Too much caffeine can be harmful to both children and adults.

How much caffeine and sugar is in Hong Kong’s favourite drinks? After teen’s recent death in US, you need to know

A cup of Hong Kong-style milk tea has five times as much caffeine as a can of Coca-Cola, and bubble tea isn’t much better; we compare caffeine and sugar levels in some of the city’s favourite drinks

The death of a teenager last month highlighted the potential dangers of consuming an excessive amount of caffeine. Doctors in the US state of South Carolina said 16-year-old Davis Allen Cripe died from a “caffeine-induced cardiac event causing a probable arrhythmia”. He had consumed a latte, a large Mountain Dew drink and a high-caffeine energy drink in less than two hours.

In 2013, the Hong Kong government warned pregnant women they should have no more than 200-300mg of caffeine a day. Meanwhile, the city’s health department said that children should limit their intake to no more than 2.5 to 5mg per kilogram of body weight. An average 10-year-old boy weighs about 30kg, meaning they should not have more than 155mg of caffeine per day.

Pregnant women should consume no more than 300mg of caffeine a day. Photo: Shutterstock

In healthy adults, a caffeine intake of 400 mg per day or less is considered safe, advises Hong Kong nutritionist Michelle Lau (of Nutrilicious). However, workers knocking back fresh coffee all day should note that each cup could contain anything from 100mg to 300mg of caffeine.

Lau cites nervousness, irritability and sleeplessness as side effects of excessive caffeine. She also says energy drinks should be limited to no more than one per day, and warns that caffeine should never be mixed with alcohol.

People often turn to energy drinks for a quick pick-me-up. Photo: Alamy
Long-term side effects of large doses of caffeine can include anxiety, sleeplessness, abdominal pain and heart palpitations.
Nutritionist Wynnie Chan

Caffeine is a naturally occurring chemical that stimulates the nervous system to enhance mental alertness, though the effect of caffeine differs for each person.

“Caffeine intake arising from moderate consumption of caffeine-containing drinks, including coffee and milk tea, would not pose risk of adverse effects in healthy adults. Nevertheless, consumers are advised to maintain a balanced and varied diet,” advises the government’s Centre for Food Safety.

Many students and workers rely on a coffee or a can of energy drink for late night stimulation, but drinking caffeine can do more harm than good, warns nutritionist and food writer Wynnie Chan.

The health department says that children should limit their caffeine intake to no more than 2.5 to 5mg per kilogram of body weight. Photo: Alamy

“While these drinks will give a temporary energy boost, neither the sugar nor caffeine are necessary in a healthy diet. Besides, any improvement in cognitive function and concentration is often only short- lived; you’ll be left feeling irritable, restless and lethargic,” she says.

“Long-term side effects of large doses of caffeine can include anxiety, sleeplessness, abdominal pain and heart palpitations,” Chan adds.

Research has found bubble tea on average contains more caffeine than three-and-a-half cans of Coca-Cola. Photo: Alamy

Unlike the energy drinks available in bottles and cans on the supermarket shelves, the latte bought from the coffee shop or the milk tea found in local cha chaan teng do not come with the caffeine level printed on the side.

The government’s health warning stemmed from a study by the Centre for Food Safety and the Consumer Council examining the caffeine content in coffee, Hong Kong-style milk tea, and Taiwanese-style milk tea (more commonly known as bubble tea). They found that the milk tea sold in local cafes had between three-and-a-half and five times as much caffeine per serving as a can of Coca-Cola – about as much as a full-strength coffee (without milk).

Sugar levels in yogurt far from sweet for Hong Kong watchdog

Furthermore, energy drinks bought in shops often contain a lot of sugar, which gives an instant rush but has no nutritional value. The World Health Organisation’s guidelines state that sugar should form no more than 10 per cent of daily energy intake, as too much sugar can lead to type 2 diabetes.

Here’s a list of the caffeinated drinks commonly found throughout the city, along with the amounts of caffeine and sugar they contain:

A table of caffeine and sugar levels in some popular drinks in Hong Kong.
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Could your daily caffeine hit be harming you?