Look Beyond Coffee and Tea When Limiting Caffeine

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Coffee and tea are two of the most popular beverages in the world. Some parts of the world tend to be tea-drinking regions, and others lean toward coffee. Besides regional or personal preferences, I’d wager that a primary reason for coffee and tea’s popularity is their caffeine content. That boost of focus and energy is a big draw! Are you trying to keep a lid on caffeine? If so, it pays to know about several other sources of this potent pick-me-up. 

What exactly is caffeine?

Caffeine is a bitter-tasting, mild, nervous system stimulant that’s naturally found in many plants, and can also be manufactured. Caffeine is absorbed within 45 minutes, and can remain in the blood up to nearly 10 hours. It promotes alertness in two different ways. First, caffeine decreases the sleep hormone melatonin, which the brain produces in response to darkness. Second, it interferes with the brain receptors for adenosine, a neurotransmitter that causes us to feel sleepy. In fact, caffeine’s impact on brain function is why it’s considered the most widely consumed psychoactive drug in the world. And, whether the caffeine is natural or artificial, its effects on the body are the same

Where is natural caffeine found?

It’s true that most of the caffeine we ingest comes from coffee and tea, but there are other natural sources. The fruit, leaves, and/or beans of the following plants contain caffeine:

  • Coffee
  • Tea
  • Cacao (used to make chocolate)
  • Guarana (used as a flavoring and caffeine source in beverages and weight loss products)
  • Kola nut (used as flavoring in beverages)
  • Yerba mate (herb used to make tea)

Any foods or beverages that are either made from or include these ingredients contain some amount of caffeine. And while the ingredients have to be specified on the label, it’s important to know that natural caffeine does not. It may also surprise you to learn about some products that, in fact, contain caffeine, including:

  • Decaffeinated coffee and tea (in small amounts)
  • Kombucha (if made with caffeinated tea)
  • Coffee liqueurs
  • Matcha
  • Anything made with cocoa or chocolate as an ingredient

What are common sources of added caffeine?

Food and beverage manufacturers are spiking more and more products with caffeine these days (maybe because we are increasingly sleep-deprived?). One way they do this is by simply using natural caffeine sources as ingredients. The second way is to add synthetic caffeine to products, and that does have to be declared on the label. Sometimes manufacturers  include total caffeine content on the label as well, although it’s not required in the U.S. 

Products that may contain added caffeine include:

  • Protein bars, energy bars
  • Cookies 
  • Chips and snacks
  • Energy drinks
  • Alcoholic beverages
  • Soft drinks
  • Liquid caffeine shots/energy shots
  • Candies, gum, mints
  • Enhanced waters
  • Weight loss supplements/products
  • Pre-workout products (drink powders, bottled beverages, etc.)
  • Medications (pain relievers)

How much caffeine is in different foods and drinks?

The average 8-oz cup of regular brewed coffee contains 96 mg of caffeine, but it can vary widely. Many of us are drinking caffeinated concoctions from our favorite coffee shops, so it can be hard to know. Keeping up with new food products and branded items can be tricky as well—they change so often! If you’re unsure about caffeine content, ask the manufacturer (check the website or call their consumer inquiry line). Lists online can give you a general idea too, but be aware they might not be updated consistently. The Center for Science in the Public Interest’s list is a good place to start and includes both foods and beverages. 

How much daily caffeine is safe?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classifies caffeine as Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS). A daily caffeine intake of 400 mg (the amount in 4-5 cups of regular coffee) is considered safe for healthy adults. But keep in mind that caffeine sensitivity can vary significantly from person to person. Pregnant or nursing mothers should limit their consumption, and certainly discuss it with their doctor. (The March of Dimes and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists suggest capping it at 200 mg/day.) Those with heart conditions or high blood pressure may also want to be cautious about caffeine. The suggested safe limit on caffeine for teens is 100 mg/day. And children under 12 should not have caffeine at all

How does Guiding Stars handle caffeine?

When the Scientific Advisory Panel (SAP) developed the algorithm used to rate beverages, it did take caffeine content into consideration. However, since the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans allow for moderate caffeine consumption for healthy adults, the SAP ultimately decided not to include it. The other Guiding Stars algorithms do not include debits for caffeine either. Even so, caffeine consumption is important to be aware of—and potentially limit or avoid altogether. If you’re shopping for caffeine-sensitive individuals, those with certain health concerns, and/or children, the more you know the better!