Don’t Let Hidden Caffeine Kill Your Health Buzz

Caffeine is in more foods than you think

Hot chocolate

When you grab a cup of coffee to kick-start your day, you know you’re getting a stimulant. In fact, caffeine is one of the most commonly used stimulants in the world. In the U.S. alone, around 83 percent of adults drink coffee, according to the National Coffee Association.

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But there are times when you’re adding to your caffeine count without even knowing it. Many foods you might not expect — from your favorite chocolates to high-octane jelly beans — contain caffeine.

Here’s why it matters: For an adult, consuming as little as 300 milligrams of caffeine in a day can increase your risk of nausea, anxiety, sleeplessness, restlessness and other side effects.

As with all potentially good food and drinks, there’s such a thing as too much caffeine. There are no official guidelines, but the American Medical Association Council on Scientific Affairs defines “moderate” coffee drinking as about 250 milligrams per day. If you top that average on a regular basis, take a look at your consumption and consider cutting back.

How caffeine can be “hidden”

“If caffeine is naturally present in a product, it does not have to be listed as an ingredient. For example, caffeine is a natural part of chocolate.”

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Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, LD

Wellness Institute

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does regulate caffeine levels in food. But the results are rarely as clear-cut as they are with things like saturated fat or carbohydrates listed on a food label.

If caffeine is added to a food — for example, in a can of orange soda (around 41 mg of caffeine) — it must be included in the ingredient list.

However, if caffeine is naturally present in a product, it does not have to be listed as an ingredient. For example, caffeine is a natural part of chocolate, so your favorite chocolate bar, candy pieces or chocolate ice cream likely contain caffeine without listing it as an ingredient. For example, a 16-ounce cup of hot chocolate can have as much as 25 mg of caffeine, but you’re not likely to find it on the label.

Be a smart consumer. When a company such as Hershey’s offers a caffeine count for its products, take advantage of that information. When such information is not available, listen to your body. If the side affects of caffeine overload appear, take a closer look at everything you’re eating and drinking throughout the course of the day. Small doses of caffeine add up.

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The added-caffeine craze

In some foods, caffeine is far from hidden — it’s the main attraction.

There’s a trend among food-makers these days to add a jolt of caffeine to existing products. Certain “energy waters” contain upwards of 150 mg of caffeine. Energy bars marketed for athletes have as much as 50 mg in the form of green tea extract.

There are even energy waffles (200 mg of caffeine) and energy syrup (80 mg) to put on top of them. Combine those two for a not-so-healthy breakfast, and you’d already be pushing your daily caffeine limits — not to mention consuming far too much added sugar.

The good news is many such foods do list caffeine on their labels. Some even offer a caffeine count since it is part of the marketing appeal. Use this information to avoid overstimulation and the health drawbacks that come with it.

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Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, LD

Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, LD, is a registered dietitian and wellness manager for the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute.
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