On November 13, the FDA notified nearly 30 manufacturers of caffeinated alcoholic beverages that the agency intends to look into the safety and legality of their products. As the FDA explained in a news release announcing this action, under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act any substance intentionally added to food, in this case caffeine in alcoholic beverages, is deemed unsafe and is unlawful unless its specific use has been approved by an FDA regulation, the substance is subject to a prior sanction, or the substance is Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS). To date, the FDA has only listed caffeine as GRAS as an ingredient for use in cola-type beverages in concentrations specified by the agency.
The FDA noted in its release that it is not aware of any basis on which manufacturers may have concluded that the use of caffeine in alcoholic beverages is GRAS sanctioned. Consequently, in its letters to notified companies, including City Brewing, Gaamm Imports, Inc., and United Brands Company, Inc., the agency asked that within 30 days the notified companies “produce evidence of their rationale, with supporting data and information” for their conclusion that the use of caffeine in their products is GRAS or prior sanctioned. If the FDA determines that the use of caffeine in the alcoholic beverages is not GRAS or prior sanctioned, the agency stated it would take “appropriate action to ensure that the products are removed from the marketplace.”
This issue has been fermenting (pun intended) for some time. In the past year, alcoholic beverage industry leaders Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors agreed to discontinue their popular caffeinated alcoholic beverages Tilt, Bud Extra, and Sparks, and further agreed not to produce any caffeinated alcoholic beverages in the future. In late September 2009, the FDA received letters from eighteen attorneys general and one city attorney and five scientists expressing concerns about caffeinated alcoholic beverages. Among the chief policy concerns cited by these stakeholders was the increasing popularity and consumption of caffeinated alcoholic beverages by college students, coupled with general health risks associated with excess consumption of both alcohol and caffeine.
Manufacturers of alcoholic beverages had been operating under the TTB guideline that caffeine was a permitted but restricted ingredient, and had been warned by TTB and FTC about prohibited and/or deceptive advertising practices related to the effects of combining caffeine and alcohol. If the FDA takes the strong position that caffeine is an illegal additive, these advertising concerns related to caffeine and alcohol will disappear. The TTB and FTC will likely continue to focus scrutiny on other less common alcoholic beverage additives that have been treated like caffeine, such as ginseng, guarana and taurine.
And consumers will turn back to the original Red Bull and vodka for their caffeinated alcoholic beverage.