How much caffeine have you had today? If you’re in the 90% of the population that uses the world’s most popular psychoactive substance, you can probably answer that question, at least in a broad sense. Maybe you’re on your second cup of coffee. But even if you’re keeping tabs on how much of a beverage you’re drinking, do you really know how much caffeine you’re getting? Are all cups of coffee created equal? (Spoiler alert: they’re not.) For something so many of us consume, it’s surprisingly difficult to tell exactly how much caffeine we’re getting. Like most of us, I’ve had to feel my way through this process, figuring out by trial and error where that balance lies for me, the sweet spot between groggy and overly wired. We need better access to objective data about caffeine. The FDA does not currently require quantities of caffeine or recommended daily intake to belisted on nutritional labels, because caffeine is not technically a nutrient. However, there are some ways to find out a bit more about what’s in your beverage, as well as its impact on consumers, laborers, and the environment. Read on!
What is caffeine?
Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant, derived from a chemical compound called xanthine. Caffeine occurs naturally in several types of plants—including coffee beans (actually seeds), tea leaves, cacao beans, kola nuts (the origin of cola drinks, though most no longer use this ingredient), guarana seeds, and yerba mate leaves. According to the book Coffee—Philosophy for Everyone: Grounds for Debate, caffeine evolved in plants as a natural pesticide to protect the plant from being eaten, due to the effect it has on the nervous system of the consumer. That didn’t work with humans, obviously!
Relatively pure caffeine was first isolated in 1819, and nowadays it is commonly added to food and beverages, such as soft drinks, energy drinks, and an increasingly creative variety of caffeinated foods.
How do we use caffeine?
The majority of Americans’ daily caffeine consumption comes from coffee. According to the FDA, on average, children aged 2-13 per capita consume 28.7 mg/day of caffeine, 14-21 year olds consume 47.9 to 60.0 mg/day, and adults older than 22 consume 161.9 mg/day. Coffee drinkers average a little over 300 mg caffeine per day (Caffeinated p.26-27).
Younger people consume more tea per capita than coffee, and soft drinks are also one of their major caffeine sources.
Although coffee is the largest source of adults’ caffeine intake, peak coffee drinking in America was in the past—during the World War II era, coffee consumption reached an average of 20 pounds of beans per person annually, or 46 gallons of coffee.
Fun fact: by dry weight, tea leaves contain more caffeine than coffee beans. However, since you use much less tea than coffee for a single serving (again, by weight), you end up with less caffeine in your cup of tea than in your cup of coffee of the same size.
How do we know what’s in our beverages?
Although listing the quantity of caffeine per serving or package is not required in the United States, some brands of bottled beverages do voluntarily offer this information. However, for many brands, this information is harder if not impossible for a consumer to find. It is required for a manufacturer to disclose all ingredients that contain caffeine, but it is up to the consumer to know what ingredients to look for on the label. They can be subtle. The FDA published the below chart that may be helpful when examining a label. The right-hand column includes terms that you should look for if you’re trying to identify caffeine-containing ingredients.
When you’re brewing your own beverage, caffeine content will vary depending on your preparation method. For example, steeping a teabag for longer releases more caffeine into your beverage than a shorter steeping time does. Coffee ground coarsely, like for a French press, will release less caffeine into your beverage than coffee ground more finely. However, if you leave your French press sitting for a long time, your coffee will be more caffeinated than if you pour it into your cup as soon as it’s ready. Hotter water also extracts more caffeine than cooler water.
How does it affect our health?
I am neither a doctor nor a scientist. You should involve your medical care team in determining your health plan. Here is my layperson’s overview of some things I’ve learned about the health effects of caffeine:
Everyone knows why the majority of people in the world consume caffeine: it boosts alertness. Caffeine has also been shown to improve cognitive performance and athletic performance.
Caffeine can treat headaches for many people, which is why some popular pain medications contain it as an ingredient. However, caffeine withdrawal can also trigger headaches.
Some people are particularly sensitive to caffeine, requiring a much lower dose before starting to feel negative effects. Caffeineinformer.com describes it as follows: “These people react to very small amounts of caffeine. Even at amounts less than 100 mg, people who are hypersensitive to caffeine can experience overdose symptoms such as insomnia, jitters, and an increased heart beat. For these people it can take as much as twice as long for caffeine to metabolized.”
The majority of people, on the other hand, can tolerate 200-400 mg of caffeine per day (roughly equivalent to a few cups of coffee) without adverse effects.
The outliers on the other end of the spectrum are hyposensitive to caffeine—the 10% of people who can tolerate large doses of caffeine (in excess of 500 mg) without feeling much effect, and who have no trouble sleeping afterwards.
Caffeine is toxic, to the point of being deadly, in high doses—much higher than a person would ever reasonably drink in coffee or tea, but the advent of energy drinks and caffeine pills has made accidental overdose more possible than it was in the past. Also, lower doses can cause problems for people with underlying health issues. Caffeineinformer.com has catalogued a number of known cases of caffeine toxicity (as well as being a great resource for the amount of caffeine in various commercial beverages). Symptoms of caffeine overdose, according to Caffeineinformer, include jitters, restlessness and nervousness; increased heartbeat; nausea; anxiety; heart palpitations (cardiac arrhythmia); insomnia; sweating; dizziness; vomiting; and cardiac arrest.
The FDA launched an investigation in 2013 to assess the safety of caffeine added to products, though there do not appear to be any official updates to the status of this investigation as of the time of writing. (www.fda.gov/forconsumers/consumerupdates/ucm350570.htm)
Caffeine is sometimes included in weight loss products, due to its reputation as an appetite suppressant; however, several studies on coffee intake and appetite suppression have indicated that this is a myth.
Have you heard that caffeine causes dehydration? Turns out that isn’t true, either. The studies that showed a significant diuretic effect from caffeine weren’t well-designed to simulate real-world caffeine usage. Newer studies show only a mild diuretic effect from caffeine-containing beverages, and suggest that even this may disappear when people are habituated to caffeine. For more information about this, check out the following article: http://s.coop/1xuh6.
How do we know it was produced ethically?
We should consider a couple different angles when talking about ethical production of coffee: good labor practices, and also good environmental practices.
Fair Trade is a widely known certification, overseen by Fairtrade International (FLO), ensuring a decent price is paid to producers, and ensuring that certified farms are not using child labor or forced labor. Some argue that the wages paid to Fair Trade coffee farmers are still too low. In response, some roasters are attempting to create a standard that pays even better than Fair Trade prices, via the label Direct Trade. Unlike Fair Trade, Direct Trade does not have an overseeing body, so if you’re looking for this label, be aware that different roasters may use it differently. Look for specific information from the roaster.
Rainforest Alliance certified coffee requires that the producers pay at least minimum wage. Children under 15 cannot be employed, there are limitations on the type of work minors can do, and farmers are expected to allow minors to continue their education. However, it is worth noting that for a product to carry the Rainforest Alliance seal, only 30% of the product needs to come from certified farms. If you want assurance that 100% of the product is Rainforest Alliance certified, look for a label that says “100% Rainforest Alliance Certified.” For more information on the Rainforest Alliance certification, read on—it also has environmental factors.
For coffee, tea, or any other product to be labeled organic, at least 95% of it must be composed of organic ingredients. It can be labeled “Made with Organic Ingredients” if at least 70% of it is composed of organic ingredients. Organic certification for coffee farmers relies heavily on the ability of the farmer to obtain and use organic fertilizers (Wikipedia).
An obstacle to organic certification—in many areas, not just coffee and tea—is the expense of being certified as organic, as well as the certification even being available in that area of the world. For that reason, some distributors who focus on organic products will offer non-organic products that they still stand behind, often ones that are grown under organic conditions despite not being certified as organic.
In addition to its requirements for labor practices, the Rainforest Alliance places restrictions on the environmental conditions for coffee growing. As the Rainforest Alliance explains, “Decades ago, coffee farms were virtually indistinguishable from the surrounding forest. Traditional coffee-growing methods depended on the shade of the forest canopy, which supported local wildlife, migratory birds and better bean quality. In the 1970s the introduction of a new hybrid coffee plant requiring agrochemicals and full-sun exposure led many farmers to cut down their forests and abandon their traditional ways. This high-tech approach to farming has devastated lands throughout the tropics.” (www.rainforest-alliance.org/work/agriculture/coffee) The Rainforest Alliance attempts to combat this by certifying farms that maintain (or are working to regain) 40% shade coverage, with at least 70 trees per hectare and at least 12 native species.
Tea farms can also be Rainforest Alliance certified, in which “dangerous and banned pesticides are phased out and alternatives (such as manual weeding) are promoted; farmers plant vegetative barriers to capture agrochemical run-off and plant grasses on steep banks to prevent erosion; wastewater is treated.” (www.rainforest-alliance.org/work/agriculture/tea)
The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (SMBC) created the Bird Friendly certification to signal that coffee is both organically grown and shade-grown (farms must have at least 40% shade coverage). Ethicalcoffee.net considers Bird Friendly certification to be the strictest of the environmental certifications available. It requires that farms have already met the standard rather than just be working towards it, and it also requires that any product with the label consist only of 100% certified product.
Coffee pods—of which K-cups are the currently best known—create a great deal of waste, as many of them aren’t recyclable and those that are can be annoying to disassemble and recycle properly, meaning they’re still mainly ending up in landfills. Coffee pod systems have exploded in popularity in recent years, far beyond the expectations of Keurig founder John Sylvan, who intended them for use in offices, rather than the one-in-three American homes where they’re now found. Despite all the undeniable plastic waste that’s being created, as James Hamblin wrote in the Atlantic, he notes that we also need to weigh that against the environmental benefits of single-serve coffee pods. For example, people are wasting less coffee and less water (when brewing a pot, it’s common to make more coffee than you need; this is less likely with a pod). You also save electricity by not keeping a pot on all the time. Still, it is veryimportant that coffee pod producers work towards recyclability, and that consumers think hard about whether they use this system versus other, potentially more environmentally friendly coffee preparation methods.
First of all: decaffeinated beverages are different than non-caffeinated beverages. If something is non-caffeinated, it never contained caffeine. (Rooibos tea, not technically from the tea plant, is one example.) If a product is decaffeinated, on the other hand, that means it originally contained caffeine, which was then removed. Standards in the US do not require that all of the caffeine be removed in order to call something decaffeinated; the regulation requires removal of 97% of the caffeine. This means that your decaf coffee will still have some caffeine, but generally not a lot. Some tests of brewed decaf coffee have shown higher levels than you’d expect based on the regulation—caveat emptor.
Many coffee lovers maintain that decaffeination processes remove flavor from the final product along with caffeine. So, scientists have been on a mission to develop a naturally decaffeinated coffee bean—through conventional breeding or genetic modification. There are actually already some naturally occurring low-caffeine or caffeine free variants of the Coffea plant, but they’re either bitter-tasting or produce too few beans, unlike the two varieties we use currently—Coffea arabica (aka “Arabica”) and Coffea canephora (aka “Robusta”). (www.nature.com/news/plant-biotechnology-make-it-a-decaf-1.10212)
- The book Caffeinated: How our Daily Habit Helps, Hurts, and Hooks Us by Murray Carpenter is chock-full of solid information about our favorite liquids. It was tempting for me to write the article you just read as just a book report about this book. If you want only one book about caffeine, Caffeinated will be your go-to option.
- For something more specialized, the book Coffee—Philosophy for Everyone: Grounds for Debate covers a great deal of coffee-related topics, from ethics to aesthetics to metaphysics.
- Online, www.caffeineinformer.com is a gold mine of information about health effects of caffeine, and caffeine content of various products.
- (www.ethicalcoffee.net specializes in information about various certifications for coffee regarding labor practices and environmental impact.)