Some believe we should add Styrofoam cups to the list of drug paraphernalia and count the addicts scattered across the country from church basements to corporate boardrooms. Caffeine -- scientifically proven to affect the central nervous system -- remains a legal "drug" of choice for millions of Americans and compatriots worldwide. However, U.S. citizens do not lead the world in caffeine consumption. That distinction belongs to adults in Sweden and Finland, who consume 400 mg per day, compared to the daily average of 210 to 238 mg consumed in the United States and Canada.
Yet despite the hype, caffeine's effects can be considered relatively mild. Unlike other social habits, such as smoking, no cases of second-hand caffeine affecting the health of passersby have been documented. In a March 1999 Pharmacological Review article compiled by Fredholm et al, Stockholm, Sweden, the research team concluded that, "there really is very little evidence that caffeine used in moderation leads to any significant negative effects on the health of the individual."
In fact, a study published in the March 2004 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association indicates some positive effects linked to caffeine ingested via coffee consumption. Researchers suggest that study participants who regularly consumed coffee or other caffeinated beverages reduced the risk of the onset of type 2 diabetes, compared to non-coffee-drinking participants.
A stimulating subject
Caffeine is an organic substance classified as a xanthine stimulant with the molecular formula C8H10N4O2. This alkaloid can be either manufactured synthetically or derived from plants. While caffeine is most commonly extracted from tea leaves and coffee beans, other sources include guarana, maté and kola. Actually, caffeine is found in varying levels in up to 40 plant species. In its commercial, ingredient form caffeine is sold as a soft, white, odorless powder or crystal with a bitter taste.
Caffeine has FDA recognition as a GRAS ingredient or a food additive with a tolerance level of 0.02%. According to 21 CFR Sec. 182, Pt. 1180, "this substance is generally recognized as safe when used in cola-type beverages in accordance with good manufacturing practice." Naturally occurring caffeine, such as that derived from kola nuts, need not be labeled, but when used as a food additive it must appear on the ingredient label. Legal limits apply.
When using caffeine in other products, an FDA spokesperson said, "FDA is silent on caffeine's use in any other form. If you were to use it in another type of food product, a company, for whatever amount and manner they are using that ingredient, should have made a self-determination that it is generally recognized as safe by other scientists -- the burden is on them that they are marketing a safe product."
In the gray area of "functional" beverages, energy drinks can sometimes exceed the recommended level. In fact, it is actually possible to consume a lethal dose of caffeine. However, it could be a case of death from drowning, as a person would have to consume the equivalent of 80 to 100 cups of coffee in rapid succession to reach a potentially fatal level.
Various websites list the caffeine content of typical beverages. Carbonated soda brands range from 34 to 70 mg per 12-oz. serving. An average chocolate bar contains 5 to 6 mg, unless extra caffeine or guarana is added. Coffee varies widely in caffeine content depending on bean type, preparation method and the serving size, among other factors. Typically, it contains an average of 50 to 75 mg per 8-oz. cup. Espresso, on the other hand, claims 40 mg for just 1 fluid oz.
While these drinks can stimulate alertness, they also can stimulate the heart. And different people have varying sensitivities to caffeine. Some attribute insomnia to those late-afternoon energy-boosting drinks -- it takes the body anywhere from four to six hours to rid itself of half the caffeine consumed in an average cup of coffee.