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Eat and drink your caffeine

April 16, 2008|By LYNN LITTLE

Caffeine is a stimulant found in many foods and beverages and in some medications. Caffeine is naturally produced by a variety of plants and is added to some foods and beverages for flavor. The main source of caffeine for most adults is coffee.

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.

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.

The good and bad

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. Caffeine can have both positive and negative health effects. On the plus side, caffeine:

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

· Increases cognitive ability and alertness.

· Diminishes tension headaches.

· Protects against Parkinson's disease and Type 2 diabetes.

On the downside, caffeine also contributes to anxiety, nervousness and insomnia; and increases the incidence of upset stomach.

Caffeine in moderation

Research indicates moderate caffeine is not unhealthy. Though caffeine raises blood pressure, it does not seem to have that effect on habitual caffeine consumers.

Neither cholesterol nor heart disease is affected by caffeine consumption. But women who are pregnant should limit their caffeine because it has been linked to miscarriage.

Frequently, caffeine is considered 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, research shows that habitual caffeine consumers' bodies adjust and are able to hold the water from caffeinated drinks.

Check out www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/caffeine.html for more information regarding caffeine in your diet and the related health effects.

Read the label

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

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 such as headaches or irritability. These side effects are temporary, but might be uncomfortable.

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 of caffeine to about 300 milligrams a day - equivalent to approximately one 16-ounce cup of Starbucks coffee or three 8-ounce mugs of instant coffee or six 8-ounce cups of tea or six regular Coca-Colas or eight regular Pepsis.

Visit the Web site of the Center for Science in the Public Interest to check out the caffeine content of foods and beverages in your diet.

Lynn Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with University of Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County.

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