Do you consider yourself a caffeine junkie or have you already given up and opted in decaf? I managed to lay my hands on a lovely bag of ground coffee recently, which I am obsessed with until now. It was a last bag on the shelf, so I assumed it will definitely be a good one and let me tell you, it was. A couple of days later, there they were again. A shining pastel green bags of this caffeinated loveliness were staring at me when I returned to the obsession crime scene in the coffee aisle.
With my recently gained addiction-and don’t get me wrong, I always loved coffee; I started paying more attention to my caffeine intake. Because let’s be honest, it’s winter. For most of us, it is dark when you wake up and it is gloomy and dark again when you get back home. Even though the temperature hasn’t yet dropped down as much this year, we are not getting much daylight, not even to mention sunlight. Therefore, your inner winter bear kicks in an if you’re brave enough to leave the bed, you wish you never did, so reaching after a hot cup full of caffeine is exactly what you need.
It is currently the exam season, so fair play to the brave ones who are not running on caffeine so far. When I was in the final year of my undergraduate, caffeinating myself was a part of my daily routine. I experimented with different sources and volumes of caffeine in my diet, whether it was from drinks or foods. Yes, you heard right – there’s caffeine in food too! Many of us may think that they cut down on caffeine but still consuming it from a less obvious source. So let’s just take a minute to brush up on the main sources in caffeine.
One of the most popular beverages worldwide due to its effect, taste and social and habitual popularity is a great part of our lives and is known to be connected with caffeine. Whether it is organic, Arabica or Robusta beans, it is the most obvious source of caffeine – and that is including decaf (The Institute for Scientific Information on Coffee, 2020). Decaffeinated coffee has a lot less caffeine content however if you’re trying to fully avoid coffee, you may want to try different options such as chicory, barley or spelt and other caffeine-free alternatives.
Tea is another hot drink favourite giving you the boost and even the decaffeinated includes caffeine. Many of us seeking a healthier alternative to their habits reach after a Green tea and yes, this one has caffeine too; and does White tea, Sencha, Mate or Oolong. All these types of tea come from a tea plant from the Camellia family and their caffeine content is dependent on the plant itself and the process that your favourite tea is produced (Ge et al., 2019). And do not forget Matcha, causing a big hype on the health food market within the past few years; as this one has the same origin as any of the mentioned teas in this paragraph. Remember those matcha-flavoured foods, and there is plenty of those at the moment, may also contain a small amount of caffeine; depending on the amount of matcha in them.
Again, if you’re reaching after a tea-type hot beverage, you may want to try an herbal tea alternative or Rooibos. Especially if you’re avoiding caffeine due to disturbed sleep, there are many options of mixed or single herb teas which may help you to tackle those. The most popular ones include Lemon Balm, Camomile, Hops or Lavender.
Cacao or Cocoa
Chocolate, Hot Chocolate or even Mocha (the double trouble), they all have one in common – more the cacao content, the richer chocolatey taste but also more the caffeine. Cacao plant naturally contains caffeine, therefore any of those will keep you awake without realising as the caffeine content doesn’t tend to be mentioned on the label of the product. Depending on the amount of cocoa powder, your favourite version of chocolate will have increased content of caffeine (Hirayama et al., 2013), which also tends to be the darker ones. If you’re sensitive to even smaller amounts of caffeine, a hot chocolate instead of late afternoon coffee may not be the best alternative.
Soft drinks and Energy drinks
Mainly soft drinks with a kola nut origin tend to be rich in caffeine content, but nowadays those are usually artificially flavoured with a kola nut extract. You can still enjoy the taste as there are caffeine-free alternatives, but you may look a bit more for those. Other carbonated soft drinks with fruity flavours are usually often caffeinated, but many drinks in the health food sections can contain substances such as guaranine, which is another name for caffeine but obtained from a guarana plant. Guarana and caffeine are both stimulants and can be combined to enhance each other’s properties (Constable et al., 2015).
Energy drinks vastly vary in the amount of caffeine they contain, so if you are looking into how much caffeine you consume from energy drinks, make sure you look into the values for the whole drink rather than values per 100ml. There are other substances in the energy drinks in order to improve focus and give you the energy boost, which can be both beneficial and detrimental (Alsunni, 2015), depending on their nature and amount; therefore it is hard to classify whether energy drinks are good for you due their differences.
How does caffeine work and is it really working for you?
Caffeine affects various brain areas such as adenosine receptors, GABA neurons, dopamine levels, serotonin, glutamate, and others, which affects amongst others cardiac muscle, renal and respiratory response as well as performance, mood or memory. (Institute of Medicine US, 2001).
There is no size fits all in many things, including nutrition and caffeine consumption. Some of us are sensitive to stimulants and psychoactive substances such as caffeine and find it beneficial to avoid them rather than suffer from palpitations and sleepless nights. On the other hand, by forming a habit of consuming caffeine regularly, you can become more resistant to its impact, such as having a higher pain threshold (Aroke et al., 2018).
If you drink coffee to combat the sleepiness or consume energy drinks to stay more focused, you will be more interested in improving your cognitive abilities by consuming caffeinated drinks and foods. In terms of cognition such as vividity, measuring reaction time is a good way how to investigate the effect of caffeine on alertness, for example during tasks such as driving. Due to factors such as gender, age or the environment (Radford University, 2005), the caffeine sensitivity and absorption differs in every individual.
However, a healthy recommended caffeine consumption in a day for an adult is 400mg (Eastwood et al., 2003), so be aware of how much you consume in the long-term.
Take home message
There is no straightforward scientific evidence that a certain amount of caffeine consumption of a certain drink will make you more alert to face the day and improve your overall performance. At the end of the day, we are all different and it is up to you to figure out whether you want to start your day with a cuppa, go decaf after 4pm or avoid caffeine at all. However, listening to your body, its cravings, and physiological responses and therefore making educated choices will benefit both your mentally and physically. In whatever form you consume caffeine, make it work for you.
Alsunni, A. (2015). Energy Drink Consumption : Beneficial and Adverse Health Effects. International Journal of Health Sciences, 9(4), pp.459-465.
Aroke, E., Cable, S., Goodin, B., Overstreet, D. and Penn, T. (2018). Higher habitual dietary caffeine consumption is related to lower experimental pain sensitivity in a community-based sample. Psychopharmacology, 235(11), pp.3167-76.
Constable, M., Mezzio, M., Moustakas, D., Mulligan, M., Rodriguez, B. and Voura, E. (2015). Guarana Provides Additional Stimulation over Caffeine Alone in the Planarian Model. PLOS ONE, 10(4), p.e0123310.
Eastwood, J., Feeley, M., Hugenholtz, A., Jordan, S., Nawrot, P. and Rotstein, J. (2003). Effects of caffeine on human health. Food Additives and Contaminants, 20(1), pp.1-30.
Ge, R., Li, F., Li, P., Li, R., Li, Y., Tong, W., Wan, X., Wei, T., Wu, Q., Xia, E., Zhang, Z. and Zhao, H. (2019). Tea Plant Information Archive: a comprehensive genomics and bioinformatics platform for tea plant. Plant Biotechnology Journal, 17(10), pp.1938-1953.
Institute of Medicine US (2001). Caffeine for the Sustainment of Mental Task Performance: Formulations for Military Operations. Washington, DC, USA: National Academies Press.
Hirayama, M., Kobori, K., Maruta, Y., Mineo, S. and Shigematsu, T. (2013). Polyphenol-Retaining Decaffeinated Cocoa Powder Obtained by Supercritical Carbon Dioxide Extraction and Its Antioxidant Activity. Foods, 2(4), pp.462-477.
The Institute for Scientific Information on Coffee (2020). Sources of caffeine. [online] ISIC Coffee and Health. Available at: https://www.coffeeandhealth.org/topic-overview/sources-of-caffeine/ [Accessed 17 Jan. 2020].
Radford University (2005). Reaction Times. [online] Radford University. Available at: http://www.radford.edu/jkell/Reaction%20Times.pdf [Accessed 17 Jan. 2020].