Perryman Nutrition Column: Drink Your Caffeine and Eat It, Too!

Note to Editors: This column was written by Shirley Perryman, a Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition Extension specialist at Colorado State University.

The words caffeine and energy seem to go hand-in-hand. If you count on that kick from your caffeine-loaded beverage to jump start your day or help with brain fog, you can find it just as easily in food. Now you can have an oatmeal breakfast such as Morning Spark-a health food typically promoted for heart health-that "sparks" your morning with caffeine. For an afternoon snack, grab a caffeinated snack like NRG caffeinated potato chips or a Snickers Charged bar which contains the same amount of caffeine that you would get in an 8 ounce cup of coffee–60   milligrams.

This new trend of adding caffeine to food likely started in part because the candy industry is suffering from fewer kids in the population and the increasing awareness of the obesity epidemic in our country.  Candy manufacturers have taken to creative marketing and are now targeting adults-their new audience-by loading up their confections with energy enhancing additives, including caffeine.  

In addition to these newly-charged choices, caffeine still occurs naturally in some foods such as coffee beans, cocoa beans, tea leaves and kola nuts.

If it’s now easier to get caffeine in your diet, is it better to be adding more of it? That depends on your perspective. Caffeine can have both positive and negative health effects. Caffeine:

–     Enhances athletic performance when an endurance activity such as running, biking or swimming exceeds one hour

–     Increases cognitive ability and alertness  

–     Contributes to anxiety, nervousness and insomnia

–     Increases incidence of  upset stomach

–     Diminishes tension headaches

–     Protects against Parkinson’s disease and  Type 2 diabetes

There are often other mixed messages or myths around caffeines effects on health, and it is easy to be confused about its impact. Here are some good facts that apply to the person who consumers caffeine in moderation:

–     Though caffeine raises blood pressure, it does not seem to have that effect on habitual caffeine consumers.

–     Neither cholesterol nor heart disease is affected.

–     Women who are pregnant should limit caffeine because it has been linked to miscarriage.

–     Frequently caffeine is identified as a culprit in dehydration, but caffeine-containing beverages can count toward a day’s total fluid intake. While caffeine is a mild diuretic it has not been shown to contribute to dehydration. Also, if you’re a habitual caffeine consumer, your body adjusts and is able to hold the water from caffeinated drinks.

Though it must appear on the ingredient list, manufacturers are not required to list the amount of caffeine. Some candy companies have included "not recommended for children, pregnant women or people sensitive to caffeine" on the label. Many caffeine-enhanced products on your grocers’ shelves are marketed to adults, but they are readily available to kids and teens.

All of the current research indicates that healthy people can moderately consume caffeine.. However, people who want to cut back or eliminate it should do so gradually to avoid some of the mild side effects that though temporary may also be uncomfortable. Some people are more caffeine sensitive than others and their side effects of reducing caffeine may include headaches or irritability.  

The good news is that you can continue to enjoy your caffeine and remain guilt-free. However, take into account that with caffeine readily available in food there is another reason to check labels. That old adage, "you are what you eat" definitely applies. Aim for moderation and try to limit your intake to about 300 milligrams a day.

If you want to check how much caffeine you generally consume, visit the website for the Center for Science in the Public Interest and click on their chart for caffeine content of a list of foods: