While researching my recent post about coffee being both good and bad for health, I stumbled across a conspiracy involving the big coffee brands! This involves the UK government too, the NHS, and UFOs.
OK I lied about the UFOs.
But I did discover something very surprising, and this is the apparent disregard by the big coffee brands when it comes to communicating the caffeine content of their products to their customers, and the fact that there appears to be no obligation for them to do so.
I thought at first that I must be wrong, I must be missing something, how could it be that caffeine – a drug – can be delivered to consumers without any information on the packaging or anywhere else for that matter, making it clear how much of it is in the product? But as I continued to research, it dawned upon me that I am not wrong, I’m not missing something, it’s simply the case that most big brands do not give any information or even any indication as to how much caffeine is in their products.
By the way just let me say that I’m not in any way trying to demonise caffeine, I love the stuff – it just seems bizarre that consumers shouldn’t be told how much of it is in the coffee they’re consuming, since some people need to regulate their intake of it. How can anyone watch how much they’re consuming when they don’t know how much of it is in the coffee they’re buying?
I started off by picking up the jar of Nescafe original that sits in the office kitchen (which I usually wouldn’t touch, nothing against Nescafe’, but my tastebuds are far too used to freshly brewed freshly roasted coffee now, I don’t drink any instant) and looking at all of the info on the packaging, noticing that it doesn’t give any info whatsoever about the caffeine contained in the coffee. I then looked at other jars of instant coffee in various different supermarkets, and found the same to be the case. So I went to the Nescafe’ website, and I could find at least some nutritional information, but nothing regarding caffeine content.
Want to know how much salt, fat, sugar or calories are in your coffee? No problem.
So that’s great, tell me how much there is of stuff which of course instant coffee granules are going to contain hardly any of, but leave out the most important active ingredient in coffee, the DRUG caffeine, and leave me to guess how much of that each serving contains.
The “serving” thing is a bit daft too though, is there only one size of mug? Do food labels list the nutritional values by plate, or bowl? I don’t know why they don’t list it in teaspoons since that’s what people would generally use to put the coffee in their mug with. If it said for example xxmg of caffeine per heaped teaspoon of coffee approx, that would make sense. Instead, it doesn’t tell me anything about caffeine, but tells me that there is a trace of salt and fat in a “serving” of coffee.
To be fair to Nescafe’ though, they give a lot more information than other brands! I checked out Kenco &Douwe Egberts, Maxwell house, and Carte Noire, on their websites and on the Tesco online shopping page, and none of them appear to offer any nutritional information at all, or to even share what coffee they use. Same is true of Tesco own brands coffee, and Mellow Birds. Nescafe’ share the fact that they use a blend of Arabica and Robusta for instance, at least with some of their coffees, although they don’t share the percentage of Robusta vs Arabica which would be helpful information if you were trying to figure out how much caffeine is in each cup, since Robusta contains as much as double the caffeine.
Why does it matter how much caffeine is in your coffee?
It matters because caffeine is a stimulant, and there are people who are advised to limit how much of it they consume. The most obvious group of people that caffeine really matters to of course is pregnant women, and the NHS recommends a limit of 200mg of Caffeine per day for women during pregnancy.
There are many other people other than expectant mothers though who would need to watch their caffeine consumption. Some (not all) people with Epilepsy find that the amount of caffeine they consume appears to have an effect on the occurrence of seizures.
People with sleep disorders are also often advised to curb caffeine consumption, especially later in the day. People with heart conditions also are often advised to limit caffeine intake to a certain amount. I’m no doctor by the way so please don’t take anything I’m saying as medical advice, if you think you should be limiting your caffeine intake then please speak to your doctor.
If coffee was clearly labeled making it easy to see how much caffeine is going to be in each cup of coffee depending on how many spoons of coffee they put in each cup, then anyone needing to limit their caffeine intake would be able to do so much more effectively than just guessing.
Do the NHS help?
When I started researching this, the first place I turned to was the NHS website, and I found it about as helpful as…something not very helpful. If I were pregnant, first of all there would need to be some serious scientific investigation since I’m a bloke, but secondly I would be really confused about how much coffee I should be drinking, from looking at the guidance on the NHS website.
Firstly, they say this:
You don’t need to cut caffeine out completely, but you should limit how much you have to no more than 200mg a day. Try decaffeinated tea and coffee, fruit juice or water, and limit the amount of energy drinks you have, as they can be high in caffeine.
They list decaf among the alternatives along with water and fruit juice, which would seem to imply that decaf has no caffeine? Decaf isn’t caffeine free, it’s reduced. In Europe it has to be 99% caffeine free, i.e. no more than 1% caffeine. In the USA the caffeine 97.5% of the caffeine in coffee has to be removed in order for it to be labelled as Decaf. OK yes there’s a lot less caffeine in it than caffeinated coffee but it still surprises me that they’re putting the information across in such a way that would imply it’s completely caffeine free.
Then they say this:
The amount of caffeine found in some foods and drinks is as follows:
one mug of instant coffee: 100mg
one mug of filter coffee: 140mg
The NHS website, at the time of writing, does not state that these figures are approximate, by the way, it’s written as if this is it, black and white, a mug of instant coffee has 100mg of caffeine.
So, NHS, how do you know:
How many spoons of coffee I’m putting in each cup?
It isn’t specified that it should be one tea spoon, and if you look at the serving suggestions on various brands you will see that it differs, for instance some say 1-2 tea spoons, so if that’s the case, if I put two tea spoons in then that’s double the amount of caffeine, and if I use two teaspoons of 100% Robusta then that would be up to quadruple the amount as one teaspoon of 100% Arabica?
How big are my mugs?
Unless I’m expected to drink dishwater style coffee, surely how much instant coffee I would add to a mug would depend on the size of that mug? Mugs can vary in size from about 6 ounce to 17 ounce or even bigger, so if I were making a 12 ounce cup of coffee for instance I’d probably use double the amount of coffee, and therefore caffeine, than I would if I were making a 6 ounce cup.
Check out this fella on the left, I reckon he could fit a full jar of instant in that ;-).
What coffee am I using?
The info seems to suggest that all coffee has the same caffeine content, which isn’t the case. Robusta can contain up to twice the caffeine as Arabica, and even among Arabica varietals there is a difference in caffeine content, so I wonder how the NHS can work this out.
I emailed the NHS by the way to let them know that I find their website advice on caffeine confusing, and they replied to say they can’t help, and I should speak to a health professional.
I emailed Nescafe, and their customer services department replied with the following info:
Nescafe Original contains 34mg of caffeine per serving
Nescafe Gold Blend contains 23mg of caffeine per serving
Nescafe Azera contains 28mg-35mg of caffeine per serving
They also clarified that by serving they are referring to a 1.8 gram teaspoon of instant coffee.
They also said they can’t divulge the Robusta to Arabica percentages in any of their coffees as it’s confidential recipe information, fair enough.
I emailed Douwe Egberts too, they replied to say that the approximate amount of caffeine in Douwe Egberts Pure Gold & Pure Indulgence is 65mg per cup. I replied to ask them to clarify what this would be in tea spoons, and they replied (quickly, I have to say) to say that they class one cup as one heaped tea spoon.
I have to say, I’m not too convinced by these figures, how can it be that one brand of instant, appears to have roughly double the caffeine as another brand, both who use a blend of Arabica and Robusta? Nescafe also seemed to be confused when it came to grams and mg, they initially gave me the figures in grams and mg, and they listed them as 34mg : 3.4 grams, and so on, showing that they’d got their maths wrong when converting mg to g.
What about the Government?
Yeah, a great help they are ;-). Gov.uk states that there are special rules when it comes to the labelling of soluble coffee, in terms of what information needs to be displayed, and that these are covered in The Coffee Extracts and Chicory Extracts (England) Regulations 2000, and The Cocoa and Chocolate Products (England) Regulations 2003. Neither of these make any mention of caffeine, other than the restrictions on labelling a product as decaffeinated.
On the food.gov.uk website, similar info is given as on the NHS website, although on this website they do use the word “roughly”, in that two mugs of instant coffee is equal to roughly 200mg of caffeine, but again, how can they know this without knowing roughly how much coffee is used per cup, since the serving suggestions can be 1-2 tea spoons per cup, one of which is 100% more than the other?
It just seems odd to me that this information isn’t given, and that there is no legislation to cover it. There are high caffeine content warnings now when buying energy drinks such as Redbull and Monster, but these contain less caffeine on average than coffee, so why is the info not there for coffee, given that 80% of UK households buy instant coffee, which I’m sure is a much bigger percentage than the amount of UK households that have cans of energy drink in the fridge?
I emailed the British Nutrition Foundation, and they sent me the following info:
The European Foods Safety Authority (EFSA) have published an opinion on the safety of caffeine intake within the population and you may find their report of the safety of habitually consumed caffeine of interest.
The laws regarding food labelling that apply in the UK are based on European Union (EU) legislation, and are governed through the Foods Standards Agency (FSA).
The regulations with regards caffeine on labels for consumer information include:
- Drinks that contain more than 150 milligrams per litre of caffeine with the words will have ‘High caffeine content. Not recommended for children or pregnant or breast-feeding women’ written on the label.
- This also applies to concentrated or dried drinks that will contain more than 150 milligrams per litre of caffeine when reconstituted. It doesn’t apply to tea and coffee drinks if ‘tea’ or ‘coffee’ are in the name of the food.
- Where caffeine has been added to a food product (other than a drink) for a physiological purpose, the words ‘Contains caffeine. Not recommended for children or pregnant women’ on the label.
- These warnings must be put in the same field of vision as the name of the food and include the caffeine content in milligrams per 100 grams or per 100 millilitres in brackets after the warning.
The above info is all fine, if I was asking about warnings on coffee products or safety information, but what I have asked about is the labelling of instant coffee in respect of sharing the caffeine contents per cup / tea spoon, it doesn’t seem that the food standards agency have given this any thought. They have given thought to warning consumers about the caffeine content present in any product which isn’t labelled as coffee or tea, which contains over 150mg of caffeine per litre, assuming that most people will know that tea and coffee contains coffee so no warning required, fair enough. But what about clear labelling with regards to caffeine per serving, in a way which is easy to measure, such as xxmg per heaped tea spoon?
How about ground coffee & beans?
Some brands of ground coffee or whole coffee beans available in supermarkets list what coffee is used i.e Robusta or Arabica, while some just tell you that it’s “Columbian coffee”, and leave you guessing. The majority of ground or whole bean brands available from the supermarket though don’t provide much more info than the instant brands do. The only supermarket available brand I’ve discovered so far that do tell you the caffeine content, is Illy, who supply the information that their caffeinated coffee contains no more than 1.5% caffeine, and their decaffeinated no more than 0.05%, again though this doesn’t make it all that simple for a consumer to work out how much caffeine is going to end up in their cup.
Does it really matter?
Well to me it’s the principle of it more than anything. Caffeine is a drug, a naturally occurring drug, but a drug nevertheless. We can’t buy more than two packs of paracetamol or Ibuprofen at a time. We’re not able to buy alcohol until we reach a certain age, and this is deemed so important that someone like me who apparently doesn’t quite look their age (I’m always surprised and flattered) is often asked for ID when buying wine in a supermarket – despite the fact that I’m very close to 40.
Selling or possessing other naturally occurring drugs could land you in prison, so why is it that one naturally occurring drug is completely illegal in the UK, but another one can be sold in supermarkets within products without any information regarding how much of the drug it actually contains?
If it’s a case of how dangerous a particular drug it is, well surely that depends on the individual and how it is used? Marijuana is legal for medical use now in quite a few US states including Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Hawaii, Michigan, Minnesota & Massachusetts, so surely it must have some medical benefit in certain cases, otherwise why would medical use be legal? Some US states have even made it completely legal now, medical or recreational, including Washington and Colorado.
Since caffeine is also beneficial in some cases and could be a negative thing in some cases if over used, depending on the individual, doesn’t that in some ways put caffeine in a similar realm to marijuana? I don’t smoke it by the way (or anything else) in case you were thinking that I was biased in some way. I dabbled with it as a teenager, smoked too much of it one day, it made me very ill, I’ve not been able to as much as smell the stuff since without it turning my stomach!
Obviously I am not suggesting that Caffeine should be made illegal, and if it were then you may as well put the handcuffs on me right now cos I’m never going to stop drinking coffee – but I do think that there should be legislation which makes it an obligation for jars of coffee, something that can be found in 80% of British households, to display the caffeine content so that consumers have a much better idea of how much caffeine they are consuming.
What about speciality coffee?
I’m focusing on instant coffee here because such a high percentage of the UK population consumes it, and because it’s usually a blend of Arabica and Robusta, and since we don’t know what the % is, it’s difficult to work out the approximate caffeine content per cup. When it comes to speciality coffee, we know exactly what coffee it is, most of the time it’s 100% Arabica, which makes it easy to work out, and if it’s an espresso blend with Robusta, roasters usually tell us what the % is, so we can work it out there or thereabouts.
According to caffeine informer, when it comes to 100% Arabica, there is on average 145mg of caffeine in an 8 ounce (227ml) cup of drip / filter coffee, and 107.5mg in the same size cup of cafetiere coffee, and 77mg in a single shot of espresso, and double that of course in a double shot.
Rant over, stepping down from soap box.
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