What's your caffeine intake?

Do you know how much you’re actually consuming?
 
Learn more
 
 
 
 
 

01 .Introduction

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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.

CHOICE verdict

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.

 
 

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The following chart shows the relative amounts of caffeine in generic foods and beverages, plus a number of leading brands of other caffeine-containing products.

We've provided the caffeine content for the individual pack size closest to 500mL for all branded drinks, as this size (or similar) was most consistently available across all mentioned products and, in most cases, is intended for individual consumption. Many of these products are also available in smaller pack sizes.

Caffeine for this generic item was derived from a composite of retail samples meeting this product description (source: NUTTAB 2010). The caffeine content of hot tea and coffee beverages can vary widely, depending on the brand, how it's prepared, and the size of the mug or cup.

For most healthy adults, a moderate intake of caffeine (the definition of which varies from source to source, but 300-400mg is commonly cited) won’t pose a problem. However, limiting or ending your caffeine intake may be warranted if:

  • You’re pregnant. Studies showing a relationship between caffeine intake in pregnant women and its effects on the foetus including reduced birth weight, pre-term birth or stillbirth have resulted in the recommendation that pregnant women limit their daily consumption to 200mg per day.  
  • You’re young. Caffeine increases anxiety levels in children at doses of 95mg and can disrupt sleep patterns, and what is a moderate to high dose of caffeine for children and adolescents (100-400mg) can see them become increasingly nervous, jittery and fidgety. Energy drinks have been a particular source of public concern because of their high caffeine content combined with their edgy marketing that has obvious teen appeal. Some products, including V Double Hit, Wicked, Monster Energy and Mother, contain as much caffeine in a single 500mL can as two cups of instant coffee - a level that can cause unwelcome side effects in this age group.
  • You’re taking certain medications or supplements. Some medications and herbal supplements may interact with caffeine. The stimulatory effects of caffeine may increase when taking the antibiotic Ciprofloxacin, for example. And the combination of caffeine and fellow stimulant bitter orange, found in a number of weight loss and sports supplements, can increase your blood pressure.
  • You’re a heavy caffeine consumer. Heavy daily caffeine intake — more than 600 mg a day — can lead to some unpleasant effects including insomnia, nervousness, restlessness, irritability, stomach upset, fast heartbeat and muscle tremors. People with a 10-cup a day coffee habit undoubtedly fall into this category. But you may be unwittingly consuming this amount of caffeine from as little as two coffees, depending on how and where the coffee is made (see Coffee culture), so bear this in mind when you’re ordering another brew.
  • You’re sleep deprived. Caffeine can interfere with much-needed sleep by making it harder to nod off and shortening the time you do sleep. If you then drink caffeinated beverages during the day because you have trouble staying awake it can create a cycle of poor sleep.
  • Even a little makes you jittery. Some people are more sensitive to caffeine than others. If you're susceptible to the effects of caffeine, just small amounts — even one cup of coffee or tea — may prompt unwanted effects, such as restlessness and sleep problems. People who don't regularly drink caffeine tend to be more sensitive to its negative effects. Other factors that can determine how you react to caffeine include body mass, age, medication use and health conditions such as anxiety disorders.

Coffee Culture

Australians love coffee. More than one billion cups of the stuff are consumed in cafes, restaurants and other outlets each year – an increase of 65% over the last 10 years. If you’re buying your preferred brew from coffee chains and cafes and trying to monitor your daily intake, it’s worth noting that a study conducted by the University of Glasgow found caffeine levels in a single espresso ranged from 51mg to a whopping 322mg across 20 different coffee chains and cafes. 

Caffeine causes dehydration. It acts as a mild diuretic, but the fluid you consume in most caffeinated beverages tends to offset the effects of fluid loss when you urinate.

Caffeine helps you sober up. You might think you’re OK to get behind the wheel if you’ve had a coffee after a few alcoholic bevvies, but your reaction time and judgement will still be impaired.

Caffeine is addictive. Regular consumption does cause mild physical dependence, and if you suddenly stop taking caffeine you may have withdrawal symptoms – including headache, fatigue and irritability – for a day or more. But caffeine dependence isn’t generally considered a serious addiction. 

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