The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Interview with Dr. Sean O’Keefe, Department of Food Science and Technology, Virginia Tech

Interview with Dr. Sean O’Keefe, Department of Food Science and Technology, Virginia Tech

The Food Journal

April 28, 2014

The Food Journal: Are people using caffeine more than ever before?   

Dr. O’Keefe: If you look at total intake, it has not gone up as much as some people have suggested. In fact, in teenagers it has gone down somewhat. Coffee and energy drinks have increased as soda has declined. We have access now to highly caffeinated drinks that have 500mg of caffeine in a package which would be in excess of daily recommended consumption for adults (400 mg/day). There was a 2005 Food Sources and Diets scientific publication put out that showed caffeine consumption has gone down, and in 2010, the data shows a change in the consumption trends. What has happened in last ten years is the change in the consumption of soft drinks, which is the largest source of caffeine in teens and children. Two year olds are getting caffeine, and it’s primarily coming from soda. 

People are looking at obesity primarily with caffeine consumption with children over the last twenty-five years.  In 2014 the American Academy of Pediatrics did the study Trends in Caffeine Intake Among US Children and Adolescents.  They reported caffeine consumption decreased in the 1999-2010 time period for 2-11 year olds and Mexican-American children.  The question is more about the outliers; the person that consumes much more than average, like ten cups of coffee or several of the very high caffeine energy drinks per day.  

The Food Journal: What are the benefits of having more than the recommended daily amount of caffeine, 400mg a day, for adults?

Dr. O’Keefe: There is no benefit to really high doses.  In moderation, caffeine consumption has positive affects. Once you get over that threshold, there is increased jitteriness and one becomes irritable.  

The Food Journal: What is your view of caffeine as an addictive substance? 

Dr. O’Keefe:  It has aspects of addition.   There are withdrawal symptoms.  I drink coffee in the morning and tea most of the day.  In Nova Scotia, we had a tea pot on the stove all day long.  In 2006, the Department of Defense started providing caffeinated gum to keep the troops alert and concentrated, finding no detrimental affects.  On the other hand, Wrigley stopped production of caffeinated chewing gum (40 mg/piece) in 2013 after discussions with the FDA.     

The Food Journal: What products have added caffeine as of late that have troubled you most and why?

Dr. O’Keefe:  Humans have been consuming coffee for many hundreds of years.  We know a lot about caffeine.  Males, females, pregnant women, adolescents… we have studied all the groups quite a bit.  Some of the energy drinks contain high amounts of taurine (a sulfonic acid with biological significance) and amino acids.  Some believe ingredients like taurine are under studied and under regulated.   One five hour energy shot is not that concerning to me, but in that small volume, you could drink 5 or 6 of them quickly, and the plasma concentrations of caffeine and other ingredients would be correspondingly higher. 

A compound added to foods must be approved by the FDA.  For this, data on safety are needed.  For dietary supplements, FDA pre-approval is not needed and the FDA is required to prove the product is unsafe to be taken off the market.   

Food Journal: You have a research focus on the quality of peanuts.  Any caffeine in nuts anytime soon?

Sean O’Keefe: Just recently I was thinking of infusing caffeine in nuts.  It’s an interesting idea to have caffeine in peanut butter.  The issue with anything like that is we don’t want kids to get hold of it.   How would the child know the difference between the non-caffeine version and the caffeine version?  High oleic peanut butter has a fatty acid profile similar to olive oil, and while I am shocked that no one has produced high oleic peanut butter in the US yet (it is available in some other countries), one of the reasons could be the patent for high oleic products is held by the University of Florida.  Most companies though try and avoid the patent by using peanuts that are higher in oleic than normal peanuts but do not fall in the high oleic category, which is "about 74% to about 84%" as defined by that patent.  Caffeinated peanut butter would not be affected by the patent if normal peanuts are used, but the high oleic characteristic makes the peanuts and their products healthier and have a much longer shelf life.