Omnipresent caffeine exposure

How much of a good things is a bad thing?


Photo: Kenny Louie / Wikimedia Commons
Many of use love good coffee, but how much of it should we drink?

Asker, Norway

Earlier this year, the Norwegian Committee for Food and Environment (VKM) released a report on the risk assessment of caffeine exposure from diet and personal care products (Further reading). It’s worth reading for any habitual coffee drinker concerned with the health effects of the habit.

It’s a definitive report, based on scientific research led by two university professors: Monica Hauger Carlsen of the Division of Nutritional Epidemiology of the Institute of Basic Medical Sciences of the University of Oslo, and Olav Sprigset of the Department of Clinical and Molecular Medicine of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim.

Perhaps most alarming is the observation that caffeine is omnipresent. In addition to being found in coffee, there’s caffeine to be found in many types of food, drink, cosmetics, and body-care products. Not being aware of that escalates the risk of caffeine exposure.

Risk varies with age and consumption of products containing caffeine. Coffee is the prime source of caffeine for adults, though tea also contains caffeine. Young people are exposed to caffeine in energy drinks. Children are exposed to caffeine in dairy products containing cocoa. In general, the older you are, the greater your caffeine exposure.

While there’s caffeine in cosmetics and body-care products, for most people, it accounts for only 5% of overall exposure, while food and drink account for 95%.

But how can you know if you’re getting too much caffeine? According to VKM, there are three categories of recommended daily maximum consumption of caffeine, expressed in milligrams per kilograms of body weight (1 kilogram = 2.205 pounds):

Children and adolescents: About 3 mg. / 2.2 lbs. body weight

Adults: 5.7 mg. / 2.2 lbs. body weight

Breastfeeding and pregnant women: About 3 mg. / 2.2 lbs. body weight

For example, if you are a healthy adult, weigh 154 lbs., and drink coffee several times every day, you can drink up to 5 cups of black filter coffee a day before you suffer adverse health effects. But if you’re not used to drinking coffee, you can drink no more than 1.2 cups of black filter coffee, or one cup of espresso before consumption disturbs your sleep. 

In addition to these general guidelines, people differ, which is why some people can drink coffee late at night without it troubling their sleep, while others are disturbed. This is principally because the speed with which caffeine is broken down in the body varies considerably from person to person. 

Most of the variation is due to genetic differences among people. Variations in lifestyles also introduce differences. For example. smokers break down caffeine faster in the body than non-smokers. So, they can drink more coffee before being harmed. Some drugs, such as birth control pills, slow caffeine breakdown.

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 17, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.

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M. Michael Brady

M. Michael Brady was born, raised, and educated as a scientist in the United States. After relocating to the Oslo area, he turned to writing and translating. In Norway, he is now classified as a bilingual dual national.