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UI Scientists Discover Way to Test for Caffeine Content

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CORALVILLE, Iowa - Caffeine is an ever-popular pick-me-up. It’s in many of the foods and medicines we use on a daily basis, including a growing segment of energy drinks, according to Hy-Vee dietician Judy Fitzgibbons.

“People seem to want to drink their energy,” said Fitzgibbons, showing us several different types of energy shots and drinks. “The 5-hour Energy is pretty potent at 200 milligrams. You would have to drink a full can of Red Bull to get the same caffeine,” she said as one example.

But recent safety recalls of caffeine-packed products and the death of an Ohio teen after he ate powdered caffeine have researchers like Professor Mani Subramanian concerned. That’s what drove him and his colleagues do discover a way to test for caffeine content, with an enzyme called caffeine dehydrogenase.

“Basically what it does, is it takes electrons from caffeine and then dumps it into a dye,” said Subramanian, director of the UI’s Center for Biocatalysis and Bioprocessing.

He demonstrates this with three versions of the same brand of soft drink: regular, diet, and caffeine-free Mountain Dew. Without labeling, all of them are essentially identical to the naked eye. But mix them with the enzyme, and they quickly show their true colors as the dye is activated.

“Based on the caffeine concentration, it can be within seconds, to a minute,” Subramanian explained.

From this, he said a test strip could be developed to tell consumers ordering drinks in restaurants - and even nursing mothers - how much caffeine is in whatever they’re eating or feeding to their kids.

“These strips would be available in a box, just like glucose strips for measuring sugar for diabetics,” Subramanian told us. Just like any drug, he said it’s important to read the packaging, which often has caffeine listed in milligrams per serving.

And, used in moderation, Fitzgibbons said caffeine does have its uses.

“Caffeine is definitely an upper, so if people are feeling a little tired it gives a little stimulus,” Fitzgibbons said.

Subramanian is unsure of exactly how long it will be before a caffeine test strip would make it to store shelves, but he said if a company decided to pick up the idea, it could be developed within a year or so.

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