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Teratology. 2001 Jul;64(1):51-78.

Teratogen update: evaluation of the reproductive and developmental risks of caffeine.

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Argus International and Argus Research Laboratories, Horsham, Pennsylvania 19044, USA.


Caffeine is a methylated xanthine that acts as a mild central nervous system stimulant. It is present in many beverages, including coffee, tea, and colas, as well as chocolate. Caffeine constitutes 1-2% of roasted coffee beans, 3.5% of fresh tea leaves, and approximately 2% of mate leaves (Spiller, '84; Graham, '84a,b). Many over-the-counter medications, such as cold and allergy tablets, headache medicines, diuretics, and stimulants also contain caffeine, although they lead to relatively minimal intake (FDA, '86). In epidemiological studies, it is assumed that one cup of coffee contains < or =100 mg of caffeine, and soft drinks, such as colas, contain 10-50 mg of caffeine per 12-ounce serving. The per-capita consumption of caffeine from all sources is estimated to be about 3-7 mg/kg per day, or approximately 200 mg/day (Barone and Roberts, '96). Consumption of caffeinated beverages during pregnancy is quite common (Hill et al., '77) and is estimated to be approximately 144 mg/day, or 2.4 mg/kg for a 60-kg human (Morris and Weinstein, '81). However, pregnant women appear to consume slightly less than do other adults, approximately 1 mg/kg per day (Barone and Roberts, '96). This decrease may be interrelated with taste aversion (Hook, '76; Little, '82). The medical literature contains many varied references that appear to indicate that human adverse reproductive/developmental effects are produced by caffeine. If caffeine indeed causes such effects, the reproductive consequences could be very serious because caffeine-containing foods and beverages are consumed by most of the human populations of the world, and consumption in the United States is estimated to be 4.5-kg/person/year (Narod et al., '91). Therefore, the medical literature dealing with developmental and reproductive risks of caffeine was reviewed, and the biological plausibility of the epidemiological and animal findings, as well as the methods and conclusions of previous investigators, were evaluated. The epidemiological studies describe exposures of women to caffeine during pregnancy, as well as the occurrence of congenital malformations, fetal growth retardation, small-for-date babies, miscarriages (spontaneous abortions), behavioral effects, and maternal fertility problems that presumably resulted from the caffeine consumption. A few epidemiological studies were concerned with the genetic effects of preconception exposures to caffeine. Animal studies, conducted mostly in pregnant rats and mice, were designed to produce malformations. The objectives of the present review are to summarize the findings from the various clinical and animals studies, objectively discuss the merits and/or faults inherent in the studies and establish a global reproductive risk assessment for caffeine consumption in humans during pregnancy. It should be noted that evaluation of the developmental risks of caffeine based solely on epidemiological studies is difficult because the findings are inconsistent. Even more important, is the fact that caffeine users are subject to multiple confounding factors that make analyses difficult and prevent investigators from reaching definitive conclusions. For example, the caffeine content of foods and beverages can vary considerably, which can interfere with obtaining valid interpretations from many human studies. Isolated epidemiological studies dealing with the risk of abortion, without evaluating other developmental and reproductive effects, are the most difficult to interpret, because they present special problems that are sometimes ignored in epidemiological studies. The results of animal studies are probably most helpful in solving some of the dilemmas created by the epidemiological studies. An animal study reported in 1960 first focused our attention on the potential developmental effects of caffeine. However, the exposure reported by Nishimura and Nakai ('60) was an intraperitoneal dosage of 250 mg/kg in the mouse, an extremely high dosage that would result in a blood plasma level that could never be obtained from consuming caffeine containing products. More recent animal studies have demonstrated, that depending on the method of administration and species, the developmental NOEL in rodents is approximately 30 mg/kg per day, the teratogenic NOEL is 8,100 mg/kg per day, and the reproductive NOEL approximately 80-120 mg/kg per day. Lack of biological plausibility to support the concept that caffeine has been responsible for human malformations is another important part of this analysis. For example, no one has described the Caffeine "teratogenic syndrome," a cluster of malformations associated with caffeine ingestion. Proven human teratogens have an identifiable syndrome. The malformations described in the animal studies at very high doses fit the description of vascular disruptive types of malformations. (ABSTRACT TRUNCATED).

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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