EFSA caffeine opinion is not a green light

By Annie Harrison-Dunn

- Last updated on GMT

'The 400mg [daily] upper limit should also not be understood as a green light for consuming up to five energy drinks a day,' says consumer group BEUC.
'The 400mg [daily] upper limit should also not be understood as a green light for consuming up to five energy drinks a day,' says consumer group BEUC.

Related tags Energy drinks Caffeine functional beverage beverage

The European Food Safety Authority’s (EFSA) safety assessment on caffeine is not necessarily a green light for high caffeine consumption or for long-stalled health claims, according to industry commentators.

The European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) said it had been surprised that some of EFSA’s draft recommendations, which it said deviated “quite substantially” ​from previous opinions by other global food safety agencies like France’s ANSES and as well as New Zealand’s authority, which set the limit of 210mg a day and advised that intakes above this may increase anxiety.

Camille Perrin, BEUC’s senior food policy officer, reiterated that the assessment should be treated with caution since it was just a draft. However, she said it had been disappointed on the advice set out around combination with alcohol, safe limits for children and adolescents as well its overall limits for daily and single dose intakes.

“The 400mg [daily] upper limit should also not be understood as a green light for consuming up to five energy drinks a day. Energy drinks are high in sugar and are often mixed with alcohol, which can expose consumers to several health risks.”


Meanwhile, Luca Bucchini, managing director at Hylobates Consulting, said while the draft opinion released last week held some good news for the industry, some of the single doses needed to achieve the health benefits approved by EFSA but not yet okayed by the Commission might be questioned as they exceeded those set out in this latest report.

Stuck in the pipes

Bucchini said of all the stalled health claims, only one was sure to be within the safe single dose limits set out by EFSA – namely 400mg of caffeine a day from all sources and single doses of up to 200mg for adults aged 18-65 years.

For instance the claim 'caffeine contributes to a reduction in the rated perceived exertion/effort during [endurance] exercise' required a 4 mg/kg body weight (280mg for a 70kg person). “If you assume this is single dose then it would not be acceptable,”​ he said.

The same could be said for the claims ‘caffeine contributes to an increase in endurance capacity' and 'caffeine contributes to an increase in endurance performance,' which stated dosages of 3 mg/kg body weight therefore 210mg for a 70kg person.

The final claims, 'caffeine helps to improve concentration' and 'caffeine helps to increase alertness', came with the stipulated intakes of 75 mg caffeine per serving (warning not to exceed 300 mg day). This would therefore fall within the draft limit set out now by EFSA.

Weakening the argument for a ban?

Bucchini suggested that EFSA’s straightforward safety assessment method could weaken arguments for national bans on energy drinks, as seen in Lithuania​ last November.

Yet EFSA’s affirmation of caffeine’s impact on sleep meant a debate on labelling measures was likely to follow. “And more broadly on whether adolescents can be trusted to limit consumption as per label instructions,” ​he said. Elsewhere in the assessment he said the issue of caffeine and synephrine remained open, which could mean that it was easier for member states to maintain national bans on the combination in supplements and see others accepting the status quo and following suit. 

BEUC raised questions on the recommendations on caffeine in conjunction with alcohol, as well as guidance for children and adolescents.

Referencing advice given by national agencies including ANSES, the  Italian Food Safety Agency and BfR in Germany on the risk of dehydration, irregular heart beat and renal failure, Perrin said: In the interest of public health, consumers should be discouraged from consuming caffeine and alcohol at the same time.”

Underage and over the limit

teenagers school

BEUC said EFSA’s draft  acknowledged the lack of data available to derive safe upper intake levels for children and adolescents, and said other bodies had pointed to children as a particularly high risk group for adverse associated effects like neurological and cardiovascular problems.

“As marketing of energy drinks often targets teenagers, if not children, it is critical to have a strong message advising these vulnerable consumers to avoid consuming these products. It is particularly worrying that in some countries such as France, 11% of children below ten exceed the caffeine intake level above which addiction symptoms might be observed. According to the French food safety agency ANSES, caffeine intake mostly comes from energy drinks for those children.”

Interested parties now have until 15 March to submit feedback​, with a stakeholders meeting planned by EFSA for the first week of March. 

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