I overheard a conversation between two coworkers recently as we were walking out of a meeting. They were discussing something near and dear to my heart: early morning caffeine habits.
“I can barely stay awake during these 8:00 a.m. conference calls. That’s why I head straight for the espresso machine as soon as I walk into the office! Gotta have my coffee,” one coworker said.
“Oh, I usually keep my fridge fully stocked with energy drinks and just grab one on the way out in the morning,” the other replied. “By the time I get here, I’m fully functional and ready to get started.”
“Energy drinks? Isn’t the caffeine in those fake? I prefer to get mine from real sources. Keeps me alert for much longer and I don’t get that afternoon crash.”
After putting two and two together, I realized there was a possible misunderstanding in my coworkers’ comments. In today’s media world, it’s likely that many people think some caffeine is “fake” and some caffeine is “real.” There are several misleading claims about caffeine floating around—from magazine articles we might read to blogs we follow online—and for good reason! Caffeine is known by a number of names, including trimethylxanthine; 1,3,7-trimethylpurine-2; 6-dione; guaranine; and caffeine anhydrous, among others. It’s easy to see where all the confusion stems from when you have many different technical terms for the same thing. But just because you might not be able to pronounce these words or don’t know all the versions of caffeine’s name doesn’t mean these terms are fake.
Despite the perplexing scientific nomenclature, all forms of caffeine, whether they’re from a synthetic or natural source, are essentially chemically identical. A 2018 study published in Clinical Pharmacology in Drug Development investigated caffeine absorption levels and health effects in a sample of 16 healthy male participants given natural botanical caffeine extract and synthetic caffeine. Subjects were monitored one hour before and four hours after ingestion. No statistically significant changes in heart rate, blood pressure, or serum caffeine levels were found between groups. The results of this study support experts’ conclusions that caffeine has the same effect whether it’s synthetic or derived from natural sources.
Like my coworker, you may still feel a bit of skepticism and want to know more about caffeine. Read on for common questions and answers that might be helpful.
Q: What are the leading sources of caffeine?
A: No surprise here. Vester et al in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition determined that coffee, tea and soft drinks are the “most important sources of caffeine. However, the order of their popularity may change depending on the region. For example, in many areas across Europe and in Asia, tea shops are just as common as the Starbucks that sits on many corners in our urban centers and suburban communities.
Q: How much caffeine it too much caffeine?
A: The FDA recommends up to 400 mg a day of caffeine as safe for healthy adults. Moderate caffeine consumption is associated with numerous health benefits, including increased alertness, enhanced physical performance, and better cognitive functioning.
Q: Is there really NO difference between the effects of synthetic caffeine and natural caffeine?
A: The short answer is no. There’s no difference in caffeine’s effects from these different sources. Caffeine is caffeine no matter the origin. If you want to know the origins of caffeine, check out my 2018 post which explains where caffeine comes from.
In the end, whether you’re drinking a diet cola or chomping down on a chocolate bar, you should consider the total amount of caffeine you’re consuming rather than focus on natural or synthetic. However, everyone has a different tolerance for caffeine, and you may need to consult with your healthcare provider if you are unsure of its effects on children and / or women that are pregnant or breastfeeding. Check out our updated chart for sources and amounts of caffeine from your favorite foods and beverages.
This blog post was written by David Hu, RD.