Lazy Cakes, a brownie filled with now 7.8 mg of melatonin, unknown amounts of valerian root and other "herbal" drugs, was recently banned by the Arkansas Department of Health. It also facing a ban in Fall River and New Bedford, Massachusetts. When I wrote about Lazy Cakes in early February, I did not expect the public outcry to lead to bans this early. Yet what to do with herbal supplements packaged as foods remains a major public problem.
Why are Lazy Cakes dangerous?
They are a food that contains drugs (such as melatonin) that is being marketed to children. And high doses of melatonin isn't typically recommended for kids.
Why are Lazy Cakes legal?
Because they're labeled as a "dietary supplement," not a food -- even though they look like, are packaged as and marketed as brownies. I think they would probably be illegal if they were treated as foods. In small print, Lazy Cakes declare they are for adults only -- though I doubt most five year olds will read the disclaimer.
How can Lazy Cakes harm kids?
Melatonin is the cause of more calls to Poison Control than any other herbal supplement. It can put kids to sleep for a very long time as well as cause nausea and diarrhea.
However, the largest public dangers may come with the uses marketed through Lazy Cakes advertisements. On the first page of their website the manufacturer displays a can like that of stimulant Red Bull. The inscription states: "How do you stop a raging bull?" The idea is implicitly that when you are too "up" on stimulant energy drinks, you come "down" on Lazy Cakes.
There are multiple problems with this idea. First of all, if you come down too fast or too hard you may fall asleep -- which can be fatal operating a motor vehicle. Do teenagers do things like this? Yes -- and the cause of these deaths and injuries probably wouldn't show up in the statistics, as there wouldn't be any chemical forensic work on melatonin or caffeine levels.
Second, the "up and down trap" -- common to entertainers, who get "up" with cocaine and "down" with alcohol as a way to control their need for high arousal -- now has a legal counterpart. Energy drinks provide the up part and Lazy Cakes and "relaxation drinks" the way to come down. Physical addiction may not occur with melatonin or valerian, but it certainly occurs with caffeine. The results are not pretty and frequent caffeine use can interfere with many adolescents' already poor sleep habits. When caffeine disrupts the natural sleep cycle, you need that many more "downers" to fall asleep. Kids who don't sleep well don't learn well, are cranky and more readily gain weight.
Where do people get Lazy Cakes?
Pretty much anywhere in what is now reportedly 24 states. They're at your Stop & Shop and your local, 24-hour convenience stores. On the internet you can buy 12 cakes for $24.99, but usually they're three or four dollars each in stores.
Does melatonin have other uses?
Absolutely. It can be used to induce sleep and change body clocks, and many shift workers, among others, use it. They buy melatonin pills of .3 to 3 mg at pharmacies, with prices ranging from about 10 to 20 cents each.
Are Lazy Cakes the only kind of drugs masquerading as food?
Not even close. There are Lulla Cakes and now approximately 350 competing "relaxation drinks." Many of these drinks include the same or similar ingredients to Lazy Cakes, generally without stating the exact serving size of each ingredient. Sometimes ingredients are left off of the labels entirely. Such "relaxation beverages" are in many ways the flip side of energy drinks and are often marketed as a way to come down from them.
What's wrong with wanting to relax?
Nothing. People need to utilize natural ways to modulate consciousness, which fluctuates continuously throughout the day. Rest should be regeneration -- one of the most natural things in the world and necessary for life. But there are thousands of ways to actively rest that do not involve turning to pharmaceuticals. The same people who declared cigarettes and marijuana gateways to harder drugs have not expressed the same concerns about large doses of caffeine, followed by large doses of melatonin as a crutch used by young people to get through the day.
How are drugs different from foods?
Food is nourishment, providing the body with energy and materials. Drugs treat illness. They treat symptoms. Foods have a presumption of safety that is not present in drugs.
We need to make this distinction clearer in our regulations. When people choose to buy relaxation beverages and similar substances, they need to know that they are taking a drug -- even if it is not regulated as such by the FDA. Such "dietary supplements" really are drugs and people must recognize that they are taking pharmaceuticals -- not eating a brownie or drinking a beverage for further relaxation.
Follow Matthew Edlund, M.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/therestdoctor