Synthetic vs. natural caffeine: a primer

by Mark Miller July 20, 2017

synthetic vs. natural caffeine

Roasting of fresh coffee beans at the Terra Nera Cafe brings out the flavor. (Wikimedia Commons/Annerella)

Is there a big difference between synthetic and natural caffeine? Apparently, synthetic caffeine is much more powerful than the caffeine found naturally in plants. The question is, is synthetic caffeine harmful?

Some fairly ominous-sounding chemicals are used to process synthetic caffeine. Websites are unclear as to whether the ethyl acetate and methylene chloride (and carbon dioxide) used to process urea to manufacture synthetic caffeine remain in the product. Ethyl acetate is used as a flavoring in some foods, though, so perhaps it is not harmful and may remain in synthetic caffeine.

Synthetic vs. natural caffeine

The question of synthetic vs. natural caffeine is further complicated by the debate over whether any caffeine is good for you. For years people considered it a settled question that caffeine and coffee were stimulants that could adversely affect one's health, especially by causing heart disease and elevated pulse. In more recent years, though, scientists have been doing many studies that have found no harm and many benefits both physical and mental to caffeine users.

Almost unanimous

This comes as great news to about 90 percent of the world's population. That's right. About 90 percent of adults consume products with caffeine in them, including coffee, tea and other herbs, energy drinks, chocolate and other candies and medications. Caffeine is the world's most-consumed mood-altering substance.

The Viter Energy Mints blog did a posting on the many reported benefits of coffee that scientists are finding, including that it:

  • Reduces risk of heart disease, cancer and multiple sclerosis
  • Boosts semen production
  • Invigorates
  • Enhances memory
  • Alleviates fatigue
  • Reduces the risk of kidney stones
  • Helps alleviate migraine headaches
  • Enhances the effect of over-the-counter painkillers
  • Enhances athletic performance
  • Combats the severity of migraine headaches
  • Boosts athletic and mental performance
  • Reduces the risk of Type II diabetes
  • Reduces suicide risk
  • Reduces the risk of erectile dysfunction

Some of these benefits are also found in decaffeinated coffee, so the exact role and extent of the benefits of caffeine are under study.

Coffee: miracle substance

But if caffeine plays a big role in all these healthy effects, it sounds like a miracle substance. Plus coffee and the other products that caffeine is found in taste great. The coffee and other products with caffeine may be habit-forming, but caffeine is not a dangerous, life-destroying drug like opiates, methamphetamine or alcohol.

As to speculation about whether caffeine is addictive, the Viter Energy Mints blog did a posting on that, too. You don't hear about jonesing coffee addicts robbing stores and hijacking motorists to get money for a fix. That's because while caffeine does cause dependence, it isn't in the same category as dangerous drugs.

That's a good thing that caffeine, unlike alcohol and drugs, does not cause disease, crime, financial ruin, automobile and other types of accidents and a breakdown in social interactions and family life because, as we stated, 90 percent of people take it in one form or another.

Natural caffeine is less common

But natural caffeine in coffee, tea and chocolate is much less common than the synthetic caffeine found in so many other products. In an article by Jill Ettinger, the website Organic Authority reports:

Although we typically think of coffee or tea in relation to caffeine, there are only around 60 known types of plants that contain naturally occurring caffeine versus the hundreds if not thousands of those manufactured products that contain the synthetic kind. Synthetic caffeine, like those found in most sodas and energy drinks, are produced in laboratories and manufactured in factories, which provide a much more potent caffeine isolate than what's found naturally occurring in the plant kingdom.

The website reports:

Synthetic caffeine will absorb through the digestive system much faster than the naturally occurring plant caffeine. This means a quicker spike, and of course, a quicker crash, unlike the naturally occurring caffeine in plants such as yerba mate, a leafy green shrub that grows throughout South America and provides a balanced caffeine 'lift' (largely due to also present high level of naturally occurring vitamins that prevent the caffeine crash). Even coffee and black tea will provide a more sustained energy from the naturally occurring caffeine than the artificial stuff found in soda.

Ms. Ettinger advises if you are deciding on which caffeinated beverages to drink, look at the list of ingredients. If "caffeine" is listed, it is a synthetic form of the chemical. If the beverage has natural caffeine, the source plant, rather than the chemical, will be listed. In other words, it may list green tea or coffee. If you have tea or coffee packages in your home, look at the label and you will probably not see "caffeine" listed. If you have cola sodas, it very well may list "caffeine" as one of the ingredients.

Synthetic caffeine: chemically identical

All that said, investigative reporter Murray Carpenter told Huffington Post there is little difference between natural and synthetic caffeine:

'It's really the same chemical, whether it's carved away from an ingredient in which caffeine naturally exists, such as guarana or kola nuts, or it's cobbled together in a laboratory. Synthetic caffeine is cheaper and much more widely used. But if both are pure, natural-sourced and chemical caffeine should have same effects. There's nothing wrong with natural caffeine, but there's no additional health benefit to it. It's more about if you don't want your caffeine coming out of pharmaceutical plant in China'

The Medical Daily website reports that Monsanto developed synthetic caffeine after World War II. The article says synthetic is much more powerful than natural caffeine, and it is available legally online. Synthetic caffeine can even be considered dangerous. One teaspoon of it is equivalent to the caffeine in 50 coffee cups or 192 soda drinks, enough to kill a person.

The bottom line is that there is little to no difference between natural and synthetic caffeine, but there are great variations in the amount depending on the product it is found in. And caffeine isn't considered dangerous except in large amounts. It can also be beneficial for you when fasting.

Bottoms up!

Mark Miller
Mark Miller

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