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Whif? Whaf? The Wonka of breathable food faces FDA review

It looks like a sleek, avant garde  lipstick or  a purse-sized cologne atomizer–one designed by Halston or Calvin Klein. Atomizer is the right word. Only these AeroShot canisters, which got their start at Harvard’s The Laboratory Art/Science project under David Edwards and became available in the US last fall, are packing “breathable caffeine” (plus a couple of B vitamins).

The previous model, aka “le Whif”, packs “breathable” chocolate powder. It was a moderate success in Paris, where Edwards’ Bauhaus-like other lab center (named Le Laboratoire) produced and promoted the experimental chocolate inhalers as an aesthetic experience at celebrity events, and in London, where its spinoff company Breathable Foods now holds court.

Where did this strange, possibly ludicrous idea come from, that it’s a better aesthetic experience to inhale a shpritz of caffeine (please note: flavorless though with a kick, and definitely a drug-I-have-worked-with-in-the-lab-because-it-blocks-G-protein-coupled-receptors) than drink a long, hot cup of intense coffee while reading this blog and contemplate the degree to which your barista still favors you by regarding the temperature and the decoration in the steamed milk foam served on top? Why is it better to puff a little chocolate-flavored powder on your tongue than eat actual chocolate? Somehow, I don’t think the “calorie-free” argument really plays into the decision very strongly, so what’s driving this?

Do we not still have taste buds? Do we not long to extend our coffee break as far from our cubicles as it will stretch? Do we really want our hearts to suddenly kick into overdrive after we have to get back to the office, just when we’re stuck behind the counter, attempting to explain that glitch in the irate customer’s bill? For that matter, do we really want to ingest B vitamins with our caffeine? Or figure out which recycling bin the little plastic aerosolizer goes in when it runs out? Will the aerosolized flavors or food components even still be interesting if we have a stuffy nose?

Do we want to miss out on the gustatory satisfaction of real food?

In the public demos for Le Whif, (according to Edwards’ book, anyway) the French surprisingly enough didn’t mind the fact that many of the chocolate inhalers didn’t work well, or that they started coughing whenever the chocolate powder went the wrong way. They didn’t mind being used as impromptu guinea pigs–or perhaps realize that they were–despite the fact that these products were being tested informally and some of them demonstrated the adverse health risks right away, and that just possibly breathing chocolate-flavored particulates into your lungs might not be all that smart, particularly if you have asthma.

These things obviously didn’t bother the French too much. The packaging was chic, the concept ultramodern, and the activation gestures analogous enough to lighting up a (now-forbidden) cigarette with one’s coffee at a sidewalk café table. And, so the company promised, it was a calorie-free chocolate experience.

Even more surprisingly, it didn’t really matter what kind or quality of chocolate was in the little gadgets, or how it actually tasted in comparison with ordinary solid chocolate. This was closer to participating in Modern Art, or at least in fashion’s idea of modern art. Like a visit to the now-closed El Bulli, which paired some dishes with a side beaker of aromatic vapor, only much less expensive, disposable, and with a simple popular flavor everyone understands. Molecular gastronomy for the common man. Or woman.

Americans of my generation–which also happens to be Edwards’–are a little less sure than the French about the chic value of shpritzing odd substances onto one’s tongue, much less as a high-class cultural or intellectual activity. Our references include tacky mouth spray breath fresheners (made fun of in numerous movies and tv shows over the decades), Bic lighters, Pez dispensers, and asthma inhalers. Kind of low on chic.

So Breathable Foods found the right marketing paradigm–“buzz”–for its target audience:  college students cramming at exam time, athletes who want that extra edge, young and supposedly together 20-somethings (from the pictures, mostly party-going males, with a few females off to the side) who want the “pure energy” in AeroShots, and they Want It Now.

All the copy is designed to rev up enthusiasm for an ill-defined “need”, and the language strategy has been lifted almost wholesale from the more aggressive men’s cologne, “energy” drinks, and weightlifters’ whey protein powder ad campaigns. How to market flawlessly to the young and insecure. If skateboarding were still cool and unambiguously for customers over 18 (not marketing to kids is one of the company’s bullet points), you’d be seeing a  hotdogger hanging in midair somewhere in the mix of cool brand images that fill the site.

These are just the surface aesthetic and cultural considerations Breathable Foods has faced as it enters the US market–at least in New York and Massachusetts, where it was launched last fall with copious free sample handouts from campus “brand ambassadors”.

Senator Charles Schumer just got through convincing the FDA to ban alcohol-plus-caffeine club drinks, which he’s called “a blackout in a can”. If Breathable Foods had stuck with ersatz spray chocolate, he might have stayed out of it, but with spray caffeine “shots” the potential for rave damage looks like it could reverse all his hard work, so he’s written to the FDA to take a hard look at it. Which they are, and frankly not before time.

Take a look at the lingo in the product web site slideshow and be amazed at how blatantly the company’s pushing inhalable caffeine powder. Or is it inhalable? It’s supposed to be a puff of dry powder you swallow rather than breathe. Could be tricky. And supposedly it’s faster-acting than a caffeine pill or a cup of coffee, so…kind of like a drug, but not really a drug, it’s … a dietary supplement (because you swallow it). Being administered in an asthma-style inhaler. Yeah. But that’s incidental–doesn’t make it a medical delivery device, ’cause caffeine’s a food. Right? And the company’s called Breathable Foods. But of course you’re not supposed to breathe it.

You can see how the FDA could have a ball with this one.

I’m concerned about the unintended health effects and how Edwards’ team has kind of swanned past the idea of safety testing because, in their minds, these are food products rather than drug delivery products.

Choking on chocolate powder is a nasty experience, as anyone who’s ever attempted to make cocoa by stirring dry cocoa powder too hastily into hot milk can tell you. Inhaling caffeine–does it have adverse effects? Probably. One of its sister compounds is theophylline, an older drug for asthma attacks–not incredibly effective, but used for decades in ERs for lack of better analogs. And if you think about the tendency for caffeine to irritate stomach lining…I don’t know if you could actually ulcerate a hole in your lung tissue by breathing in a concentrated dose the wrong way (which is obviously fairly easy to do, especially if you’ve been partying or sitting in a Parisian café too long), but I wouldn’t really want to find out the hard way.

And caffeine has direct effects on heart, nerve and gut activity. Depending on the dose, you could have a mildly stimulating jolt or a seizure. Or a bad lung infection if you were sharing shots at a party and the container got contaminated.

Did none of this actually occur to the inventors? David Edwards recounts that of the first batch of 100 chocolate inhalers to arrive in France from the fabricators in China, only 30  even worked. The others malfunctioned one way or another–improperly loaded or manufactured, some missing the chocolate powder altogether.

Moreover, of Edwards’ previous experiences in inhaler dosing–for TB vaccination and other more serious medical conditions than a caffeine or chocolate jones–few have made it all the way to commercialization. A simple application, saline vapor to cut down flu transmission, seemed pretty impressive at the concept/demo stage. I’m not sure how far it’s gotten in clinical trials, but the drive to apply it for use in poor regions of the world is attractive–if it works, and if it does no harm. Spray-dried bacteria for a powder injector or inhaler version of the TB vaccine–award-winning concept, and a lot of his work is backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. But it’s not quite there yet.

The most innovative possibility, insulin inhalers for diabetics, tested out okay for its effective glucose dropping activity in rats, and the prospect of taking a single puff of insulin vapor to last 4 days was pretty exciting. Unfortunately, though, in the real world insulin is something that requires very precise dosing to be safe–nurses in the hospital have to pair up and double check each shot before giving it to their diabetic patients. Dosing vapor by inhaler is pretty uneven and unreliable (the AeroShot site claims it delivers its dose of caffeine in “4 to 6 puffs”). Fine for saline or even vaccines, but for insulin, it’s inherently much too risky, even if it sounds promising to a casual  outsider. The last I read, the project was being dropped with very little chance of FDA approval.

As the mother of a Type I diabetic, though, I have the opportunity to pose the question to an experienced patient.  If it could be made to work right, would she want to try it?

“Yuck!” my daughter said, without batting an eye. “Insulin smells terrible. Who’d want to taste that? I’d stick with the pump.”

And there you have it–the two most obvious bits of critical information that Dr. Edwards and his innovators, mostly students, have blithely overlooked in their pursuit of the creative and the next biggest new thing.

Looking at the other ideas at Edwards’ web site, many are intriguing, aesthetically appealing, quasi-genius, trendy, and even high-minded in a New Agey sort of way. But how they actually work out is another question.

In interviews Edwards is charming but really vague–unsettlingly vague–about what he’s doing and why and where the value really is. He talks about the confluence of art, design and science (by which he mostly means engineering borrowed from biomedicine) and the fostering of creativity, but he doesn’t really do details well. Did he work out the kinks on the chocolate powder inhaler before handing it out to students and café patrons to try out on the spot? No. Did he or his company do animal or clinical testing for the caffeine inhaler? There’s no mention of any on the AeroShot product web site, only a claim that he used his previous expertise in aerosol vaccine and drug delivery in designing it. I didn’t see it anywhere in his list of papers on PubMed either.

So Breathable Foods has marketed the AeroShot caffeine inhaler as a dietary supplement, and claims that each shot delivers 100 mg of caffeine, about as much as in a cup of coffee. If you can rely on that dosing estimate with this model, well and good. But there’s nothing to prevent anyone from overdosing if they feel like it or are inebriated and lose track. A little sticker saying “Don’t use it more than 3 times a day” is woeful from a company whose founder has medical device experience.

Breathable Foods has released a statement Sunday to the effect that they’ll cooperate fully with the FDA review of their caffeine dose inhaler. I suspect they’ll be getting a dose of reality when they have to supply the kind of safety and performance data we expect from over-the-counter drug brands like Tylenol and Advil, or even the safety precautions taken by Gillette for its aerosol shaving cream dispenser.

Where would that leave Edwards? His medical projects and overall vision for blending art and design with science are enormously enticing, and he seems the epitome of the golden boy for having figured out how to spend most of his time in Paris and yet get credit for being an elite professor at Harvard. He’s a huge tech media hit on both sides of the Atlantic, and I envy him deeply. Except for one thing: his tendency to miss, or perhaps ignore, the key facts about many of his project challenges.  Edwards doesn’t always work hard enough at getting the concept right before he sails in with a groovy solution.

Because the fundamental question still remains, and all talk of melding art with science goes completely by the wayside with the breathable food concept. Why on earth would you want to inhale mediocre chocolate and flavorless caffeine in a second or two rather than enjoy the sensory experience of a piece of good chocolate and a cup of good coffee at your leisure? Is it worth the risk of damaging your lungs?

Kurt Vonnegut pointed out the obvious repeatedly in his novels, particularly The Sirens of Titan and Breakfast of Champions: Life cannot be lived fully by taking a pill. Or breathing your food. Or in our case by trying to dose a diabetic with an inhaler.

Anyone who develops a great and creative and futuristic and cool way to do the wrong thing may be hailed as great and creative and futuristic and cool, but he’s still doing the wrong thing.

2 Responses

  1. When I heard about this, my first reaction was “Inhaling powder is bad for you!” (anyone who’s made Kool-Aid knows this)

    I’ve used sugar-free caffeinated mints on a road trip (to reduce the need for pit stops in the middle of nowhere), and I got fresh breath as a bonus.

    Blech.

    • Blech is right. Actually, I can see trying out some of the “Le Whaf” vapors at the Laboratoire’s “foodlab” bar–once, as a set sensory/palate experience. And only if I knew what was in them–everything that was in them, not just the named flavor or aroma, but the propellant components and media as well. But I doubt if I’d want to substitute any of the “cocktails” for the real thing. And since it’s quite possible, and even affordable, to set up an intriguing real-food palate experience for your friends without all the processing and fancy futuristic gizmos, is this exclusive stuff really necessary?

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