Caffeine’s Consumer Conundrum

While highly studied and approved for safe use by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), and many other global regulatory agencies, caffeine remains a controversial ingredient and a heated topic of discussion.

March is National Caffeine Month and at the International Food Information Council (IFIC) we are observing the month by shedding light on consumer knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors related to caffeine–as well as potential implications and opportunities to improve consumer understanding about this controversial ingredient.

Consumers Love Caffeine

The recent IFIC Spotlight Survey: Caffeine, conducted with a representative sample of 1,000 US adults (18 years and older) revealed that the vast majority of consumers (88%) consume caffeine. Of those, eight in 10 report consuming it daily, and close to half (47%) say they consume caffeine multiple times per day. The top two reasons given for caffeine intake are “it’s part of my routine” (30%) and “I enjoy the taste of products that contain caffeine” (21%). Energy is also a key driver of caffeine consumption with 17% saying “it gives me a quick boost of energy” and 13% stating that “it makes me feel awake/alert for longer periods of time.” Most respondents report consuming caffeine from coffee (54%), followed by soft drinks (17%). Just over three-fourths (78%) say that caffeine is safe to consume.

Caffeine Confusion

While consumers seem content with their caffeine consumption, this IFIC Spotlight Survey illuminated key places where knowledge deficits exist. For instance, only 35% of those surveyed know that the federal government is responsible for approving the safe use of caffeine as an ingredient in the food supply.

Importantly, only a small number (6%) correctly identified the safe daily amount of caffeine for a non-pregnant, healthy adult. Further, 46% of respondents admitted they are “not sure” how much caffeine is safe to consume per day. This indicates a need for additional education and context, as most respondents report knowing “a lot” or “a fair amount” about the caffeine content of common beverages (less so in chocolate, desserts, and supplements).

Finally, posts about caffeine on social platforms consistently spark lively discourse and have high engagement rates. As of mid-March 2024, a quick search of TikTok returned 308.9k videos with the tag #caffeine. With social conversations often being anecdotal and experiential in nature, rather than science- and evidence-based, the social media messaging environment has the potential to further compound caffeine confusion.

Caffeine Considerations

It is important to deliver science-based information and tools to address any caffeine confusion. Consumer communication and understanding can benefit from reinforcing the following:

  • There may be both benefits and potential risk associated with food and beverage consumption.
  • Exposure determines risk – as do other circumstances (e.g., age, health conditions, pregnancy). For instance, the dosage of an ingredient can affect its impact on the body and safe levels of ingredients factor in this exposure. Certain populations (e.g., pregnant women, older adults, and those with heart conditions or sensitivity) may need to moderate their caffeine consumption.
  • Knowledge is king. Awareness of food and nutrition issues, as well as knowledge specific to food additives and ingredients, has grown over the past several decades. Still, misinformation exists, and in some cases, lack of knowledge altogether. This is certainly the case when it comes to understanding daily amounts of caffeine that can be safely consumed.
  • Meet consumers where they are and with examples of what they typically consume. When asked to translate safe daily caffeine consumption into cups of coffee, most consumers were not able to accurately determine that up to four, eight-ounce cups of coffee would be considered a safe amount. To better inform consumers, food and beverage examples that align with what they currently consume will likely have a more positive effect on consumer understanding of safe caffeine amounts.

Concluding On Caffeine

IFIC strives to understand consumer knowledge, attitudes, and behavior, as well as cut through misinformation by bringing the voice of reason based on robust scientific consensus to the public dialogue.

While caffeine is widely enjoyed by Americans and considered safe by consumers and regulators alike, consumers would benefit from additional knowledge on how much caffeine is considered safe to consume daily, as well as how to make informed decisions – especially for specific populations.

Consumers indicate that they look to multiple entities, including and beyond the government, for information on caffeine’s safety. Consumer communications should be science-based and shared broadly among various stakeholders including federal, state, and local government entities, supply chain stakeholders, and the public health and health professional community. Fortunately, IFIC is a trusted source for caffeine facts and offers a user-friendly calculator on the website.