The Case for Caffeine

By Nancy Berkoff

Caffeine is one of the mostwidely consumed stimulants in the world. So much is written about caffeine: is it beneficial for health, bad for health or does caffeine intake make no difference at all? Let’s investigate how caffeine acts in the body, what different schools of thought have to say about caffeine’s possible health attributes, and some ideas about including caffeine in a healthy diet.

Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant; it is tasteless and has no nutrients of its own. Caffeine belongs to a group of naturally occurring chemicals called “methylxanthines.” Methylxanthines can block the central nervous system’s “braking” and messaging ability; this allows the central nervous system to work at maximum speed.

Recent Johns Hopkins University research indicates that caffeine may enhance long-term memory. Participants who were given 200-milligram caffeine tablets after studying a series of images were better at distinguishing these same images from similar ones when tested the next day.  

It’s not advised, or pleasurable, to take caffeine as a supplement. Caffeine can be found naturally in tea, coffee or chocolate. Foods flavored with chocolate, coffee or tea, such as hot cocoa, chocolate pudding, coffee yogurt, green tea ice cream and many types of soda can be sources of caffeine. Some over-the-counter medications are buffered with caffeine. If you would like to check on the amount of caffeine in your foods and beverages, you can search on the USDA database or the Centers for Science in the Public Interest caffeine chart

The method of preparation affects the quantity of caffeine in the brewed coffee. Different methods have different levels of extraction, explains Bob Arnot, M.D., an internal medicine doctor and author of The Coffee Lover’s Bible. As he explains it, brewing methods with higher levels of extraction and higher water temperatures yield more caffeine and polyphenols. Immersion brewing techniques, such as a French press or siphon system, where the coffee particles are completely enveloped by water, yield higher caffeine amounts than pour-over techniques, such as Mr. Coffee  or coffee-pod-style. Using more coffee and less water per cup of coffee provides more caffeine.

There are many types of chocolate preparations, and the caffeine amount varies depending on the type and amount of chocolate used. A small cup of hot chocolate, made with a packet of standard hot chocolate mix contains about 5 milligrams of caffeine; a larger coffee shop-style hot chocolate might contain over 70 milligrams of caffeine. Milk chocolate can contain 3-6 milligrams of caffeine per ounce and dark chocolate can contain 5-20 milligrams an ounce. Good quality chocolate can contain theobromine, a substance that can help with serotonin levels. Serotonin is the body’s natural mood elevator. As a note, exercise can also help to produce serotonin.

According to scientists at the FDA, caffeine can be part of a healthy diet for most people, but too much caffeine may be a health danger. Depending on health status, including body weight, medications taken, and individual sensitivity, “too much” can vary from person to person. As a guideline, per the FDA, up to 250 milligrams of caffeine a day is considered safe for adults who are able to tolerate caffeine. If you think your caffeine intake is related to restlessness, anxiety, nausea, insomnia, a fast heart rate or headaches, you’ll want to assess your daily intake. Pregnant and breastfeeding women are advised to limit their caffeine intake, as directed by their healthcare professionals. Caffeine is not recommended for children or teenagers. 

As a reference, a 12-ounce can of caffeinated soda may contain 30 to 40 milligrams of caffeine, an 8-ounce cup of green or black tea 30-50 milligrams, a small cup of hot cocoa may contain 5-20 milligrams of caffeine and an 8-ounce cup of coffee 80 to 100 milligrams. Caffeine in energy drinks can range from 40-250 mg per 8 fluid ounces.

It is not possible to completely de-caffeinate coffee and tea. Decaf coffees and teas have less caffeine than their regular counterparts, but they still contain some caffeine. For example, decaf coffee typically has 2-15 milligrams in an 8-ounce cup. If you react strongly to caffeine in a negative way, you may want to avoid these beverages altogether.

 People all over the world have enjoyed caffeine-containing beverages and foods for many years. Caffeine is not an essential nutrient, but may provide some health benefits. Consider the amount of caffeine in the beverages and foods you select and enjoy!


With numerous years in health care and education, Nancy Berkoff, RD, EdD, would love for readers to ask food and nutrition-related questions:


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