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"Your 'reality', sir, is lies and balderdash and I'm delighted to say that I have no grasp of it whatsoever."
— Karl Friedrich Hieronymus, Freiherr von Münchhausen

Caffeine

To quote Mike Patton:

Pour shame all over us
Harden into a crust
Cement 
Forget the glamour and
Mumble a jackhammer
Under your breath
Hide your face in the curtains
Better unsaid, so close
And it rolls off the tongue
Almost
The world expects the pose
Perfectly natural
Loosen up
Smearing wet concrete
And swearing you'll never be
Caught
At your weakest, etched in stone
And we're frozen here, peeking
Almost
sweet talk
Caffeine
Ah yes, caffeine. While I'm sure that the lyrics above have absolutely nothing to do with caffeine (or if they do, I fail to see how), it's a cool song. Really.

Anyway... this post is inspired by the loud conversation in the kitchen near my cube and another discussion I had gotten into with a coworker regarding the caffeine content of coffee and tea.

I'm sure you've heard it. "You know, tea has more caffeine than coffee." Well, if you're talking about tea leaves versus coffee beans, that may be true, but that's where the truism falls down. The truth is that in its prepared form, coffee absolutely, positively has more caffeine than tea.

Admittedly, there are a number of discrepancies between the figures cited on the internet, and that is likely because there are a number of variables that affect the actual amount of caffeine in the beverage, including how the beans are roasted, how the coffee is prepared, and the type of coffee you're talking about. But in no instance does any authoritative source claim that tea has even close to the same amount of caffeine as coffee, let alone more. In most cases, it looks like it's about a third to a half as much:

SourceCoffeeTea
Wikipedia40-120mg12-55mg
Bunker and McWilliams in the Journal of American Diet (74:28-32, 1979) (as cited by CoffeeFAQ.com)115-175mg40-60mg
About.com60-120mg45mg
Center for Science in the Public Interest135mg35-40mg (Lipton)
Food and Drug Administration, et. al., as quoted here110-150mg9-50mg
European Food Information Council85mg50mg
So, stop repeating this evil slander of my favorite beverage. The authorities may not all agree on how much, but they all agree that coffee kicks tea's ass.

Comments on Caffeine
  Comment from Blogger Alan Rorie at Wednesday, November 16, 2005 5:21:00 PM
While it may be true that coffee has more caffeine then tea this is not the whole story.

Caffeine is only one of a group of alkaloids called xanthines, all of which are stimulants. The three most common Xanthines are caffeine, theophylline and theobromine. I list these in the order of the potency. Now if I remember all my neuropharmacology correctly, coffee has caffeine with traces of theophylline, tea has caffeine with significant levels of theophylline and trace amounts of theobromine, while chocolate has trace amounts of caffeine and theophyllie, and significant dose of theobromine (which is actually what is bad for dogs in chocolate).

Now, lets be clear that when people around the water cooler say “x has more caffeine then y” they really mean “x is more stimulating to me then y.” What’s my point? Well, I think I have two;

1- Xanthines are known to react in a super additive manner. That is a their effects of each are more potent when mixed. Like painkillers and booze. So, while coffee might have more caffeine then tea the overall stimulating power of tea can be greater then that of coffee because of the interaction between the three Xanthines.

2- Each of the Xanthines have slightly different physiological effects. For example, I recall that theophylline has a greater effect on heart rate then caffeine does. (Honestly, it might be the other way, but …) People who feel more stimulate with increased heart rates would, subjectively, find tea more stimulating then coffee. Something similar might occur with the effects of theobromine which is know to have a positive effect on mood.
  Comment from Blogger Red Bull at Thursday, November 17, 2005 5:45:00 PM
I think your comments regarding the stimulating effects of caffeine versus other xanthines was well-written and informative, but there were a lot of "mights" in there. What I gathered from your comment was that while coffee certainly has more caffeine, the stimulating effects of theophylline combined with caffeine in tea "might" result in a greater net stimulating effect. This begs two questions. First, is there any way of quantifying this? Or are the psychopharmacological effects of the drugs completely personal and subjective? Second, aren't there many ways of being stimulated? You mentioned an increase in heart rate as one effect. What about vasodilation? the ability to resist the urge to sleep? changes in pulmonary activity? brain activity?
  Comment from Blogger Alan Rorie at Thursday, November 17, 2005 6:50:00 PM
So that's allot more then two questions, but I think I understand what you are getting at ...

It is very difficult to quantify anything subjective, like how stimulated one feels after a cup of coffee or tea. You could simply ask people to rate how stimulated they are under various conditions but this is not ideal. So what you would have to do is find a set of objective statistics that correlate with subjective reports. For example, when people report that they are "stimulated" they might have increased heart rates and shorter reaction times. Then you give someone a cup of coffee and measure their heart rate and have them perform a reaction time task. Then you give them tea and repeat. Do this for, say 100 people to get some statistical power and you are one step closer to an answer. But I hope you can see that this still really does not answer the question you are asking -- in only answer a much smaller, more limited version of it. This is a limitation scientists run into all day long -- correlation is not causation. But it's better then nothing.

But my reason for posting was to point out that answering questions about psychoactive substances -- be it pot, acid, ecstasy or tea -- is very difficult and not only because of the subjective nature of the experience. But also because 1- many substances have multiple effects on the brain and these effects may be more or less relevant to different people and 2 - some of these substances (pot, tea and coffee) have enormous numbers of compounds in them, some of which we know nothing about. That is why I brought up the xanthines in the first place, simply to let people know that it's not as simple as measuring the caffeine.

I suppose my bottom line is this: if some one has drunk a bunch of coffee and tea in their life and tells you tea stimulates them more -- chances are they are correct, regardless of caffeine content.

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The Red Bull Diary is the personal pulpit and intellectual dumping-ground for its author, an amateur game designer, professional programmer, political centrist and incurable skeptic. The Red Bull Diary is gaming, game design, politics, development, geek culture, and other such nonsense.