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Caffeine: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

caffeine feature image“Caffeine is the only addiction you’re allowed to joke about.”

This sign at the local coffee shop gave me pause. Though a light-hearted jab, it does touch on an important point: caffeine is a drug, the least-regulated, but most popular drug in the United States. Millions of us turn to it each day to wake us up, alleviate fatigue and possibly aid our focus. But, what are the consequences, if any?

As with many “naughty” habits (e.g., chocolate, binge watching, etc.), its use most often doesn’t pose health problems, as its effects are not exclusively good or bad. It is when we go to extremes that things get a bit mucky. And, with caffeine, that is very easy to do.

As the Center for Science in the Public Interest points out, “Up until about two decades ago, the only foods with added caffeine were soft drinks; and the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) limited its content to 48mg per eight ounces (6mg/oz).” And then came Red Bull. And then copycat energy drinks.

Today, caffeine is everywhere! It is being added to an increasing number of products, most of which are enticing to children and adolescents. Now, more than ever, we must consider the cumulative effect and be mindful of the signs that we need to curtail our caffeine habits.

So, let’s take a closer look at this drug to ensure we are using it safely.

The Lowdown on Caffeine

Caffeine is a naturally occurring substance that exists in over 60 plants (leaves, seeds and fruit), such as coffee beans and leaves, cocoa beans, tea leaves, yerba mate, guarana berries and kola nuts. This alkaloid works as a natural pesticide to keep certain insects from eating the plants.

Though it was used as a recreational and medicinal drug for thousands of years prior as people chewed the leaves, seeds and bark of these plants, the chemical was not discovered until 1819. “A young physician, Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge, isolated and purified the white crystalline substance,” using Arabian mocha beans.

Today, it is classified as a xanthine alkaloid compound that acts as a nervous system stimulant in humans. It works by blocking a brain chemical called adenosine, which acts as a depressant in the brain, from entering nerve cells promoting sleep and suppressing arousal.

Our “can-never-get-enough-done” society has fully embraced this drug. In his article, “Coffee: The demon drink?,” Richard Lovett estimates that 90% of adults in North America consume caffeine daily. (Source)

Modern research continues to indicate that moderate amounts of caffeine consumed by the general healthy population are safe and do not harm health. The FDA’s current stance is that the drug is safe for healthy adults (the elderly and those with hypertension are more vulnerable) at amounts up to 400mg per day. The American Academy of Pediatrics discourages the consumption of caffeine and other stimulants by children and adolescents. While Mayo Clinic suggests that adolescents should be limited to no more than 100mg a day.

This means we must be mindful to tally our intake from all sources throughout the day, considering serving sizes, and stay at or below what is considered the moderate range of 300-400mg for adults. We should also discourage our children from caffeine use.

Consumption Recommendations from Across the Globe

The European Food Safety Authority has deemed that adults can safely consume up to 5.7mg of caffeine per kg of body weight (so a woman weighing 60kg, or 132 lbs, should consume no more than 342mg per day), not to exceed 200mg in a single dose. It found that there isn’t enough data to declare safe levels for children and adolescents.

Australia New Zealand Food Authority maintains that, based on two decades of research, habitual use of caffeine leads to physical dependence, and offers no demonstrated benefits. Also, dietary caffeine has harmful physical and behavioral effects, which probably extrapolate to children.

The International Food Information Council has concluded that a moderate intake of 300mg of caffeine per day does not cause adverse health effects in healthy adults. (Source)

A Closer Look at Caffeine Content

In order to get a better idea of and help gauge your consumption, check out this chart, which was made from information shared by the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

caffeine contentNote: Caffeine can affect some of us more than others. This can be due to age, body mass, medication usage, health conditions, such as heart, blood pressure and anxiety disorders, and other factors. People who do not consume this drug regularly and women who are pregnant tend to be more sensitive.

The Good

You have to admit, a dose of caffeine can really help get us going in the morning! It has many other benefits as well:

  • Research shows that caffeine can increase mental alertness and performance at work or while studying. It may also improve memory and reasoning in sleep-deprived people.
  • Caffeine contains antioxidants, which work in the body to protect healthy cells from free radical damage.
  • In social situations, moderate amounts of caffeine tend to support our feelings of well-being, sociability, energy, happiness and alertness.
  • Dieters enjoy the fact that caffeine in the form of black coffee is basically calorie free. It may also have mild appetite suppressant effects. In addition, it is being studied for its ability to trigger muscles to start burning fat for energy when that from carbs has run out.
  • Caffeine may have positive effects on the brain related to memory.
  • Athletes turn to caffeine to improve their performance and endurance (by delaying fatigue).
  • Hydration! Institute of Medicine (IOM) has concluded that caffeinated beverages, including coffee, tea, and soda, can contribute to total daily water intake.

But, don’t consume caffeine within 3-5 hours of bedtime, so you’re able to get a good night’s sleep!

The Bad

There are some issues that come with caffeine consumption that we must all be aware of. Consider these:

  • Caffeine is a drug. Though only mildly addictive, it can lead to physical dependence if consumed regularly. As our bodies get used to the levels we consume every day, we may need more of it to get the benefits we enjoy. Then, we continue to consume more and more to get our desired result.
  • Consuming too much caffeine can make us feel jittery or jumpy, or cause our hearts to race and palms to sweat, as if we are having a panic attack.
  • Caffeine is probably best known for causing sleep interference. Sleep experts say we may have trouble falling asleep, and when we do, we’ll experience frequent, brief awakenings that we most likely will not be aware of. When we wake up tired the next day, we turn to caffeine again.
  • Too much caffeine, or consuming it without food, can cause upset stomach and heartburn for some individuals. It promotes the production of gastric juices in the stomach, which then leads to pain and bloating.
  • Due to its negative effects on our osteoblasts and calcium absorption, caffeine may speed up bone loss, which increases our risk of osteoporosis.
  • Caffeine can be hard on people with heart issues, as it may put the heart under greater strain (as it can raise heart rate to 100 beats per minute).
  • Since caffeine stimulates elimination, nutrients, particularly iron, don’t have as much time to be absorbed.
  • If we become dependent, withdrawal symptoms can include decreased alertness, headaches, irritability, lethargy and sleepiness.

The Ugly

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, caffeine is being added to an increasing number of products, including gum, mints, tea infusers, hard candies, gummy chews, yogurt, protein bars, sunflower seeds, marshmallows and many others. Unfortunately, as these products continue to roll out, food and beverage companies “know that this stimulant increases the probability that their products will be purchased and consumed, and that it induces dependence and builds customer loyalty.” (Source)

These leave children and adolescents with easy access to caffeinated products, and at risk of dependence and excess consumption. These young people are not able to carefully consider the cumulative impact of consuming these caffeine-laden items throughout a day, which leaves the door open to several health concerns.

For example, caffeine can interfere with their sleep, which is especially important while their brains are still developing. Lack of sleep also affects school performance, behavior and other areas of these children’s lives. With kids not getting enough sleep to begin with, the sleeplessness caused by caffeine can be a huge problem both in our schools and our homes.

A contributing factor in all of this is that companies do not have to identify the amount of caffeine in products in our country. According to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, “The Nutrition Facts Panel on food labels is required to include recommended dietary information for nutrients. Caffeine is not a nutrient. It is a natural chemical found in such items as tea leaves, coffee beans, and cacao (used to make chocolate).” However, if caffeine is added to a food, it must be included in the listing of ingredients required on food product labels; though the amount of caffeine the product contains is not necessary at this time.

It has become a huge issue because proper regulations are not in place here. Originally, the FDA only formally allowed caffeine for colas in the 1950s. Current rules were set, never anticipating the proliferation of caffeinated products.

In Europe, any food or beverage that doesn’t naturally contain caffeine must list the ingredient and identify the amount it contains on the label. In addition, the European Commission specifically warns that, “For children, an increase in the daily intake of caffeine to a certain level of consumption per day may bring about temporary changes in behavior, such as increased excitability, irritability, nervousness or anxiety.” (Source)

The use of added caffeine in food is currently being investigated by the FDA particularly its consumption by minors.


If you think you may be consuming too much caffeine, be sure to cut back gradually, down to three cups per day.

What are your feelings on minors and caffeine? Share your thoughts in the comments below!