A Century Later, Jury’s Still Out on Caffeine Limits

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The latest skirmish in the caffeine wars — this one involving the high levels of caffeine in so-called energy drinks, especially those consumed by children — recalls one of the earliest.

It happened a century ago this month, in a courtroom in Chattanooga, Tenn. The trial grabbed headlines for weeks and produced scientific research that holds up to this day — yet generated no federal limits for caffeine in foods and beverages....

The drink was Coca-Cola. Harvey Washington Wiley, the “crusading chemist” who led the Bureau of Chemistry in the United States Department of Agriculture, had brought a lawsuit against the Coca-Cola Company, accusing it of adulterating the drink by adding a harmful ingredient: caffeine. (Current levels of caffeine in a Coke are much lower.)

Preparing its defense, the company found a gap in the existing research on caffeine. “When their scientists took a look at the data, they had all of these animal studies, and didn’t really have the human data they needed,” said Ludy T. Benjamin Jr., a professor of psychology at Texas A & M University who has studied the trial. “So they were looking for someone to come up with some human data, and in a hurry.”

Coca-Cola hired a Barnard College psychology instructor named Harry Levi Hollingworth. He mustered 16 subjects aged 19 to 39, including occasional, moderate and regular caffeine users, along with abstainers. In a Manhattan apartment rented for the research, he tested their mental and motor skills under varying levels of caffeine use and abstinence. They took caffeine capsules and placebos — double blinded, so neither they nor the researcher knew which was which — and “soda fountain” drinks with and without caffeine. The trial looming, Hollingworth did it all in just 40 days....

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