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Avid coffee drinkers rejoiced when in 2003 Health Canada announced the results of a research review indicating that moderate amounts of caffeine pose little risk to health for healthy adults. 

But before you head out for a large coffee or a jumbo latte, be sure to carefully consider these facts:
  • Your caffeine intake might not be as “moderate” as you think. For example, many different foods and drinks besides coffee contain significant amounts of caffeine.
  • Caffeine can pose health concerns for certain groups of people, such as children and pregnant women. Health Canada recommends very little caffeine, if any, for people in these high risk groups.

Caffeine is a Stimulant
Caffeine is a chemical compound that is naturally found in a variety of plants, including coffee, tea, cocoa, and herbs such as kola, guarana and yerba maté.

Caffeine can also be synthesized or “man made.” Many of us are fond of the stimulating effects that caffeine provides. It increases feelings of alertness and can help to mask feelings of tiredness or fatigue.

However, you can get too much of a good thing.  Take in too much caffeine and you may experience unpleasant and health-threatening side effects, such as sleeplessness (insomnia), diarrhea, anxiety, muscle tremors or shakiness, and stomach upset.

Plus, cutting back on your caffeine intake may not be as easy as you might think! 

According to Diane Jackshaw, a registered dietitian in Edmonton, people who enjoy caffeinated foods and beverages can develop “dependency issues.” That is, they experience withdrawal symptoms if they abruptly decrease the amount of caffeine they take in each day. 

How Much is Too Much?
The subject of “how much is too much,” in terms of caffeine has been controversial.  Because of the side effects that some people experience, along with a lack of reliable information, the safety of caffeine has been the subject of much media attention for many years.

Health Canada issued recommendations in 2003 that put some of the concerns to rest.  For example, according to Health Canada, for adults, moderate caffeine intake poses little risk to health. Health Canada’s definition of moderate intake is 400 mg/day, which is about the amount found in three 237 ml (8-oz) cups of brewed coffee.

One problem related to Health Canada’s report on caffeine is determining what “moderate intake” really means and realizing how much caffeine you are actually consuming on an average day.

For instance, a wide range food and drink – as well as some medications – contain caffeine, sometimes in large amounts.

  • According to Health Canada, Canadian adults get an estimated 60% of their caffeine from coffee and about 30% from tea. The remaining 10% comes from cola beverages, chocolate products and medicines.
  • For children aged one to five, about 55% comes from cola drinks, about 30% from tea and about 14% from chocolate. The rest comes from other sources, including medicines.
  • Other sources of caffeine include energy drinks and some alcoholic beverages.

“It is important for consumers to educate themselves,” says Dr. Kate Storey, a registered dietitian and research associate at the School of Public Health, University of Alberta. “Caffeine is not always listed on the label of a product. As well, some people confuse energy drinks, which can contain large amounts of caffeine, with sports drinks.”

Sports drinks replace substances that athletes use up in high performance, for example, carbohydrates and electrolytes.

The amount of caffeine in some energy drinks may not be clearly stated, creating a challenge for consumers who track their caffeine intake.  In these products, substances such as guarana and yerba maté are listed on the label but the actual amount of caffeine in these ingredients is not shown. Under Canadian legislation, manufacturers must include caffeine on a label only if it is added as a pure substance and is not part of another herbal ingredient.

Although it can be difficult to keep track of your caffeine intake, there is helpful information out there. For example, a table included in Health Canada’s website article, “Caffeine in Food” (see link in Learn More section below) shows the caffeine content in a variety of foods.
Moderation Matters, Especially for Children and Youth, and Pregnant Women
According to Health Canada, children and youth, and pregnant women, should limit the amount of caffeine they take in each day. 

  • Health Canada notes that even relatively small amounts of caffeine can negatively influence how children behave.
  • In addition, Health Canada cautions women of child-bearing age to limit caffeine in order to avoid possible reproductive problems. 

For children and youth, Health Canada recommends a maximum daily caffeine intake of no more than 2.5 milligrams per kilogram of body weight. Based on average body weights of children, this means a daily caffeine intake of:

  • no more than 45 mg for children aged 4 to 6;
  • no more than 62.5 mg for children aged 7 to 9; and
  • no more than 85 mg for children aged 10 to 12.

Translating these numbers into actual foods or cans of cola per day can be difficult. Based on average body weight, children should have no more than one or two 12 oz/355 ml cans a day.

For women of child-bearing age, the recommendation is a maximum daily caffeine intake of no more than 300 mg, or a little over two 8-oz (237 ml) cups of regular coffee.

No Caffeine for Kids Would Be Ideal
In an ideal world, Jackshaw says, children would not consume any caffeine at all. Storey, whose work includes health promotion in schools, agrees.

Storey notes that colas and other caffeinated drinks can displace other beverages like milk and water, which are “incredibly important for growth and to build strong bones and teeth.”

Children who are active may be at risk of dehydration, Storey says, and caffeine, which is a diuretic or compound that causes the body to lose water only increases the challenges children may face when it comes to caffeine.

Both Jackshaw and Storey point out that because children have low body weights, it doesn’t take much to reach the maximum recommended amount. As well, they say, caffeine can have a tremendous effect on children’s behaviour, making them jittery and hyperactive, just as it sometimes does with adults.

Keeping Caffeine in Check

“People think they are doing okay,” says Jackshaw, “but often they are just looking at their coffee intake and not at the chocolate or tea or cola they consume. Also, they are not considering the size of the cup they use. Some cups are definitely larger than 8 ounces or 237 millilitres.”

According to health experts, we all need to keep in mind the many sources of caffeine in our diets and keep the portion sizes of these foods and beverages fairly small. Other tips for keeping caffeine in check include:

  • Choosing decaffeinated coffee and tea in order to enjoy these drinks in larger amounts without over-stepping the recommended intake.
  • Choosing regular meals and snacks.  Fatigue can set in when we go without eating for long periods of time.  Combat these feelings of low energy by eating on a regular schedule throughout the entire day.  For best results, plan to eat something approximately every two to three hours during the waking part of your day.
  • Reach for water.  Dehydration or lack of body water can make you feel tired which, in turn, makes it easy to turn to caffeinated foods and beverages.  Prevent dehydration by sipping water throughout the day. Carry a water bottle to ensure you have easy access to water whenever you need it.
  • Fill up on vegetables and fruits.  Vegetables and fruits are naturally satisfying; they are low in fat, calories and salt, and are a good source of water.  Aim to include at least one serving of vegetables and fruit at each meal or snack, in line with Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide.
  • Avoiding energy drinks. The drawbacks of these beverages far outweigh the potential benefits. Energy drinks can make you feel more alert, but they contain large amounts of caffeine, sugar and calories. Energy drinks should never be used by children or pregnant women.

Moderation and Awareness
In moderation, foods and beverages that contain caffeine are safe.  This is good news for the majority of Canadians who enjoy drinks like coffee and tea on a daily basis. 

Still, it can be difficult to achieve the goal of moderation because caffeine is found in a whole range of different products. Limiting caffeine intake is a special challenge for children and pregnant women, who have lower recommended intake levels. The key is to be aware of the many foods and beverages that contain caffeine and to find ways to reduce your overall caffeine intake. 
Learn More
Alberta Health Services (Capital Health). How Much Caffeine is Too Much

Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide

Health Canada. It’s Your Health: Caffeine

Health Canada. Caffeine in Food
Includes a useful table showing the caffeine content of a variety of foods.

Health Canada. Safe Use of Energy Drinks

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