I must confess that I am. I blame my father. He got me started way back in childhood with the easy types of product, but it wasn’t long before I progressed to the hard stuff—yes, the darkest chocolate I could find. The next step was an insidious progression toward a full addiction to a whole range of sugar containing foods, which it has taken a lifetime to get under some vestige of control. I don’t suppose I will ever be able to kick the habit and go sugar-free. Well, it could be worse. I could be addicted to the 1, 3, 7-trimethylxanthine in my coffee or tea—or perhaps you would rather call that caffeine!

Last year, a company called Statista polled 1,592 Americans between the ages of 18-74, asking how often they drank coffee. They found that a huge 79 percent of the people sampled drank at least two cups a day, with nearly one-third drinking 4-6 cups. According to the Mayo Clinic, a 12-ounce cup of black coffee can contain between 50 milligrams (mg) and 235 mg of caffeine, depending on the beans, the processing of them, and the method of preparation of the drink. By comparison, the Red Bull energy drink, popular with teenagers as a stimulant, contains 80 mg per 8.4-ounce can—somewhere in the low to middle range of the above coffees. Actually, assessing how much caffeine you absorb obviously depends, too, on what size of cup you use and how many cups you drink. The caffeine content of typical brands of coffee has been measured and they fall between McDonald’s 9 mg/ounce on the low end, and Starbucks 21 mg/ounce at the other extreme. A 12-ounce cup of chain brand coffee therefore contains between 108 mg and 252 mg of caffeine and a 16-ounce cup compounds the amount to 144 mg and 336 mg. Many people think espresso coffee is “stronger” and contains more caffeine than regular coffee but, in fact, a 16-ounce cup of average regular coffee is the equivalent of about three shots of espresso. Put another way, espresso has more caffeine per ounce than coffee, but coffee has more caffeine in a typical serving. Black tea averages about half the caffeine content of coffee, but the longer it steeps, the higher the amount of caffeine extracted.

“ …how much caffeine is too much?”

Caffeine is the most commonly consumed psychostimulant substance in the world. So, how much caffeine is too much? Again, this isn’t a simple question because the effects can vary widely depending on body weight and the individual’s sensitivity or prior exposure to caffeine. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that a maximum daily dose of caffeine for an adult should total no more than 400 mg, but caffeine occurs in small quantities even in some foods, so you can’t argue using that as a guide to how many cups of coffee you “should” drink. Any food containing coffee or chocolate as a flavor or sweetener will contain caffeine. Dark, bittersweet chocolate (70-85 percent cacao) contains about 23 mg of caffeine per ounce—milk chocolate much less. Nevertheless, the double whammy of a mocha therefore comes as a supercharged drink!

Technically, caffeine is a drug, and for carbonated beverages, the U.S. Food and Drug Agency (FDA) applies a limit of 71 mg per 12-ounce can. Regular Coca-Cola contains 34 mg of caffeine per 12-ounce drink (Diet Coke contains 42 mg/12 ounces). However, “energy drinks” fall outside the current purview of the FDA and are classed as “dietary supplements” and, as such, are exempt from the guideline. Their popularity among adolescents and young adults has been rising at the rate of 10-15 percent per year, heavily influenced by marketing, and recent surveys have shown that 31 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds report regularly consuming energy drinks. A month or so ago, U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York called on the FDA to investigate PRIME Energy drink, a recent entry to the market, which contains an enormous 200 mg of caffeine per 12-ounce can. That’s two-and-a-half times Red Bull’s amount and six times the caffeine content of regular Coca-Cola. The labeling states it is not recommended for under-18s, but it is becoming commonly used by teenagers and even pre-teens. Among several other energy drinks, PRIME Energy has been recalled in Canada for exceeding their legal limit on caffeine inclusion (180 mg/single serving can) and for labeling violations.

PRIME Energy is not the only high-caffeine drink being marketed. Kim Kardashian has introduced her own 200 mg drink—Kimade. Panera’s Mango Yuzu Citrus Charged Lemonade faced its own internet backlash last winter when it was discovered that its regular size 20-ounce can not only contains 82 grams of sugar, but also 260 mg of caffeine! Do make a distinction, however, between “sports drinks” and “energy drinks.” The former, such as products like Gatorade, are suitable for rehydration and do not contain caffeine. PRIME, too, markets a sports hydration drink, but the labeling doesn’t make the distinction clear.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, however, makes it very clear indeed that energy drinks containing stimulants have no place in the diets of children. “There is no known safe amount of caffeine for anyone aged 11 years or younger.” The CDC guideline for the age group 12-17 is to consume no more than 100 mg of caffeine per day. According to the FDA and others, overconsumption of caffeine can result in insomnia, jitters, anxiousness, a faster heart rate, digestive problems, nausea, headache, and a general feeling of unhappiness. In extreme consumption, it can cause addiction, heart problems, and even cardiac arrest, especially where unsuspected, pre-existing conditions may reveal themselves. David Bucholz, MD, of Columbia University Irving Medical Center, is unequivocal in his condemnation: “Caffeine-containing foods and beverages can have effects on the body and mind that interfere with every aspect of what children need to thrive. Energy drinks have more of everything bad.” (CUIMC) He recommends parents model good behavior by choosing non-caffeinated foods and drinks when having meals with their kids. Dr Neil H. Patel, a physician with St. Joseph Hospital in Orange County, California, told a publication called Healthline: “Any added and external substance introduced to the system of an adolescent, teenager, or young adult can adversely impact their development emotionally and mentally. Everything comes down to moderation.”

On Canada’s recall list. Manufacturers claim unauthorized distribution.

The American lifestyle values extremes. Work ethics often persuade people to be at their desks early and to work more hours of the day than do Europeans, for instance, and to take fewer holidays. Siestas find no place even in the hottest parts of the U.S. Many are the people who hike, bike, run and indulge in sports. “Extreme sports” saw their genesis in the Americas. Against this background, the rise of “energy drinks” and their marketing is unsurprising as a means of supporting the active American lifestyle and perhaps further than the body ought to go. Society and the individual might do well to ease back from extremes, indulge in healthy relaxation and do without the usually unnecessary calories and stimulants. So, do you think you might be addicted to caffeine?

© David Cuin 2023