There’s no doubt about it: Americans love caffeine. According to a 2013 study—just one of many that examine caffeine consumption habits in the US—85% of Americans consume at least one caffeinated beverage on a regular basis. And while the majority of our caffeine intake comes from coffee, tea, carbonated soft drinks, and energy drinks, caffeine is also a commonly added ingredient in a wide variety of other foods and beverages.
But although we love caffeine, we don’t always have our facts straight on it. If you’re not sure what the difference is between synthetic and naturally derived caffeine, or how much caffeine is too much, read on to get some answers to these and other frequently asked questions about caffeine.
1. Is caffeine safe?
Decades of research (as well as a very long history of consumption) have established that moderate levels of caffeine intake are perfectly safe for healthy adults. As defined by the FDA, as well as other agencies like Health Canada and the European Food Safety Authority, moderate caffeine consumption consists of around 300-400 milligrams per day, which is equivalent to three to four 8-ounce cups of home-brewed coffee. At these levels, caffeine intake is not linked to adverse health effects in the general population. However, women who are pregnant or nursing, or those with pre-existing heart conditions, are typically advised to limit their caffeine intake to 200 mg per day.
2. What’s the difference between synthetic and naturally derived caffeine?
Natural caffeine can be derived from more than 60 species of plants around the globe, including the seeds of coffee beans, cacao beans, and Kola nuts; tea leaves and buds; Yerba mate leaves; Yoco bark; guarana berries, and yaupon holly. Synthetic caffeine, on the other hand, is produced from urea and chloroacetic acid; it is this type of caffeine that is added to products like sodas and energy drinks.
Interestingly, although 70% of people (as revealed by the 2018 Food and Heath Survey) either believe or are unsure whether synthetic and natural caffeine affect the body differently, the fact is that the two types of caffeine are chemically identical and therefore have nearly indistinguishable effects. Numerous studies support this claim. For example, in 2018, a study investigating caffeine absorption levels and associated health effects was published in Clinical Pharmacology in Drug Development. In the study, 16 healthy male participants were randomly given either synthetic caffeine or a natural botanical caffeine extract. Then, five days later, they were given the other type of caffeine. In both cases, participants were monitored one hour before and four hours after caffeine ingestion. The study found no statistically significant differences in heart rate, blood pressure, or serum caffeine levels between the groups. In other words, when it comes to health effects, natural and synthetic caffeine are the same. Instead, it’s the quantity of caffeine, far more than the type, that makes a difference.
3. How is caffeine use in foods and beverages regulated?
Added caffeine is regulated by the FDA across five different product categories: food, beverages, energy drinks, dietary supplements, and over-the-counter medications. Some products contain caffeine due to its stimulating qualities. In other cases, caffeine is used to impart a bitter taste to certain food and beverage products. As an additive, caffeine is classified by the FDA as “Generally Recognized as Safe” (a category governed by strict safety requirements). When caffeine is used as an additive, manufacturers are required to include it in the ingredients list on product labels. Some manufacturers also specify the amount of caffeine added.
4. How do I know what my daily caffeine intake is?
In order to ensure that you stay at or below the recommended caffeine consumption range of 300-400 mg/day, it’s important to pay attention to how much caffeine you consume from different sources throughout the day. Check product labels, as described above, to see whether caffeine amounts are listed (be sure to factor in serving size and number of servings consumed). In addition, many manufacturers will publish additional information about their products’ caffeine levels on their websites. You can also refer to sources like the International Food Information Council for helpful charts and tables detailing the general range of caffeine content in common foods and beverages. Finally, don’t forget that non-food products, like supplements and medications, may also contain caffeine.
5. What are some of the effects that caffeine has on your health?
Although many people believe that caffeine’s overall effects on their health are negative, caffeine has in fact been shown to have a number of health benefits when consumed in moderate quantities. For example, caffeine intake has been linked with a decreased incidence of the neurological decline that can accompany aging (that is, a reduced risk for conditions like Alzheimer’s), and with a lower risk of several chronic diseases such as hypertension and diabetes. When consumed in the form of coffee, in particular, caffeine can also reduce inflammation.