Coming soon to a store near you: Cracker Jack’D, a new twist on the popcorn candy that offers Power Bites with as much caffeine in every serving as a cup of coffee. That could mean kids could get an overdose of caffeine if they consume more than one serving at a time, warns the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit nutrition activist group based in Washington, DC.
The addition of caffeine to a growing number of snack foods comes at a time when warning bells have sounded over the hazards of caffeinated energy drinks. US Food and Drug Administration officials told the New York Times on Wednesday that they’ve received reports of 13 deaths linked to 5-Hour Energy shots over the past four years. And the agency is also investigating heart attacks attributed to Monster energy drink, including the death of a 14-year-old Maryland teen.
An excessive amount of caffeine can cause heart palipitations, increased blood pressure, nausea, dizziness, and insomnia—and kids may be particularly sensitive to the chemical’s effects.
The nutrition activist group fired off a protest letter on Wednesday to manufacturer Frito Lay and to the FDA. “Whether or not they are advertised directly to children, it is certain that young children will consume Cracker Jack’d…and sometimes consume it to excess,” wrote the Center’s director Michael Jacobson.
Besides the energy drink craze, caffeine has also been added recently to foods you’d never suspect like the low-calorie beverage Crystal Light, Sport Beans jelly beans, and MiO Liquid Water Enhancer, a flavoring that’s squirted into water.
MiO Energy comes in 32 and 48 milliliter squirt bottles that dispense half-teaspoon-sized servings, which each contain 60 milligrams of caffeine, but in a letter to manufacturer Kraft, Jacobson said children could easily squirt several servings at a time into water, rivaling the amount of caffeine found in energy drinks.
The cartoon advertisement featuring MiO Energy in the video wasn’t made with kids in mind, said Kraft spokesperson Russ Dyer in an email. “Our advertising vehicles are directed towards adults, primarily men,” wrote Dyer, adding that MiO Energy is“neither marketed to nor appropriate for use by children.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics has taken a strong position against energy drinks and other caffeine additives in products. In a 2011 position statement, the group noted that caffeine “has been linked to a number of harmful health effects in children, including effects on the developing neurologic and cardiovascular systems.”
But kids could certainly get caught up in what Jacobson called the “beginning of a caffeine craze” that’s akin to the short-lived oat-bran love affair of the late ‘80s—only this time with potential health consequences. “We might soon see caffeinated breakfast cereals to get going in morning,” Jacobson said in an interview.
Actually, there already is one: An instant oatmeal called Morning Spark. There’s also caffeinated beef jerky, sunflower seeds, and breath fresheners.
None of these products contain significantly more caffeine per serving than a cup of coffee, but they can certainly add up to a hefty daily dose if washed down with, well, coffee or—more likely for kids—caffeinated soft drinks like Coke, Sunkist Orange, and Mountain Dew.
Perhaps manufacturers feel emboldened by the growing body of research linking caffeine to mental health benefits like “positivity” or a stronger athletic performance and coffee consumption with a reduced risk of cancer, strokes, depression, and diabetes.
Coffee has even been called a health food by some nutritionists. One Harvard nutrition researcher told me it’s better than green tea.
Frito-Lay spokesperson Chris Kuechenmeister pointed out in an emailed statement that the new Cracker Jack’D Power Bites line have “two flavors that will contain coffee, a natural source of caffeine.” The company expects each 2-ounce serving to contain about 70 milligrams of caffeine, the FDA limit for a 12-ounce serving of cola.
“Cracker Jack’D is a product line specifically developed for adult consumers and will not be marketed to children,” wrote Kuechenmeister. “The package design and appearance are wholly different from Cracker Jack to ensure there is no confusion among consumers.”
Let’s just hope kids get that message along with their parents.