Caffeine is dangerous for our health - it's official yet again! However, this latest report in Australia could have major ramifications for the Asian soft drinks and energy drink market. David Robertson reports.

Nothing is sacred in the hands of bureaucrats and health boffins - not even a cup of coffee.

A new study has found that caffeine is harmful and addictive! I'd never have guessed.

Not that this should come as any surprise - people enjoy their morning cup of coffee, many can't start the day without it, so of course it had to be bad for you.

But the findings are worrying for soft-drink makers who are likely to face tough new restrictions on putting caffeine in their products.

The report has been put together by the Australia New Zealand Food Authority and was prompted by two applications from drinks makers. One was to add caffeine to a sports drink - a loose definition that includes things like Red Bull. And the other was to add caffeine to a non-cola soft drink - products like 7UP.

But these applications and any future ones are on hold until the Authority decides whether caffeine is safe in the hands of the general public.

According to the report at low doses (half a cup of tea to three cups of instant coffee) there is an increase in energy, alertness, motivation and concentration.

This sounds fantastic. This type of glowing recommendation would normally be reserved for class A drugs but it is available in a humble Diet Coke break. Needless to say the scientists found a 'but'. They are unsure if these effects from low dosages are the result of a relief from withdrawal symptoms.

At moderate dosages (more than three to four cups of instant coffee) drinkers get excitable and suffer anxiety attacks.

Caffeine also disrupts sleep patterns and possibly hinders attempts to get pregnant.

"The Authority received two applications from manufacturers seeking to add caffeine to drinks, and the findings of this report will be used in developing an overall policy on the regulation of caffeine, and to set caffeine levels in so called energy drinks," says Claire Pontin, acting head of the ANZFA.

In reality the side effects of caffeine consumption sound pretty mild. Compared with tobacco, alcohol and illegal drugs caffeine is benign. But as health authorities are never happier than when they have a health scare to wring their hands over you can be sure that something will be done.

There is no chance coffee or Coke could ever be banned. Australia and New Zealand may be developed world countries but there is no chance of them winning a fight with CocaCola or Pepsico. But the report's
findings could lead to health warnings on cans - similar to those on a packet of fags.

But it is the other drinks sectors that are likely to face the toughest restrictions. Assuming the ANZFA do decide to do something, energy drinks could become only mildly stimulating and non-colas may be reliant on taste rather than chemicals for appeal.

Australia already bans non-colas from using caffeine and in New Zealand only Mountain Dew uses it. But clearly manufacturers now want to add at least one more product to this category and they face an up hill battle against the bureaucrats.

As for energy drinks, they've been sneered at by health officials since they appeared in Europe a number of years ago. Their potency in Australasia is likely to be severely limited in the future - certainly in comparison to the heady brews served up in Asia.

Thailand sells a number of heavily caffeinated soft drinks over the counter on street-side stalls. They are unpleasant tasting and sickly sweet. But what a kick!

A translation of the ingredients reveals why. In a typical bottle there was a substantial amount of glucose, a coffee-busting quantity of caffeine, several cigarettes-worth of nicotine and, to round
things off in style, amphetamines.

That is a drink that can truly be called an eye-opener. Governments should leap on these drinks and promote them heavily as the national productivity gains would be huge.

Of course there could be a few limited side effects: Thai construction workers went on strike a number of years ago over fears that their sites were haunted. Workers were falling off scaffolding and the unions were blaming evil spirits. But subsequent medical studies showed that the workers had been high as kites on these wonder drinks and had been so buzzing they hadn't been looking where they were going.

Fortuntately I work in an office. I, therefore, am in no danger of falling off scaffolding so I want lots of sugar, caffeine, nicotine and amphetamines - separately or together in one drink.

But realistically, if the health people get their way, in the future I'm going to have to get a prescription just to get a can of Diet Coke.

Food Caffeine content
Instant coffee 60-80mg
Percolated coffee 60-120mg
Tea 10-50mg
CocaCola 36mg
Energy drinks 80mg
Milk chocolate 20mg