Scientist fires EU coffee warning ahead of EFSA caffeine publication

By Ben BOUCKLEY contact

- Last updated on GMT

Photo: KMO Foto/Flickr
Photo: KMO Foto/Flickr

Related tags: Caffeine, Coffee

A high-profile scientist warns that any move by EFSA to recommend lower upper levels of caffeine consumption below 300mg/day could be ‘very harmful’ for the EU coffee industry, ahead of a key publication.

The European Food Safety Authority’s (EFSA’s) draft opinion on conditions of use associated with caffeine health claims was expected to be published for consultation this week, but an EFSA spokesman said today that publication has been delayed and is now expected by the end of 2014.

Ahead of its publication Dr Astrid Nehlig, research director at France’s National Medical Research Institute (INSERM), told she was worried that coffee could be unfairly penalised when the Panel publishes its draft – since the beverage is not to blame for caffeine’s bad press.

Caffeine intake and health claims – What’s all the fuss about?

EFSA’s Panel on Dietic Products, Nutrition and Allergies (NDA Panel) is considering acceptable use levels for caffeine against the backdrop of a draft Commission Regulation amending EU Regulation No.432/2012 – on the authorisation of three health claims on the effects of caffeine targeting adults performing endurance exercise.

The authorisation of two further health claims relating to the effects of caffeine on alertness and concentration targeting the general population is also at issue; in both cases EU member states raised concerns about conditions of use proposed by the Commission, which use EFSA’s opinions.

These concerns include (1) the risk of adverse health effects as a result of caffeine intake from all sources, (2) the safety of caffeine consumption in the general population and specific target groups – those ingesting caffeine during exercise, with alcohol or as an ingredient in energy drinks.

Thirdly, member state concerns relate to the validity and appropriateness of the total daily intake (TDI) for normal people proposed in the conditions of use for claims, of 300mg/day.

Commission seeks advice on energy drink health risks

At EU level to date caffeine has only been assessed in the context of energy drinks, but the overall safety of caffeine intake from all sources, and acceptable use levels, have yet to be assessed.

Thus the NDA Panel is reviewing scientific data ahead of its decision – having been asked by the Commission to advise it on a tolerable upper level of intake (UL) for caffeine from all sources for various population groups – the general population, those performing physical exercise, pregnant and breastfeeding women, children and adolescents.

Finally, the Commission wants advice from the panel on the extent to which consuming caffeine in combination with alcohol of substance found in energy drinks could present a risk to health.

Nehlig worries that EFSA could recommend a new upper level of 200mg per day, or even lower, for healthy adults when she says “the general [scientific] literature and almost everyone around”​ considers there is not much concern for normal people up to 400mg/day.

Lowering upper level could damage EU coffee market – Nehlig

Moreover, to bear caffeine-related health claims products should contain at least 75mg of caffeine per serving – so Nehlig fears lowering upper levels could damage the coffee industry in particular.

“In my opinion bringing it down to 200mg – the level that is today considered safe for pregnant women – would be very harmful for industry. If you bring the whole population down to 200mg, this will raise suspicions for people about the safety of the beverage,” ​Nehlig said.

“If you see headlines everywhere saying, ‘You should cut your coffee consumption’, then people might do this – when it’s well known that the positive and beneficial health effects of coffee and caffeine can be found after the consumption of 3-4 cups per day,”​ she added.

‘Marginal’ people and effects can harm beverage mainstream

Nehlig believes irresponsible consumption and marketing of energy drinks has tarred all caffeine-containing beverages with the same brush.

“There is a lot of concern about the misuse of energy drinks. You have a subset of people who really go over the usual caffeine limits,”​ she said.

“The problem is that if we focus a lot on these marginal people and these marginal effects, there is the danger that this might affect the whole beverage industry’s use of caffeine.”

But asked about US lawsuits blaming energy drinks for the death of teenagers, Nehlig says the studies she has seen suggests that those individuals who died had a genetic sensitivity to caffeine that heightened their cardiovascular risk.

However, Nehlig referred to an October 2013 report by French food safety agency ANSES​ that suggested 100mg of caffeine affected children’s sleep and could result in anxiety effects, an association she said was worrying.

‘Worrying’ association between teen energy intake and disturbed sleep

 “What is seen in lots of teenagers and kids is, since they always need to be active – to play, say, video games – they will drink caffeine, perhaps a little too much, which will prevent them from sleeping,” ​she said.

“Perhaps lesser quality of sleep too – then at school they are less attentive and efficient because they are tired,”​ she added.

Nehlig said current research suggests caffeine is safe for children to consume at 2.5mg/kg body weight/day, but thinks parents should favor consumption of antioxidant-rich coffee – which she says is unfairly decried as an ‘adult’ beverage and offers health benefits – over sugar-laden energy drinks.

“Some parents don’t understand, because they see it like a soda and would buy that for their children, though it contains more caffeine and even potentially taurine. But they wouldn’t give their children coffee, because that’s for ‘grown ups’,”​ Nehlig said.

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