These plants from around the world contain caffeine

by Mark Miller February 25, 2016 4 min read

These plants from around the world contain caffeine

From Japan to the Africa to South America, several plants from which people derive very popular beverages and foods contain caffeine.

When people think of caffeine, they often think of the coffee beverage or coffee beans, which today are indeed the biggest source of the stimulating chemical in the world. But several popular plants worldwide contain caffeine that have been made into delicious food and drinks from antiquity.

Ethiopia: coffee’s birthplace

Coffee was first produced as a drink in Ethiopia, where it grows still grows in the wild. In fact, some of the coffee consumers drink today is from coffee beans harvested from wild plants growing in the forest, according to CoffeeHabitat.com. The amount of purely or nearly purely wild coffee is only about 5 percent of Ethiopia’s output, however. Most Ethiopian coffee comes from gardens, plantations and semi-forested areas.

After Ethiopian people first used coffee, historians think around the 10th century AD by chewing the red beans, it spread to the Mideast thanks to Sufi mystics and eventually east into Asia and west into Europe and its colonies, says the site EqualExchange.coop.

Caffeine competition

In Asia, coffee had some caffeine competition in the form of tea. When tea was first used and domesticated is lost to history, but legend says Chinese Emperor Shen Nong was boiling water in his garden when a tea leaf fell into the pot. He tried it and enjoyed its flavor and soon felt refreshed and invigorated, says MightyLeaf.com.

Tea has been big in India too for many centuries, and there a rather grisly legend says Prince Bodhi-Dharma, founder of Japanese Zen, was preaching Buddhism in China around 520 AD.

“Towards the end of his meditation efforts he fell asleep. Upon awaking he was so distraught that he cut off his eyelids. A tea plant sprung up from where his bloody eyelids hit the ground to sanctify his sacrifice.,” says MightyLeaf.com.

Here again, historians think people first chewed tea leaves rather than boiling them to make the iconic drink.

Koka-kola

When you read the term “natural ingredients” on a can of Coke or Pepsi, it very well may contain flavoring from the kola or cola nut seed of Nigeria and West Africa. There it is used in foods and beverages to serve to guests and in cultural and social ceremonies and also in traditional medicines. Kola nuts contain caffeine, which has beneficial effects, including relief of fatigue, depression, dysentery and migraine headaches.

Cocoa-cola

Cacao, a tropical plant that first grew wild in South American rainforests, is named Theobroma—which is Latin for “Food of the gods.” Cacao seeds are another natural source of caffeine. It spread north to Mexico, where in the 1400s the Mexican king Montezuma, legend says, drank up to 50 cups of cocoa per day.

“Cocoa has been a food for humans since as far back as 600 to 200 B.C. when the first hot chocolate drink was made from mashed cocoa seeds. Cocoa is now a major cultivated food crop,” says the Rainforest Alliance. The African countries of the Ivory Coast and Ghana export 41 percent and 13 percent of cocoa in the world today, but many other countries grow the delicious plant.

People consume cocoa in drinks and as chocolate candy and baked goods. Cocoa butter is also made form cacao seeds.

Tea for tú

We have South America to thank for another invigorating, caffeine-containing drink, namely yerba mate.
“Yerba mate has the ‘strength of coffee, the health benefits of tea, and the euphoria of chocolate’ all in one beverage. Of the six commonly used stimulants in the world: coffee, tea, kola nut, cocoa and guarana, yerba mate triumphs as the most balanced, delivering both energy and nutrition,” says the commercial site Guayaki.com.

Yerba mate’s leaves, which grow on trees in the rainforest, contain 24 vitamins and minerals, many antioxidants and 15 amino acids, the site says. A 1964 study by the Pasteur Institute and the Paris Scientific Society said in 1964 that “it is difficult to find a plant in any area of the world equal to mate in nutritional value” and it contains “practically all of the vitamins necessary to sustain life,” says Guayaki.com.

Mate has some advantages over coffee, including that it is low in bitter tannins, so it can be brewed longer, which allows the nutrients, caffeine, theophylline and theobromine to concentrate more in the liquid. It is less acidic and therefore does not cause sour stomach.

Stimulants of the gods

Many of the plants and the foods and beverages we have mentioned that contain caffeine also are good sources of theophylline and theobromine, two other mild stimulants that scientists believe have some beneficial effects. (Theo means “god” in Latin.)

Twice as much caffeine

Guarana seeds, the extract of which is in supplements and energy drinks, contain more than twice as much caffeine as coffee. This is another plant, a vine, that first grew wild in South America. Guarana has been used in Brazilian soft drinks since 1909.

“Bombastically named energy drinks such as Full Throttle, Monster, Red Bull and Rockstar all contain the herbal supplement guarana. The compound is also found in over-the-counter weight loss products, and it’s been marketed as an aphrodisiac,” says LiveScience.

If you see guarana on an ingredient list, know that you are in for a big jolt of caffeine when you consume it.

A North American tea

Most of the continents have caffeinated plants. But what about North America?

“North America also has a native caffeinated plant known as cassina, youpon, the Christmas berry tree, or the North American Tea plant, which grows from Virginia, south to Florida, and westward along the Gulf coast into Texas. During the Civil War, when coffee and tea [were] scarce due to blockades, and also after World War I coffee [when] was scarce, cassina became a popular substitute and was the focus of Department of Agriculture projects to cultivate a domestic caffeine source,” says the Virtual Mass Spectrometry Laboratory site.

From a Google search, it appears that not many people drink cassina tea today.

Mark Miller
Mark Miller


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