Caffeine is a substance that’s naturally present in the leaves, seeds, and fruits of many plants, where it acts as an herbicide and insect repellant.
It’s naturally found in tea leaves, cocoa beans, coffee beans, guarana, and kola nuts. In addition, people add it to a variety of foods and drinks, including ice cream and energy bars.
This article gives a primer on caffeine and lists 10 foods that are high in caffeine.
What is caffeine?
Caffeine is the most commonly consumed psychostimulant substance in the world. The term “psychostimulant” means that it increases the activity of the nervous system.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) generally recognizes caffeine as safe. Consuming up to 400 mg of caffeine per day has not been associated with adverse health effects in healthy adults.
One review study showed that 300 mg of caffeine per day in healthy pregnant women is safe, with limited data suggesting that 1.1 mg of caffeine per pound (2.5 mg per kg) of body weight in children and adolescents may be safe.
However, studies have observed mixed results, and some people may experience negative side effects at intakes of less than 400 mg per day.
These side effects include heart palpitations, anxiety, insomnia, and increased blood pressure and heart rate.
Because manufacturers add caffeine to some foods and drinks to promote increased energy, alertness, and mood, you may be consuming more caffeine than you think.
This is especially important to watch out for if you tend to experience negative side effects when you consume caffeine.
Here are 10 common foods and drinks that contain caffeine.
Coffee is a brewed beverage prepared from coffee beans, which are a natural source of caffeine.
Revered for its taste and aroma around the world, coffee is consumed for its stimulating effects, which increase energy levels, mood, and alertness.
Whether coffee increases the risk of disease is controversial.
Some studies exploring the relationship between coffee consumption and the risk of disease have suggested an increased risk of heart disease, while others have shown potential health benefits, including a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes.
On average, an 8-ounce (240-mL) cup of coffee contains about 100 mg of caffeine. At this level, 4 cups of coffee per day will keep you within the safe limit of 400 mg of caffeine for healthy adults.
However, coffee products may contain very different amounts of caffeine. For example, Starbucks’ 16-ounce (475-mL) Grande Vanilla Latte provides 170 mg of caffeine, while a Grande Blonde Roast of the same volume provides 360 mg of caffeine.
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You should read the nutrition label to be aware of the amount of caffeine per serving of coffee.
In case you’re wondering, decaffeinated coffee still contains caffeine. However, it has reduced levels compared with regular coffee.
One cup (240 mL) of decaf coffee contains 1–50 mg of caffeine, depending on the brand and serving size. That’s less than half the amount of caffeine in a regular cup.
A 2014 review study found that along with drinking regular coffee, drinking decaf coffee may reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
More rigorous research is needed.
Summary: Coffee is a brewed beverage that naturally contains varying amounts of caffeine, depending on the serving size and product brand. On average, an 8-ounce (240-mL) serving of coffee has 100 mg of caffeine.
2. Cocoa beans and chocolate
Just like coffee beans, cocoa beans naturally contain caffeine.
This means that all chocolate and foods flavored with chocolate contain some caffeine, but the amount of caffeine in the product depends on the percentage of cocoa it contains.
Here’s how much caffeine you’ll find in 3.5 ounces (100 grams) of different types of chocolate:
- 100% cocoa chocolate: 240 mg of caffeine — the equivalent of 2.5 cups of regular coffee
- Bittersweet chocolate (55% cocoa): 124 mg of caffeine
- Milk chocolate (33% cocoa): 45 mg of caffeine — around the amount of caffeine in a cup of black tea
Cocoa also contains compounds like flavonols and methylxanthines, and some studies have investigated its potential as a functional food.
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These compounds, including caffeine, have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and may provide health benefits.
That’s good news for chocolate lovers.
Summary: Cocoa beans contain caffeine, with the amount depending on the percentage of cocoa in the product. A 3.5-ounce (100-gram) serving of pure cocoa can contain the same amount of caffeine as 2.5 cups of coffee, while milk chocolate contains less.
3. Kola nut
Native to West Africa, the kola nut is a staple food prized for its cultural symbolism and economic and health importance to all socioeconomic classes and religious groups.
It was once a main flavoring agent and source of caffeine in commercial colas like Coca-Cola. However, some major cola brands no longer use it.
The kola nut is the seed of the kola tree and a natural source of caffeine.
You can eat it fresh or dried, and people use its extract as a food additive.
Although the kola nut itself has potential health benefits, regularly drinking sugar-containing sodas is associated with weight gain and other negative health consequences.
Summary: Kola nut extract is high in caffeine. Companies use it as a food additive and flavoring agent in some soft drinks, although some sources say commercial brands, including Coca-Cola, no longer use it.
4. Green tea
Another natural source of caffeine is green tea. It’s an especially popular drink in Asian countries.
Green tea contains amino acids like theanine, which studies have shown act on the hippocampus in the brain and exert stress-reducing effects in animals and humans.
A 2017 study further suggested that the combination of theanine and caffeine in green tea may improve brain function and cognition, as well as reduce anxiety, although more research is needed.
An 8-ounce (240-mL) serving of green tea provides about 30–50 mg of caffeine, which is about half of the caffeine content of a cup of coffee.
The caffeine content of green tea varies by the age of the leaf. Older leaves provide less caffeine than younger leaves.
Summary: Green tea is a natural source of caffeine, providing about 30–50 mg of caffeine per 8-ounce (240-mL) serving, depending on the age of the leaves used.
Guarana is a plant that’s native to the Amazon rainforest in Brazil and known for its antioxidant and stimulant properties.
Just like cocoa beans, the guarana plant contains chemicals called methylxanthines, and caffeine is one of these.
Studies have found consuming the guarana plant is associated with increased energy and protection against high blood pressure, obesity, and metabolic syndrome in older adults.
Companies use guarana extract as a food additive in soft drinks, energy drinks, energy bars, and herbal dietary supplements.
Summary: Guarana is a natural source of caffeine and is used as a food additive in the production of energy drinks, soft drinks, and herbal dietary supplements.
6. Yerba mate drink
Yerba tea is a popular beverage in South America. It’s made from the dried, crushed leaves of the large-leafed Ilex paraguariensis tree.
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Also known as Paraguay tea, yerba mate is a natural source of caffeine. Experts have praised it as a heart-friendly drink with numerous potential health benefits, which include its antimicrobial and antioxidant properties.
Yerba mate is also a source of polyphenols, which are plant compounds that have health benefits in humans.
The caffeine content of yerba mate varies depending on the brewing method, ranging from 20–180 mg per 8 ounces (240 mL).
Summary: Yerba mate is a popular drink in South America that naturally contains caffeine and beneficial plant compounds with potential health-promoting properties.
7. Chewing gum
Chewing gum is a soft, rubbery substance traditionally made from tree sap.
It’s not a natural source of caffeine, but manufacturers may include caffeine in their recipes. This has made chewing gum popular among some athletes and others looking for an energy boost.
Studies have shown that you absorb the caffeine in chewing gum much faster than caffeine in capsule form. This is possible because the buccal mucosa cells of the inner cheek absorb it quickly.
Caffeine enhances athletic performance. For this reason, caffeinated chewing gums, along with other sources of caffeine, are on the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) banned substances list for athletes.
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Chewing gum that contains caffeine may increase your alertness and attention span. Certain caffeinated versions even provide over 50 mg of caffeine in two pieces of gum.
Summary: Chewing gum is a soft, rubbery substance that has caffeine added to it during production. Some brands can provide up to 50 mg of caffeine.
8. Energy drinks
Energy drinks are carbonated, sweetened beverages marketed for their ability to boost energy levels, mood, and alertness.
However, energy drinks are sold as food supplements, not regulated by the FDA, and exempt from rigorous testing.
Therefore, it may be difficult to determine the caffeine content of some brands. One study indicated that the caffeine content of energy drinks ranges from about 50–505 mg.
For example, the popular energy drink Red Bull contains 80 mg of caffeine per 8.4-ounce (250-mL) can.
In addition to caffeine, energy drinks contain taurine, an amino acid that is naturally found in the brain and possesses antioxidant properties.
Summary: Energy drinks are food supplement products, and they’re not regulated by the FDA. They can provide 50–505 mg of caffeine depending on the brand.
9. Coffee-containing foods
You can find a vast number of coffee-containing foods available to purchase, and many of these contain caffeine. Tiramisu, coffee ice cream, and coffee-flavored bagels are just a few examples.
Tiramisu is a traditional, coffee-flavored Italian dessert made with espresso and rum.
Tiramisu and other coffee-containing foods are common sources of caffeine.
The amount of caffeine in these foods depends upon the number of coffee beans used in the recipe and can vary widely.
Summary: All coffee-containing foods contain varying amounts of caffeine, including tiramisu and coffee ice cream.
10. Chocolate-flavored foods
Because cocoa beans are a natural source of caffeine, all chocolate and chocolate-flavored foods and drinks contain caffeine.
The amount of caffeine present depends upon the amount of cocoa the product contains.
For example, Starbucks’ 16-ounce (475-mL) Grande hot chocolate contains 25 mg of caffeine.
However, brands such as Swiss Miss and Nestle produce caffeine-free hot chocolate beverages.
Summary: Foods made with cocoa beans and chocolate flavorings naturally contain caffeine. These include hot chocolate.
The bottom line
Caffeine is a stimulant that increases the activity of your nervous system.
It’s found in the leaves, seeds, and fruits of many plants, including tea leaves, cocoa beans, coffee beans, guarana, and kola nuts.
Foods and drinks that are made with any of these ingredients or have caffeine added to them also contain caffeine. These include chocolate, coffee, energy drinks, and green tea.
If you want a little buzz of energy but don’t want the full effects of a cup of coffee, try a cup of green tea, a small bar of dark chocolate, or some caffeinated gum.
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