A new study has suggested that pregnant women and those looking to conceive should avoid consuming caffeine completely to avoid complications during pregnancy.
Contrary to official guidelines, the peer-review study which was published in the BMJ Evidence-Based Medicine, suggests that there is no safe level of caffeine consumption and that avoiding it could help minimise adverse pregnancy outcomes.
The author of the paper, Prof Jack James, a psychologist at Reykjavik University in Iceland, analysed 1,261 studies on the effects of caffeine intake during pregnancy and found:-
“Persuasive confirmation of an increased risk for at least five major negative pregnancy outcomes: miscarriage, stillbirth, lower birth weight and/or small for gestational age, childhood acute leukaemia, and childhood overweight and obesity.”
Prof James acknowledged that the study was purely observational and can’t prove definitively that caffeine was harmful during pregnancy, but suggests that avoiding caffeinated drinks such as tea and coffee entirely would be the best advice for mums-to-be and those looking to get pregnant.
He said: “Scientific evidence supports pregnant women and women contemplating pregnancy being advised to avoid caffeine.”
He said that caffeine-related risk was reported with “moderate to high levels of consistency” for all the outcomes.
However, the study was dismissed by the coffee industry and other health experts who disagreed with the findings suggesting that it was ‘alarmist’ and ‘overkill’ encouraging consumers to stick to the official advice.
Current guidance in the UK, US and Europe recommend that pregnant women can safely consume up to two cups of coffee (200 mg) daily.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) also acknowledges the potential risks to consuming too much caffeine during pregnancy advising those who regularly drink more than 300 mg to cut back. They suggest that an excess of caffeine during pregnancy could lead to restricted growth, reduced birth weight, preterm birth or stillbirth.
The British Coffee Association, whose members include popular coffee chains Costa and Caffe Nero, played down the findings from the study stating that it did not establish cause and effect. It urged pregnant women to adhere to the current government guidelines.
“The current evidence given by the NHS is based on a comprehensive review of all the scientific evidence available on coffee and health, which shows that pregnant women should limit caffeine intake to 200mg per day or less, and at these levels does not increase the risk of reproductive complications,” a spokesperson said.
“This new study is an observational study, so importantly does not show any direct cause-and-effect link and also is subject to confounding factors such as cigarette smoking and wider dietary issues, which may limit its ability to draw clear conclusions.”
Dr Luke Grzeskowiak, a pharmacist at the University of Adelaide also debunked the study saying it was “overly alarmist” and “inconsistent with accepted evidence”.
"There are so many do’s and don'ts associated with pregnancy and the last thing we need is to cause unnecessary anxiety. At the end of the day, women should be reassured that caffeine can be consumed in moderation during pregnancy."
The UK’s Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists also challenged the findings of the study.
"The advice to limit caffeine intake to 200 milligrams (mg) per day - the equivalent to two cups of instant coffee - still stands," said Dr. Daghni Rajasingam.
"This paper does not supersede all the other evidence that has found that a limited intake of caffeine is safe for the majority of pregnant women."
In a country that consumes around 14 billion cups of coffee each year or 600 cups per person, clearly, giving up caffeine completely is never going to be an easy task.
However, if you stick to current official guidelines, drinking one or two cups of coffee per day should still be perfectly safe during your pregnancy.
If in any doubt, always consult with your doctor or healthcare professional.