Dispatches from EFSA plenary, Parma

Clarity please! Says industry at EFSA discussion on caffeine safety

By Annie Harrison-Dunn

- Last updated on GMT

Energy Drinks Europe asks EFSA to be "as precise as possible" with its caffeine safety opinion, at a panel plenary open to the public.
Energy Drinks Europe asks EFSA to be "as precise as possible" with its caffeine safety opinion, at a panel plenary open to the public.

Related tags Caffeine

Energy drink association asks EFSA to aim for precision after an open NDA panel discussion on a draft caffeine safety opinion provides more questions than answers.

With a working group reporting its initial findings to the European Food Safety Authority' (EFSA) Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies (NDA) panel, the impact of caffeine intake on pregnant women and the unborn child, those performing psychical activity and cardiovascular risks were considered. The panel will seek to establish a tolerable upper intake limit and suitable timing for caffeine consumption prior to activity.

Among the uncertainties discussed was how to define safe caffeine intakes in general when much of the existing data referred to specific sources, mainly coffee and tea. The panel said its draft safety assessment would be a challenge given this and the observational nature of the caffeine studies available.
It was also discussed whether other ingredients often in caffeinated drinks like taurine should be considered.

Among the observers of the discussion was Andreas Kadi, president of the trade association Energy Drinks Europe (EDE). In a brief opportunity for the press, NGO, trade association and company representatives to comment and pose questions, Kadi said he hoped the panel could be "as precise as possible"​ in its opinion, and when they were not able to do this to explain why.

Uncertainties remain

After we had heard the panel discussion, he told them a failure to do this would make it "very difficult for risk management at a European level".

Meanwhile another attendee, Dr Sarah Trattnig, representing Red Bull GmbH, told NutraIngredients that conclusions of the discussion had been "unclear",​ and there did not seem to have been any decision reached yet.

"There is nothing to worry about for the moment,"​ she said.

The meeting concluded with preliminary plans for two more working group meetings, with a draft to be considered for endorsement in September this year. If endorsed, this would be followed by a six-week period of public consultation where stakeholders would be invited to give feedback, followed by final adoption by the panel in December.

Red Bull's Dr Trattnig said this timing seemed "ambitious"​, while the panel also said this date was "tentative".

One of the panel members joked this would be a "Christmas present for the Commission"​, which would then decide how to take the scientific opinion on to European member states.

Caffeine in the media

The panel said it was important to consider that "caffeine intake related to a lot of other lifestyle factors"​.

One member also noted that media case reports on caffeine "might be useful in drawing attention to potential hazards but in their nature they are not really useful".

Energy drinks hit the headlines this week when a 16 year old American girl went into cardiac arrest and died after reportedly drinking too much of the caffeinated soft drinks. In a campaign launched on social media, the teen's family have pointed to Red Bull - her favourite drink and a brand she had been drinking the day she died, it has been reported by US papers. 

Meeting for coffee data

One of the studies the panel will consider is the 2008 UK CARE research on the consumption of tea, coffee and cola and the risk of reduced birth weight. The study found that a consumption of more than 200 mg per day was associated with a reduction of birthweight of 60-70g.

A study by Sengpiel et al (2013) suggested a "notable"​ reduction of birthweight with a maternal consumption of 200 mg / day, but an impact was seen from 50 mg / day also, the panel said.

The panel considered that the results of these studies and others included were not totally consistent but "there was a pattern".

Across these studies, as well as those looked at for cardiovascular risks and psychical activity, the panel said the data available was limited in its relation to specific populations, specific delivery of caffeine through coffee and sometimes tea and in its largely observational nature.

They raised the concern that in setting safe upper intake limits it may not be possible to account for individual caffeine tolerance - something which may vary from person to person depending on metabolism, how much is normally consumed and whether a woman is pregnant.
One panel member asked if this meant they had to look at these particularly 'intolerant' people as the most vulnerable population.

Discussing caffeine timing with activity, another commented "we are in the same place as the authorities - we have no data for setting safe standards".

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