National Consumers League

March is National Nutrition Month: What's the Buzz on Caffeine?


By Kelsey Albright & Sally Greenberg

March is National Nutrition Month making it the perfect opportunity to reflect on the state of the American diet. This year, with March being Caffeine Awareness Month, caffeine is on our mind. Whether it’s a strong cup of morning Joe, a green tea with sushi, a chocolate bar at the movies, or an energy drink to get through the work day, the fact is that 85 percent of the U.S. population consumes caffeine daily. And, while we know where to find it, what do we really know about caffeine? During National Nutrition Month, NCL is taking a closer look at the world’s most commonly consumed “pick-me-up.”  

DISCLOSURE: Three cups of iced black tea–approximately 180 mg of caffeine–were consumed in the writing of this blog post!

National Nutrition Month is an annual initiative led by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and a good time to reflect on things like the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, food labeling, meal and beverage portion sizes, and physical activity and exercise. Additionally, the latest proposed Dietary Guidelines for Americans were just released and for the first time in its 35-year history, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans proposes to provide guidance on caffeine intake. 

Caffeine is consumed from a variety of sources every day, all over the world, as it has been for hundreds of years. In addition to being a natural part of over 60 different types of plants, like coffee beans, kola nuts, cocoa beans, tea leaves, and guarana, it is also synthetically produced for use in various foods and beverages. Regardless of whether the caffeine is naturally occurring (in coffee or tea) or used as an added ingredient (in cola or energy drinks), there is no chemical or biological difference–our bodies respond to it in exactly the same way. 

We all choose whether, when, where, and how to consume caffeine and for those who do consume it, it is for a reason–caffeine is well-known for its stimulative or “pick-me-up” quality.  Apart from that, how much do we know? Caffeine is one of the most researched ingredients in the world. From the white coats conducting rigorous scientific assessments to the number crunchers analyzing consumption data, to the billions of people globally who consume coffee, tea, chocolate, cola, or energy drinks daily, caffeine has been scrutinized time and again. 

A comprehensive study of more than 35,000 Americans published in 2014 confirmed that 85 percent of Americans consume caffeine daily, with 98 percent of the intake coming from beverage sources. The largest contributor is coffee, which is responsible for 64 percent of all caffeine intake. Coffee actually has a lot of healthful properties. A Consumer Reports piece from January 2015 noted that people aged 50-71 who drank at least one cup of coffee per day had a lower risk than nondrinkers of dying from diabetes, heart disease or other health problems when followed for more than a decade. Coffee has been linked to a lower risk of depression and provides more antioxidants than any other food. Other primary sources of caffeine include tea (17 percent), soda (17 percent), and energy drinks (2 percent). Other beverages make up the balance and the average total intake per day is approximately 165 mg.

There is a general agreement among U.S., Canadian, and European public health agencies that healthy adults, except for pregnant women, may consume moderate levels up to 400 mg of caffeine (an amount equivalent to four or five cups of 8 fl. oz. home brewed coffee) per day without risk of long term adverse health effects. Health Canada recommends that women who are pregnant, planning to become pregnant, or breastfeeding, should consume no more than 300 mg per day.  Broadly speaking, children and teens should consume less due to lower body weight.  Health Canada recommends specific ranges for different age groups, whereas the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) suggests a level of 3 mg per kilogram of body weight for children (about 150 mg for an average 110 lb. teenager).Individual sensitivity to caffeine varies, and those who are especially sensitive may also want to limit their intake.

To stay within recommended moderate levels, however, a consumer would need to know how much caffeine is in the foods and beverages he or she consumes and that’s where the problem lies. Very few products list the amount of caffeine they contain though some companies, like Red Bull and Monster, have begun voluntarily labeling.

quantity.pngSo, how much caffeine is in a common portion of some of the most popular products?

In the recent report of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, they concluded that moderate caffeine consumption up to 400 mg of caffeine per day is not associated with increased risk of chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease and cancer. In fact, the Committee agreed that there is evidence coffee has some health benefits including some protection against Parkinson’s disease and potential to lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive impairment.

equivelence.pngIn comments filed with the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee in 2014, NCL suggested the following.

  1. All products containing caffeine should disclose the total amount of caffeine per serving - and per container - on their product labels or packaging; that means all products, including those marketed as dietary supplements, which often contain extremely high levels of caffeine. This should also apply to coffee, tea, and soda – the top three sources of caffeine in the diet. Quantitative labeling of caffeine would provide transparency and help consumers determine their daily intake and make sure it is in line with current recommendations. The Food and Drug Administration should provide the public with clear guidance on safe upper limits of caffeine intake for the general population of healthy adults and for other relevant age and gender groups. If the FDA is still reviewing the science, it can at least provide interim advice, as Health Canada has done, so that consumers have some guidance to go on in the meantime. 
  2. We also recommend that the Dietary Guidelines for Americans should address caffeine holistically instead of implying, as recommended by the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, that caffeine is a potential problem when it is consumed in the form of “high caffeine” energy drinks.  One area of real concern is dietary supplements (caffeine pills, powders, and shots) that contain excessive and potentially harmful levels of caffeine that can be easily abused. We tell consumers to steer clear of caffeine capsules, powders, sprays, and shots. 
  3. We also recommend looking at energy drinks alongside other caffeinated products. The recently released report of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee clearly states that ‘the main sources of caffeine among both adults and children are coffee, tea, and carbonated soft drinks.’ In addition, the Dietary Guidelines should educate the public about these primary sources of caffeine, including from sodas - which is missing entirely in the dietary guidelines dialogue.

Despite our familiarity with caffeine, common sense and moderation should always prevail.  Caffeine may not be for everyone.  Even though some may believe it is an essential part of their day, it is not a nutrient. Consumers should keep in mind that caffeinated products are not recommended for pregnant or lactating women or those sensitive to caffeine. Up to 3 mg per kilogram of body weight per day for children should have no adverse effects. The same goes for light weight adolescents, while those that are older/heavier may abide by adult guidelines. A common sense approach for caffeine management - which starts with caffeine labeling and guidance on daily levels - is paramount to ensure all consumers can make informed choices.