Do you know how much you’re actually consuming? Caffeine shows up in products from corn chips and smoothies through to painkillers and weight loss products.
Caffeine is a paradox. On the one hand it offers a number of benefits: coffee consumption has been linked to a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes, Parkinson’s Disease and gallstones. Caffeine can boost metabolism, making it a popular ingredient in weight loss supplements, and has been shown to enhance exercise capacity and improve endurance exercise performance. The stimulant can also improve alertness and cognitive performance.
But too much caffeine can increase anxiety, make you restless, give you headaches and impair your sleep. Caffeine consumption can cause temporary increases in blood pressure and as a result has been linked to heart disease. Heavy consumption has been implicated in pregnancy and birthing complications. And excessive caffeine can affect the amount of calcium that our body absorbs, so it’s sometimes cited as a risk factor for osteoporosis.
Which products contain caffeine?
Caffeine comes from the leaves, beans and nuts of various plants including coffee, tea, cocoa, kola and guarana – all of which can end up in the food, drinks, medications and supplements we regularly consume. While you’d expect there to be caffeine in coffee, you might be surprised by the presence – and quantity – of caffeine in products like corn chips, ice cream, iced tea, weight loss tablets and sports supplements.
The problem is that it’s not easy to know how much caffeine you’re getting. The presence of caffeine in some foods and drinks is regulated to an extent. But aside from the following exceptions, food and drink manufacturers don’t have to disclose the amount in a product, or in many cases even its presence.
- Australian food standards limit the caffeine in formulated caffeinated beverages (otherwise known as energy drinks) to 320mg/L and the caffeine content must be stated on the label.
- Similarly kola-type (cola) beverages must also declare the presence of caffeine, but while the total caffeine content mustn’t exceed 145mg/L the concentration doesn’t have to be specified on the label.
- Foods and beverages that contain guarana or its extract must be labelled as containing caffeine, although the exact source of the caffeine doesn’t have to be specified or quantified.
- And where caffeine itself is added to a food it must be declared on the ingredients list (although the caffeine content doesn’t have to be quantified).
Natural sources of caffeine, such as coffee - or products that contain these as ingredients - aren’t required to label the presence of caffeine nor how much they contain.
We looked at the packaging of a range of energy drinks, cola drinks, over-the-counter medications and weight loss and sports supplements and found all were labelled appropriately. Where the caffeine content information wasn’t on the label the manufacturers were generally happy to supply it when we asked, but for the most part this information wasn’t available on company websites.
It's a good idea to keep track of how much caffeine you’re consuming, especially if you need to limit your intake, but reading labels won’t always give the full picture. At the very least, we want all caffeine-containing product makers - from soft drink manufacturers to coffee chains - to provide caffeine content information on their websites. And, where it’s not mandatory, we think producers should consider voluntarily labelling the presence of caffeine on their product packaging.