Are We Consuming Too Much Caffeine?

Across the U.S. and for millions of people throughout most of the world, morning starts with the warm aroma of freshly made coffee.

In fact, the New Scientist estimates that more than 90% of U.S. adults use caffeine every day, most of them in a cup (or five or six) of coffee. But many people consume the world’s most popular psychoactive drug in many other products. Over the past several years, there’s been an almost frightening tendency to add caffeine to everything from jelly beans to chewing gum.

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Yes, chewing gum, though you won’t be buying Wrigley’s Alert chewing gum in the foreseeable future. After “discussion with the FDA,” Wrigley has decided to pause the production and sales of the caffeine-infused “energy caffeine gum” until the FDA develops a regulatory framework for the addition of caffeine to foods and drinks.

The concern among many of the world’s health care providers and scientists is not that people consume caffeine, or even that they consume too much of it. It’s that there is currently no way for people to gauge how much caffeine they are using over the course of a day. While most products that contain caffeine include it in their list of ingredients, few note how much caffeine their products contain. The end result is that many people consume far more caffeine than they realize, to the point that more than 20,000 people sought emergency treatment after ingesting energy drinks in 2011. There are a few rare cases of fatalities caused by too much caffeine, called caffeine toxicity, and of course, everyone knows that if you suddenly stop using caffeine, you will be dealing with headaches, muscle pain and difficulty concentrating, among other things.

Even as the concern about the amount of caffeine people consume mounts, though, there Is also mounting evidence that coffee is not only not harmful, but may actually be beneficial. Over the past 10 to 15 years, numerous studies have shown that moderate coffee consumption – note that it’s coffee consumption, not caffeine consumption – may reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, some kinds of cancer and a number of other conditions. In a number of those studies, it’s been suggested that the other substances in coffee (there are hundreds of chemically active compounds in a cup of the delicious elixir) may be responsible for many of those beneficial effects. On the other hand, some of the benefits disappear if you drink decaf rather than the standard coffee. It may well be that many of those beneficial effects have less to do with any particular substance in coffee and more to do with the synergistic effects of many combined compounds.

Back to caffeine, though. Most doctors and health officials believe that the wake-me-up ingredient in coffee isn’t harmful in moderation – about 400 mg a day, the maximum amount recommended by the UK Food Standards Agency. For reference, a 6-ounce cup of filter brewed coffee provides 70-150 mg of caffeine, depending on the brew method, the amount of coffee used to make it, the type of coffee and many other factors. Most health studies about coffee have suggested that drinking between four and six “cups” of coffee daily aren’t harmful and may be helpful to your health.

The problem is the amount of caffeine added to many other products as an “energy enhancer.” Energy drinks are one of the main culprits, from the little 5-hour shots of caffeine you can pick up at any gas station counter (the better to drive through then night without dozing) to Red Bull and Monster energy drinks, caffeine-infused “sport” drinks. Most caffeinated products are marketed as energy and productivity boosters: you can get more done because you’re more alert, more focused and have more energy. Their ads feature youthful, healthy people doing exciting things, and they’re heavily marketed to younger markets.

This is part of the concern with many of these caffeine-infused beverages and snacks: they’re aimed at ever-younger markets, including young teens whose bodies aren’t as developed or capable of dealing with substances. And, since they’re made with caffeine that has been artificially severed from other compounds and substances in the original plant source, they don’t carry the same buffers and synergistic reactions that you might find in a cup of coffee.

As of now, the FDA is mulling over the best way to regulate the manufacture and sale of caffeine-containing foods and beverages. The most likely form of that regulation will be labeling requirements, so that people can at least estimate the amount of caffeine they are taking in on a daily basis and make changes and decisions that are based on that knowledge.