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Study: Caffeine May Add Zing to Cola, But It Doesn't Add Flavor

WebMD Health News

Aug. 14, 2000 -- Soda manufacturers are usually the folks who set up taste tests, but recently some researchers from Johns Hopkins University turned the tables on the soda industry by performing a decidedly different kind of taste test.

In the study, which used Coke products, only two out of 25 hard-core cola drinkers were able in a blind taste test to detect whether a soda sample contained caffeine. The results seem to cast doubt on claims made by soft drink manufacturers that caffeine, a proven addictive, mood-altering drug, is present in soft drinks only as a flavor enhancer, suggest the researchers.

A beverage industry publication says that Americans in 1998 drank 15 billion gallons of carbonated soft drinks, or the equivalent of 585 12-ounce cans for every person in the country. To put it another way, that's enough liquid to cover an area of approximately 46,000 acres to the depth of one foot. About 70% of the soda downed in the U.S. has caffeine as an added ingredient. Web sites of major soda manufacturers play up the fact, though, that typical colas contain about a third of the caffeine found in a cup of brewed coffee.

The web sites also claim that caffeine is added as a flavor enhancer. Pepsi's site states that "caffeine provides a characteristic flavor to soft drinks." And, according to a document posted in the "Frequently Asked Questions" section on the Coca-Cola Company's web site, "caffeine that is added to Coca-Cola classic, diet Coke and the other products in which it is used is for flavor purposes only. We use only the amount necessary to achieve the appropriate optimum flavor profile for the particular product sold."

Tobacco companies made the same claims about nicotine for many years, notes study author Roland R. Griffiths, PhD, professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore.

"It is valuable for the general public, the medical community, and regulatory agencies to recognize that high rates of consumption of caffeinated soft drinks more likely reflects the mood-altering and physical dependence-producing effects of caffeine, as a central nervous system-active drug, than its subtle effect as a flavoring agent," write Griffiths and co-author Ellen M. Vernotica, PhD, in an article in the August issue of the journal Archives of Family Medicine.

The comparison of cola with tobacco, however, angers members of the National Soft Drink Association (NSDA), a trade group representing soft drink makers, marketers, and distributors.

"The author's personal conclusion that the industry's marketing efforts of products which contain caffeine 'strongly parallels' nicotine is irresponsible. Every major independent health organization, including the National Institutes of Health, the American Medical Association, [and] the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, tells consumers that moderate consumption of caffeine is safe," NSDA spokesman Jeff Nedelman is quoted as saying in a press release criticizing the study.

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