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Emerging Dangers

Caffeine abuse is an emerging problem, some experts say, especially as caffeine shows up in more products and in higher amounts. Soda sizes have gotten larger, the amount of caffeine in the so-called energy drinks has increased, and dietary supplements for weight loss often include caffeine.

The problem may be particularly prevalent among young people, according to a team of researchers from Northwestern University in Chicago. When they tracked calls to the Illinois Poison Center in Chicago for three years, they found that more than 250 cases of medical complications occurred from ingesting caffeine supplements and that 12% of the callers had to be hospitalized. The average age of the callers was 21. The researchers reported their findings at the annual meeting of the American College of Emergency Physicians in New Orleans.

"There are quite a few new energy drinks, and diet pills often use caffeine," says study researcher Danielle McCarthy, MD, a resident at Northwestern University. Often, she says, a doctor may not think to ask about these products when taking a medical history. Those who were hospitalized often had consumed other pharmaceutical products along with too much caffeine. Caffeine abuse symptoms include insomnia, tremors, nausea, vomiting, chest pains, and palpitations, among others, McCarthy says.

One of those new energy drinks, the previously mentioned Cocaine, is triggering protests not only for its name, but also because it contains far more caffeine and energy-boosting ingredients than competitors. Najee Ali, a Los Angeles activist who runs Project Islamic Hope, a national civil rights organization, has called for a boycott of the drink.

"It sends the wrong message to young, impressionable children," he says. "When you look at what is actually inside the drink, we have a greater concern. The drink is unhealthy. It has a lot of caffeine."

On its web site, the makers of Cocaine point out that consumers know the difference between an energy drink and a controlled substance.

Consumers Beware

"Hidden" caffeine is a growing danger, say scientists at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a nonprofit health advocacy organization. In 1997, the CSPI petitioned the FDA to label the caffeine content of foods, noting that the amount of caffeine varies widely among food products.

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