Think you’ve never drunk synthetic caffeine? It sounds dodgy, wrong, futuristic, but you’ve likely consumed synthetic caffeine this week or even today.
A century ago, caffeine added to soft drinks, energy drinks and caffeine tablets used to be derived from extracting the caffeine from tea leaves or coffee beans. But the desire for caffeine has increased exponentially since then and scientists from Monsanto looked for cheaper ways to produce much greater industrial quantities of pure caffeine.
Back in 1905, Monsanto started producing caffeine for Coca Cola in St Louis, Missouri using tea leaves to extract the precious caffeine and this long term partnership was the backbone of Monsanto before it became an enormous multinational. By 1945, there were 4 main players manufacturing caffeine in the USA and following Coke’s huge popularity with GIs during the Second World War, they were struggling to cope with demand and foreign companies from Taiwan and Brazil were getting in on the market.
Coke’s strategy during the Second World War was to guarantee that every soldier should be able to get a coke for 5 cents anywhere on the battlefield – and that plan succeeded. It was an important part of the war effort to improve morale. And it left a generation of American men with a thirst for Coke for the rest of their lives. 10 billion bottles were consumed during the war.
Today, the soft drinks market has enormous caffeine needs.
Pepsi and Coke needs over 1.6 million kilograms of synthetic caffeine for the US market alone.
Mountain Dew packs in half a million kg of synthetic caffeine into its soft drinks for the US market.
In short, the estimated total synthetic caffeine imported into the USA annually is 7 million kilograms of caffeine powder.
But what is synthetic caffeine?
On with the story…Known as ‘caffeine anhydrous’, synthetic caffeine was first developed by the Nazis in 1942 to keep caffeine supplies available during the embargoes emplaced by the War. By 1953, both Monsanto and Pfizer had synthetic caffeine factories up and running in America.
Synthetic caffeine starts with ammonia. Ammonia is converted to urea. Then you combine urea and chloroacetic acid to produce a compound called uracil. In turn, the uracil is processed and converted to theophylline. The final touch is to add methyl chloride to produce the final product: methylated theophylline – otherwise known as synthetic caffeine.
However, unfortunately for the caffeine industry, the raw synthetic caffeine often glows - a bluish phosphorence - not a good look. So, this glowing is removed by rinsing the caffeine with sodium nitrite, acetic acid, sodium carbonate and chloroform.
And the pure stuff is strong. Lethal in fact in small doses. You need to be very careful with it. A sixteenth of a spoonful will give you the same hit as a large coffee, a quarter tea spoon will lead to a racing heart, sweating and acute anxiety, a tablespoon of caffeine will kill you.
Back in 1995, the Pfizer plant in Grocon, Connecticut, had a major accident in which a yellow cloud of lethal nitrogen oxide escaped the plant and the entire factory had to be evacuated.
But, this synthetic caffeine story is no longer about the USA. Almost no synthetic caffeine is produced in the United States anymore.
The majority is now made in China with 3 Chinese factories together exporting 4 million kg of caffeine alone to the USA every year. Indeed, the majority of the world’s synthetic caffeine comes from just one Chinese town: Shijiazhung – a heavily polluted industrial city in Hebei province. The biggest caffeine factory in the world is the CSPC Innovation Pharmaceutical Company. It produces 1.8 million kg of caffeine for the US market alone.
There is very little information or scrutiny in the world of synthetic caffeine. Almost no one even knows that caffeine is not naturally extracted anymore and the energy drinks industry is no rush to make this clear on their packaging.
Even government agencies sometimes finds their inspections requests denied. For example, the European Directorate for the Quality of Medicines and Healthcare attempted to inspect the CSPC factory for health and safety checks on behalf of the European Union. Their attempts were blocked and denied by CSPC and in turn CSPC is no longer allowed to export synthetic caffeine to the EU. By 2013, 4 of the 5 biggest caffeine manufacturers in China had had their license to export to Europe revoked. That's worrying.
At least the EU had tried and failed to inspect these caffeine factories…what about the FDA in America? Nope. They don't seem to be. Very few foreign inspections happen and they rely on self certification, which is a dangerous path and opportunity for cutting costs and corners – particularly in a country like China, which is regularly in the press for food and drink poisonings from lethal adulterated baby milk to tainted medical tablets.
So far, it appears that the FDA have visited just one caffeine plant in China and the report on their visit makes worrying reading. There were multiple serious health and safety dangers including accumulated debris everywhere, rusting throughout, no hygiene standards/hair nets/gloves, spillages, you name it. They appear to be producing caffeine in a filthy factory. This factory was a supplier to Coca Cola and Dr Pepper amongst many others.
In short, the caffeine industry is opaque, with almost no publically available information, and what information is available makes very worrying reading.
So where does this synthetic caffeine go?
In most of the caffeinated soda drinks you drink anywhere in the world...
Manufacturers are not obliged to state if the caffeine is natural or synthetic. So, under the ingredients section, it simply states ‘caffeine’.
The only country in the world where you are guaranteed to have natural caffeine in your drinks is Japan. Japan outlaws the use of synthetic caffeine in food and drinks as an additive. So, all caffeine used is natural caffeine extracted from tea or coffee in Japan.
This synthetic caffeine is expertly blended with carbonated sugar drinks to produce those famous soft drinks we all know and think we love.
Do the soda drink makers have to state how much caffeine is in the can?
All that’s required is to state that it has caffeine.
And do drinks makers have to say whether it’s natural or synthetic caffeine produced from urea?
That’s a no again.
Sometimes, synthetic caffeine is occasionally misblended and the results can be disastrous.
In September 2010, over a hundred thousand bottles of Sunkist were withdrawn after customer reported stomach pains, throwing up and hospitalisation following an error in the blending of caffeine into Sunkist drinks. The caffeine levels found in these Sunkist bottles were off the charts – each 350ml bottle had been dosed with 350mg of caffeine – that’s the equivalent of 3 red bulls.
However, the main issue with synthetic caffeine is that the public don't seem to know it even exists, where or how it’s made. The lack of scrutiny and transparency, as well as the lack of information on food and drink labels, is an accident waiting to happen and globally legislators need to wake up and smell the coffee that regulators need to review the situation.
Many thanks to ‘Caffeinated: how our daily habit hooks, helps and hurts us’ by Murray Carpenter. Available at Amazon.
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