caffeine, and whether we should place limits on the amount of caffeine in certain products.

Taylor’s comment came in the context of the FDA’s announcement that, as the organization put it, “in response to a trend in which caffeine is being added to a growing number of products, the agency will investigate the safety of caffeine in food products, particularly its effects on children and adolescents.” It’s a kind of nonchalant way to say that the organization in charge of making sure everything we eat and drink is safe for us is, decades into the mass marketing and sale of heavily caffeinated products without regulation to all U.S. markets, going to look into their safety.

To a large degree, these signals from the FDA are being motivated by the increasing popularity, among both adults and teenagers, of high caffeine energy drinks like Red Bull, Rock Star, and Monster. There has also been no small degree of controversy about products that mix high levels of caffeine with alcohol, which have been subjected to sales restrictions and FDA warnings for several years now. This last measure is understandable since there do appear to be adverse health risks associated with mixing high levels of caffeine with alcohol, even for people who are generally healthy. Of course, any action the FDA takes doesn’t prevent individuals from preparing such beverages themselves at home.

With specific reference to caffeine itself, though, there appears to be some ambiguity about just how much of a health risk it actually poses. Some medical groups have warned against excessive caffeine intake, especially by adolescents, but teenagers have been consuming such beverages for a very long period of time with no apparent deleterious effects on their health. Additionally, there’s plenty of research that suggests that caffeine has several important health benefits, so it’s hard to say that the substance is, in and of itself dangerous.

More broadly, though, this strikes me as another situation where the government would be substituting its judgment for the judgment and choices of free individuals. Let’s concede for the sake of argument that there might be health concerns related to the consumption of caffeinated beverages by minors, the question that arises next is why that should be the basis for broad policy prescriptions by the state that would impact not just teenagers, but also adults. Much as with the idiotic efforts of some communities to regulate the contents of McDonald’s Happy Meals, this strikes me as a situation where parents should be allowed to make judgments on how best to raise their children. If they’re comfortable with allowing their 17 year old reasonable access to caffeinated beverages, why should the state have any say in the matter at all? Indeed, I recall drinking coffee by the time I was 15 or 16. I didn’t overdo it, and this is long before the days when there was a Starbucks on every corner, but I certainly don’t think I was putting myself at risk in any significant respect, and if my parents had thought I was then they could have restricted my access to the beverage. On the whole, parents are fairly good guardians of their children’s health, I see no reason for the state to step in and take over the job for them.

H/T: United Liberty

FILED UNDER: Bureaucracy, Health, US Politics, , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. steve s says:

    The sugar in sodas is much worse than the caffeine. That’s why I see so many 12 -yro land whales here in the south. 32oz of mountain dew should not be considered part of a normal lunch.

  2. @steve s:

    There’s a lot more to the obesity problem than sugar. Indeed, some doctors have suggested that the obsession with low-fat/high-carb foods that began in the 1980s has contributed significantly to our present obesity problem.

  3. Ron Beasley says:

    @steve s: @Doug Mataconis: It’s not the sugar but the high fructose corn syrup that is the problem. Fructose does not make you feel full. Beet or cane sugar contains both fructose and sucrose and the sucrose does make you feel full. That is why there were no big gulps before natural sugar was replaced with HFCS.

  4. Mikey says:

    @Ron Beasley: And we have good, old American political patronage to thank for that crap being in all our food.
    For a Healthier Country, Overhaul Farm Subsidies | Scientific American

  5. Jeremy says:

    Yes, let’s regulate caffeine. Because that has worked so well when banning the consumption of alcohol among teenagers and minors. It has worked so well when banning the use of marijuana, cocaine, and heroin among everybody. It has worked so well when banning pornography, or 3D printed guns, or IP piracy…etc. etc. etc.

    You get my drift. So here’s a better idea.

    Let’s leave people alone. Let’s let human beings decide what goes into their bodies. As for children, we can leave that role to the parents. And what if parents don’t take care of their children? What if they allow their children to consume energy drinks or eat caffeinated oatmeal (which I have never heard before–oatmeal, I mean)? That’s something the parents and the children will have to live with, but perhaps they can be an example to the rest of humanity, whether it turns out for ill…or maybe, good.

    Everyone has been trying to use government force to impose their view of “the good life” upon everyone else for decades. It has led us nowhere but into a massive budget hole and where every little thing is politicized, with our country drawing battle lines. In this regard, progressives such as yourself (I’m assuming) are just the other side of the coin with social conservatives. Let’s try freedom for once. Let’s try just leaving people the hell alone.

    Considering the alternative either doesn’t work or is going to create more problems that it can solve, it’s worth a shot.

  6. Tyrell says:

    @Ron Beasley: My favorite is cotton candy. Simply heaven.

  7. @Ron Beasley:

    Well the whole corn syrup issue is wrapped up in a bigger debate that nobody in Congress wants to have about farm subsidies and trade protections against sugar from non-American sources.

  8. john personna says:

    If we are going to put on our rational risk assessment beanies (TM), we need to know the actual death toll:

    But all this might soon change. In the fall of 2012, the FDA revealed that it was investigating a series of deaths associated with energy drinks. Between 2004 and 2012, the FDA received five reports of deaths that might have been caused by Monster Energy and 13 that might have been caused by 5-Hour Energy. These reports were grist for Senators Dick Durban and Richard Blumenthal, who have been pressuring the FDA to get tougher on energy drinks. The American Academy of Pediatrics weighed in against energy drinks for children earlier this year. Even the courts may have something to say in the near future. Anais Fournier, a 14-year-old Maryland girl, died of cardiac arrest in December of 2011 after drinking two 24-oz cans of Monster Energy 24 hours. Her parents are suing Monster Energy.

    While those are tragic events, I don’t think that ~20 in ~10 years is really a terribly good opportunity for improvement.

    [The top article probably should have been up-front about the deaths.]

  9. Ron Beasley says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Of course you are correct Doug. Arthur Daniels Midland is even more powerful than the NRA.

  10. anjin-san says:

    Indeed, some doctors have suggested that the obsession with low-fat/high-carb foods that began in the 1980s has contributed significantly to our present obesity problem.

    Yea, well 12 teaspoons of sugar in a 12oz soda has quite a bit to do with it no matter how you slice it.

  11. bill says:

    great, now we’ll have “espresso dealers” selling to minors in the starbucks alley. sounds like something bloomberg would do.

  12. steve s says:

    While HFCS is possibly slightly worse than sucrose, HFCS is about 55% fructose and 42% glucose, while ‘table’ sugar is 50% glucose and 50% fructose. The Glycemic Index of HFCS is about 10% higher than table sugar, but both will spike your blood sugar level, and high blood sugar has been shown to damage your pancreas, kidneys, cardiovascular system, and even brain, cause diabetes, and maybe (it’s not clear) even exacerbate arthritis.

    Good chart here. We currently eat 100 lbs of sugar per capita per year.

    amazing line from that link “In 1822, the average American ate the amount of sugar found in one of today’s 12-ounce sodas every 5 days. Now, we eat that much every 7 hours.”

    With the f’d up food subsidy structure we have, we have created this problem ourselves. If there were no subsidies on corn, and instead, big taxes on salt, all types of sugar, and subsidies on lettuce, we’d be halfway to fixing the problem. I’m currently sitting in a taco bell where you can get a 40oz mountain dew with 580 high-GI calories.

    I wouldn’t be in favor of banning caffeine, sugar, or anything else. But we currently have government manipulation via taxes and subsidies that encourage the worst outcome. Make the soda and salt bombs taxed sufficiently to pay for the externalities that come from an unhealthy society.

  13. PD Shaw says:

    @john personna: Nice quote. I think the FDA should be studying the effect of caffeine on children. We restrict our kid’s access; heck we began restricting their access when they were in the womb.

    I believe the medical examiner ruled that Anais Fournier died of cardiac arrhythmia due to caffeine toxicity, though she had a pre-existing heart condition.

  14. PD Shaw says:

    Iceland appears to be the only country doing population tests of caffeine use on adolescents, and their results so far show that it has a strong relationship with daytime sleepiness, licit substance use, academic underachievement, angry moods, violent behavior and conduct disorders. Link

  15. anjin-san says:

    high blood sugar has been shown to damage your pancreas, kidneys, cardiovascular system, and even brain, cause diabetes

    Trivial issues compared to the God given right of food conglomerates to deliberately get people hooked on sugar, salt, and fat (starting with children, of course) in the pursuit of profit?

    Only people who truly hate freedom worry about things like morbid obesity in children.

  16. anjin-san says:

    This app is something everyone should have on their phone (assuming good health is a priority):


  17. Tran says:

    Interesting to see so many Americans reacting negatively to a reasonable sounding policy. If I understand correctly, a ruling banning the sale of caffeinated products to children would not impact parents abilities to raise their children as they want at all. They can still buy their groceries and let their children drink as much coffee as they want. Indeed it strenghtens the control of parents about what their children can consume, by making them the sole avenue through which children can access caffeinated products.

    You can be critical of efforts to regulate caffeine as being impractical or too expensive, but where is the attack on liberty? There is none! It is obviously not “substituting its judgement for the judgement of free individuals”, that is crazy.

    Here in Europe we allow our children to drink much sooner than in the USA, and I think that is generally a positive thing. But people under 16 still can’t buy alcohol. Yet in France for example, even young teens get watered wine at supper. That is the choice of their parents, which is not affected at all by the governments ban on the sale of alcohol to minors. So all this talk about “individual choice” misses the topic, as does any mentioning on the ban for ALL people on marijuana, which is something completely different.

  18. Caj says:

    People should know by the now the risks of too much sugar and fat in their diet. Some just couldn’t care less about it. Get fatter by the day then their health starts to decline and puts a burden on the health care system! I don’t need to be told by the government or anyone else what I should or shouldn’t eat and drink. But then I have common sense. Some other people need a reminder that good health is important and certain foods and drinks are not good for you if taken in excess!

  19. grumpy realist says:

    I thought this was more a case of the FDA making certain that “energy” drinks with caffeine in them be labeled as containing caffeine?

    Considering that kids in France grow up on cafe au lait and croissants or pain au chocolat in the morning, do we have any evidence that caffeine is horrible for kids?

  20. PD Shaw says:

    @grumpy realist: There are few population studies on caffeine’s effect on kids — the Iceland studies I mentioned appear to be the only ones, and they leave open the possibility that caffeine is only correlated with certain bad outcomes, but may not cause it.

    I think from the FDA’s point of view, adding a psychoactive substance to a variety of consumables that did not normally have caffeine in them is a potential game changer in terms of how much caffeine might be consumed in a day by kids.

  21. matt bernius says:

    @grumpy realist:

    Considering that kids in France grow up on cafe au lait and croissants or pain au chocolat in the morning, do we have any evidence that caffeine is horrible for kids?

    Beyond @PD Shaw’s points about testing, it should be noted that while Southern Europeans drink far stronger coffee than Americans, they (a) drink far less of it (both smaller serving sizes and fewer cups per day) and (b) while the coffee tastes strong, some of the caffeine is removed in the brewing process — versus various soda/energy drinks were caffeine is *added* to the product.

  22. anjin-san says:

    Considering that kids in France grow up on cafe au lait and croissants or pain au chocolat in the morning, do we have any evidence that caffeine is horrible for kids?

    The French also eat much richer food then we do. But guess what – the only fat people you see in France are Americans. They are good at moderation.

  23. PogueMahone says:

    The only two consumable substances that are age regulated that I can think of is tobacco and alcohol. To my knowledge, and I could be wrong here, but it is the ATF that regulates this restriction.

    Does the FDA even have the power to regulate the sale of caffeine to minors? Or is it just the issue that the FDA could recommend the ATF to regulate the sale of caffeine to minors?

    If the FDA merely wants to force producers to put warning labels on their products, then I have no problem with that. Of course, I think that 95% of what they sell in a typical grocery store should come with the warning that “this product may be hazardous to your health.” … you know … because it may be. But then again, such saturation would defeat the purpose. After all, if nearly everything “may” be hazardous, then who cares what you choose?

    On second thought, no… we shouldn’t put warning labels, nor should we want to ban, certain benign foodstuffs like caffeine to children. We should concentrate our cautions to children on what really matters… umm… I guess tobacco. Yeah, who could argue with that?


  24. Maureen Beach says:

    @steve s: Sugars found in beverages are not unique, nor can the body distinguish them from naturally occurring sugars. Obesity is complex and is influenced by many factors (including age, genetics, stress, physical inactivity, etc.). Blaming one source of calories is incorrect and counterproductive.

    -Maureen Beach, American Beverage Association

  25. Maureen Beach says:

    @Ron Beasley: Despite its name, high fructose corn syrup is not high in fructose. In fact, just like table sugar (or sucrose), HFCS is a combination of two simple sugars – glucose and fructose. The American Medical Association has studied HFCS and determined it is not a unique contributor to obesity (http://www.ama-assn.org/resources/doc/csaph/csaph3a08-summary.pdf). In addition, research has shown that high fructose corn syrup is so nearly identical to sucrose that your body can’t tell the difference between the two, and processes both in the same way.

    -Maureen Beach, American Beverage Association

  26. PogueMahone says:

    @Maureen Beach:
    The problem with HFCS is not necessarily the ratio of sucrose to fructose, but that HFCS is so cheap (thanks to subsidies) that a lot of food producers include it in everything they produce. Thus increasing a typical consumer’s intake of sugar.

    Now as far as beverages are concerned, the cheaper the cola (or whatever), the more consumers consume. The question that if the government should step in and regulate that is a whole different question.


  27. PD Shaw says:

    @PogueMahone: Caffeine is regulated when it is added to soft drinks — it cannot exceed 71 mg/12 fl. oz, which is about what Jolt is, and is below what regular coffee would have.

    The new energy drinks and other caffeine products appear to be either ignoring this restriction or claiming a regulatory exemption for dietary supplements deriving from herbs and natural sources. More here.

  28. NickTamere says:

    It’s stupid to leapfrog to a discussion of banning it when we currently aren’t even labeling it. At this point I have no idea how much caffeine something has so it’s difficult to make an informed decision on whether I’ve had “enough” (unless you use the old “feeling twitchy” scale).

  29. anjin-san says:

    @ Maureen Beach

    Way to pass the buck – do you get a bonus for that?

  30. Andre Kenji says:

    @Maureen Beach:

    Blaming one source of calories is incorrect and counterproductive.

    White sugar(Even sugar cane sugar) is bad for people because it´s a empty source of calories. One can argue that corn syrup is as bad as sugar cane, but not that sugar per se is healthy or that it should not be banned from a healthy diet.

    In fact, sugar from cane is the sugar cane without it´s nutrients.