If you’re among the 64 percent of American adults who drinks at least one cup of coffee every morning, you may know exactly how much to drink and what time to stop drinking to avoid any unpleasant caffeine side effects such as jitters and insomnia. What you may not know is that an increasingly wide variety of foods and beverages contain significant amounts of caffeine, making it nearly impossible to accurately gauge yours and your children’s daily intake.
The tragic story of 16-year-old Davis Allen Cripe underscores why counting caffeine milligrams is important. The South Carolina teen, who was found to have no undiagnosed heart condition, died from a rapid, irregular heartbeat called arrhythmia caused by an overdose of caffeine. Cripe’s friends told the coroner that within two hours of his death, he drank a large diet Mountain Dew®, a McDonald’s café latte and an energy drink.
“Anything that’s a stimulant or increases the stress on your heart will increase your adrenaline and your heart rate,” Dr. Yoo said. “Things like coffee, tea and herbal supplements will increase your adrenaline and heart rate. Drinks like 5-hour ENERGY®, Red Bull® and Monster Energy® have a lot of taurine and caffeine that can also increase the stimulant effect on your heart and increase the risk of arrhythmia.”
In addition to soft drinks and energy drinks, caffeine is being added to a growing list of products, including marshmallows, oatmeal, jelly beans, waffles, gum, mints, sunflower seeds, syrup and even water. It can be found in chocolate, ice cream (those with chocolate or coffee flavors) weight loss pills and over-the-counter pain relievers This prompted the FDA last year to announce an investigation into the safety of caffeine in food products, with special attention paid to its effects on children and adolescents.
Because caffeine is not a nutrient, but a naturally occurring chemical found in items such as tea leaves, coffee beans and cacao (used to make chocolate), the FDA does not require the amount in a food or beverage to be listed on nutrition labels unless it is added. Many of these products also contain hidden caffeine or other stimulants. Here’s what to look for:
- Kola nut
- Yerba mate
- Cocoa or cacao
How much caffeine is too much?
According to the FDA, a safe amount of caffeine for healthy adults is up to 400mg a day. That’s anywhere from three to five eight-ounce cups of regular coffee, depending on the bean source and brewing method. For children and adolescents, the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation is to avoid energy drinks entirely — which the CDC says sent 1,499 adolescents to the ER in 2011 — and limit caffeine for ages 12 to 18 to 100mg daily.
We’ll never know for sure exactly how much caffeine Davis Cripe ingested, but we can estimate it thanks to his friends’ report:
Large diet Mountain Dew: “Large” is a relative term, but even if he had a “small large” at 20 ounces, that’s 91mg of caffeine — nearly the AAP-recommended limit of 100mg. A Long John Silver’s large is 40 ounces with a whopping 180mg of caffeine and 7-11 has soda cups much bigger than that.
McDonald’s café latte: These espresso-based drinks come in small, medium and large. Espresso has about 64mg of caffeine per ounce.
Small cafe latte (12 ounces)
- 71mg caffeine, 11g sugar
Medium café latte (16 ounces)
- 142mg caffeine, 13g sugar
Large cafe latte (20 ounces)
- 178mg caffeine, 16g sugar
Red Bull energy drink (12 ounces): The type and size of energy drink Cripe had is unknown, so we’ll use this popular one.
- 111mg caffeine, 37g sugar
In our example, Cripe would have ingested a minimum of 273mg and a maximum of 468mg of caffeine in a short period. And this may be a very low estimate, as the American Academy of Pediatrics says some energy drinks can contain more than 500mg of caffeine.
Research debunks myth that coffee improves alertness and mood.
We all know the negative effects of caffeine. The FDA says that it can make you:
- Jittery and shaky
- Unable to fall asleep, stay asleep or get a good night’s sleep
- rapid, uneven heart rate (arrhythmia)
- raised blood pressure
- headaches, nervousness, anxiety and dizziness
- dependency and the need to drink increasingly more
But other than that, coffee is good for you, right? While coffee in moderation has been shown to reduce the risk of several diseases, including certain cancers and stroke, it’s most likely the health benefits of coffee’s antioxidants that are responsible, not the caffeine. Look for other ways to get antioxidants, including eating lots of healthy fruits and vegetables.
As to coffee’s magical brain-enhancing powers, study results from Johns Hopkins Medical School (featured on Forbes.com) show that caffeine-related performance improvement (a boost in mood and alertness) is nonexistent without caffeine withdrawal. In other words, the kick that you get from your morning cup of Joe is really just caffeine taking you back to “normal” for a short time.
If someone in your family is feeling the effects of too much caffeine, one of our many Medical City ER locations across North Texas has you covered. With average wait times posted online, if you do have an emergency, you can spend less time waiting and more time on the moments that matter most.
Find a fast Medical City ER near you.