And now they want to ban caffeine?

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Well, ok not really completely ban, just regulate. This week there was a suggestion that the amount of caffeine put into energy drinks may be harmful or deadly to younger caffeine drinker.  Is this justified or an overreaction?

 

A group of Amercian experts (medics, scientists and public health experts)  are calling for the regulation of energy drinks containing caffeine.  In a letter to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA, US body) the experts set out their argument that the levels of caffeine in some energy drinks means that there can no longer be any certainty over the safety of the drug.  Caffeine is the worlds most used psychoactive drug, used extensively probably in every country.

In the letter they set out many possible health effects from the use of energy drinks, but many of these effects were due to the generally sugar and additive content rather than specifically caffeine.  Obviously trying to separate out these effects is difficult but unless they are proposing sugar be regulated also then they should have tried!  You can’t really blame caffeine for enamel on teeth being damaged by acidity so why mention it here?  The health issues outlined in the letter that may be attributed to high caffeine use are: heart effects (tachycardia, elevated blood pressure and arrhythmias) leading to potentially fatal cardiac ischemia; neurological symptoms such as nervousness, anxiety, headache (particularly in young users) and then other symptoms such as loss of sleep.

 

The experts also include a section on the use of energy drinks with alcohol. Again this is general ‘energy drinks’ and alcohol they are concerned with, rather than caffeine as an isolated drug.

The conclusion of the letter was that among experts there was:

no general consensus among qualified experts that the addition of caffeine in the amounts used in energy drinks is safe under its conditions of intended use

Rather than comment on the slightly awkward wording I would suggest that no ‘consensus that it was safe’ means there was no ‘consensus it was unsafe’.  Lets have a look at current regulations:

Under current US FDA regulations caffeine content is not required to be shown on the label and is considered safe up to a level of 200 milligrams in a litre.  In a litre of Coca cola there would be around 120 milligrams of caffeine, so well below this limit, a can of monster energy drink is reported to have about 400 milligrams per litre whilst a litre of filter coffee would give you over 500 milligrams per litre.  So which would give you the biggest dose if used as intended?  Coca-cola has around 40 mg per 300 mL can, Monster Energy Drink has around 160 milligrams and a mug of filter coffee around 140 milligrams.  So a can of monster is above the FDA safety level in terms of concentration of caffeine but only a little more content than a mug of coffee. 

In the UK there has been lots of press around the dangers of energy drinks and we do have some legislation around this.  Currently any drink with more than 150 milligrams of caffeine must be labelled as ‘high caffeine’, and the caffeine content should also be shown on the label.  An EU law will come into effect in December 2014 which will require additional labels for drinks where caffeine has been added for physiological reasons.  Drinks must state: ‘Contains caffeine. Not recommended for children or pregnant women’ and must display the amount of caffeine per recommended unit of drink (eg. per can).   These laws does not extend to tea and coffee though.  Some research by final year students here at SHU has shown a very wide variation in the caffeine content of espresso drinks, many of which were well above the 150 milligrams ‘high caffeine’ level.

I am not against these regulations, they are not stopping anyone from purchasing or drinking caffeinated beverages and do not create another illicit drug.  The US could do a lot worse than look to these regulations.  Alternatives would be to introduce an age limit on caffeine or to limit the dose put in a drink.  Are these sensible and proportional?  I would suggest not but these are being talked of.

Consider the amount of caffeine drunk per day around the world – it is the worlds most used drug.  There are millions of milligrams used per day, with very few serious issues reported.

I don’t think we are at a position where there is any serious threat to ban my espresso!

 

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Dr Tom Bassindale

About Dr Tom Bassindale

Dr Tom Bassindale is a forensic scientist, and the founder of We Are Forensic. He's managed hundreds of forensic toxicology cases, and is an experienced court witness. He has specialist expertise in forensic toxicology and drug testing in sport. Dr B is currently a senior lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University. And yes... he watches CSI.