University of Leicester eBulletin

Probe into Link Between Caffeine Consumption and Low Birthweight

May 2003

The Universities of Leicester and Leeds have been commissioned by the Food Standards Agency to study the possible association between maternal caffeine consumption and low birthweight.

The Agency has commissioned the study to reduce uncertainties in the current risk assessment and provide a more robust basis for the Agency’s advice to pregnant women on caffeine consumption.

In October 2001, the Agency advised that pregnant women should limit their caffeine intake to the equivalent of no more than four average cups of coffee a day. The advice was based on the opinion of the Committee on Toxicity (COT) on the reproductive effects of caffeine.

Unlike much of the previous research into the possible effects of caffeine on reproductive health, the Agency’s new study is a prospective study that includes biomarkers of caffeine intake and explores inter-individual variations in caffeine metabolism.
In addition it will consider all sources of caffeine intake, not just tea and coffee. The study, which forms part of the Agency’s Risk Assessment Programme, started in January 2003 and is planned to report at the end of March 2006. It involves a consortium between the Universities of Leeds and Leicester.

It will investigate a total of about 3,000 pregnant women - it is estimated that about 300 (10%) will deliver low birth weight babies.

The Leicester team is headed by Dr Marcus Cooke (Department of Clinical Biochemistry), with clinical support from Dr Justin Konje (Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology), in consultation with Dr Mark Klebanoff (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, NIH, USA). The Leeds team is headed by Dr Janet Cade with support from Dr Sara Kirk (Nutrition Epidemiology Group). Professor Chris Wild of the Molecular Epidemiology Group is collaborating on the laboratory measurements of caffeine. Professor Fred Kadlubar from the National Centre for Toxicological Research in Arkansas will act as consultant to the team.

Dr Cooke said: “A lot of people think that, given the large number of studies examining caffeine intake in pregnancy, safe limits should have been determined long ago. However, many of these studies contain clear methodological short-comings preventing bodies, such as the Food Standards Agency, giving precise advice. Our study is designed to overcome these limitations.”

“This multi-disciplinary study brings together experts in biomonitoring, public health, epidemiology, nutrition, obstetrics and midwifery.”

The size of the study requires recruitment of women from three of the country’s largest maternity units.”

Caffeine consumption from all sources will be assessed by a questionnaire (including a three day food-and-drink diary) and will be validated by measurement of caffeine and caffeine metabolites in urine and saliva at different stages during the pregnancy. Subgroups consisting of 300 women who delivered low birth weight babies and 300 with babies who fell within the normal range of birthweight will also be assessed for both caffeine consumption and metabolism.

Further information from:
Dr Marcus Cooke, Lecturer, Oxidative Stress Group, Department of Clinical Biochemistry, University of Leicester, tel: +44 (0)116 252 5825, Fax/Answerphone: +44 (0)116 252 5838, website:
Or: Caroline Tahourdin, tel: 0207276 8520, email:

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Information supplied by: Barbara Whiteman
Last updated: May 2003
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