Natural vs. Added Caffeine: What’s the Difference?

As you sip on your morning latte, consider that the consumption of caffeine is rooted in antiquity, dating back to ancient times, shrouded in centuries of myth and legend. When chronicling the history of caffeine, it’s difficult to separate the apocryphal from fact.

Coffee in its modern incarnation most likely has its origins in Arabia during the Middle Ages, while tea has been enjoyed in China since before the Common Era. Similarly, cacao played an important role in the daily lives of pre-Columbian civilization in Central and South America.

The popularity of these drinks soon spread, and demand increased in the rest of the world. By the 17th century, coffee, tea and chocolate had become firmly entrenched in the social and practical customs of much of the West.

What are the natural sources of caffeine? Natural caffeine is extracted from the plant to be used in different foods and beverages. Found in more than 60 species of plants across the globe, caffeine comes from the seeds of coffee beans, cacao beans and Kola nuts; the leaves and buds of tea; the leaves of Yerba mate; and in the bark of Yoco.  Other natural sources of caffeine include guarana berries, guayusa and the yaupon holly.

What about synthetic caffeine?  Where does it come from?  Aside from the natural variants, synthetic caffeine is also widely used in familiar foods and beverages and even extends as far as water, gum and personal hygiene products!

The FDA regulates added caffeine in five categories of products: foods, beverages, energy drinks, dietary supplements and over-the-counter drugs.  However, misinformation abounds when it comes to the differences between synthetic caffeine or caffeine that’s derived from plant sources.

The 2018 Food and Health Survey revealed that over 70 percent of participants either thought caffeine could have a different effect on the body depending on the source (synthetic vs. natural) or were unsure.

In reality, synthetic and natural caffeine are nearly indistinguishable; both are chemically identical. The major difference is that synthetic caffeine is produced from urea and chloroacetic acid rather than extracted from plant products like natural caffeine. The final product and caffeine’s effect on the body are surprisingly similar.  Scientific research on synthetic caffeine, published as early as 1947 by Scott et al in Science, indicates the same stimulating effects on the body.

The health benefits of caffeine are extensive and affect numerous facets of our health. A 2017 meta-analysis found caffeine to significantly improve cognition by boosting alertness and enhancing performance in motor tasks. The same study also noted a positive link between caffeine intake and decreased incidence of neurological decline associated with aging. Furthermore, caffeine consumption in the form of coffee can reduce inflammation and may even lower the risk of several chronic diseases including diabetes and hypertension.

Daily intake of caffeine up to 400mg per day is generally considered safe in healthy adults. However, pregnant or nursing mothers and those with pre-existing heart conditions should err on the side of caution, with recommended daily intakes ranging from 200 to 300mg.

Whether derived from nature or added, caffeine from all sources has the same effect.  Get to know the sources and amounts in your diet.

This blog post was written by David Hu, RD