DO you have a caffeine habit? Well, you’re not alone.
Whether in coffee, tea or soft drinks, a kick of caffeine is coveted the world over.
Yet caffeine was once forbidden by the International Olympic Committee and a British monarch, and some schools still ban it.
So what is it about the world’s most popular drug that makes it so appealing and so controversial?
And what is it doing in sheds, cosmetics bags and leggings?
Caffeine is found naturally in about 60 plant species. Only a handful have been nurtured by man for its enlivening qualities.
But how we love them.
Legend has it, tea was brewed as far back as 2700BC in China and, like many herbal infusions, it was prized as much for its medicinal properties as for its flavour.
Man’s partiality to another caffeine source, the kola nut, also has ancient origins, and chewing them is still popular, especially in West Africa.
They give a swift energy boost, are good for the digestion and ward off hunger pains.
They are also the original source of both the caffeine and flavour in Coca Cola. When first concocted in 1886 by Atlanta pharmacist John Pemberton, it was billed as “a valuable Brain Tonic and a cure for all nervous affections — Sick Headache, Neuralgia, Hysteria, Melancholy”!
The company uses synthetic substitutes for kola nut caffeine nowadays. The real thing however is still used in others such as Franklin & Sons 1886 Cola.
It is coffee, though, that we most closely associate with caffeine. But it is a comparative newcomer.
A little over 1,000 years ago, so folklore has it, a shepherd in Abyssinia noticed that goats that consumed beans growing on a certain bush remained awake all night. Man decided this was a trick worth replicating.
Coffee cultivation began, and slowly migrated to the rest of the world.
Many of us rely on a coffee kick in the morning and shun one after mid-afternoon in case it keeps us awake at night.
A mug of coffee has around 100mg of caffeine, while tea has half that. A can of standard 330ml Coke has 32mg, while a caffeine-boosted energy drink such as Monster (now also part-owned by Coca Cola) beats them all with 160mg in a 500ml can!
On their own, these are deemed safe for adults but the effects of caffeine can last six hours, and it is the number we consume that makes the difference.
In large quantities caffeine poses health concerns.
It is a psychoactive drug, so affects brain function, altering perception, mood or behaviour. It also raises blood pressure and can make us alert or tense.
In excess, it can hamper concentration, causing our thoughts to trip over themselves. It is also addictive, and sudden withdrawal can lead to irritability.
These symptoms are usually self-apparent and we alter our intake instinctively. Health guidelines are available though.
The European Food Safety Authority recommends a limit for adults of 400mg a day, while NHS advice for pregnant women is no more than 200mg.
For children, it is a sliding scale based on body weight. A child of 10 weighing 30kg would have an advised limit of around 90mg.
But while too much caffeine may make us jittery, just the right amount can sharpen our mental focus and improve productivity.
It can help us stay awake when we need to, for example on long drives and on night-shift work, and it perks us up and improves our physical performance.
It is for this reason that it came under the scrutiny of the International Olympic Committee.
Its performance-enhancing properties meant caffeine above certain levels in competitors was banned up until 2004. It is still kept under review today.
Some religions also forbid or discourage the consumption of tea and coffee, including the Church of the Latter Day Saints. That’s why you’ll never see Donny Osmond with a latte.
As far back as 1675, King Charles II was concerned about the effects of coffee.
The first coffee stall had opened in London in 1652. Proprietor Pasqua Rosee’s imported Turkish brew was a hit. It sharpened wits and fuelled debates instead of incoherent drunken ramblings.
For just one penny, customers got bottomless refills too!
Rosee’s stall led to a boom in coffee houses across the capital and beyond. They became magnets for political debate and radical thinking.
Unfortunately, King Charles II disliked radical thinking.
Fearful that these “penny universities” were developing into centres of sedition, he issued his 1675 proclamation banning them all with just 12 days’ notice.
The subsequent uproar caused the monarch to perform a U-turn. He was in no hurry to follow his father to the executioner’s block.
For all coffee’s popularity, it was tea that ultimately became the favourite beverage of Brits.
Coffee, however, was favoured in the US, and this division became all but a point of principle following the actions of the Boston Tea Party of 1773.
This group of American patriots, angered by changes in tax laws in the Tea Act, dressed as Mohawks and boarded three British ships waiting to unload their cargo, then jettisoned 342 chests of tea into the waters of Boston harbour.
This was no storm in a tea cup. The punitive measures from Parliament that followed inflamed tensions that would erupt into the American War of Independence.
Tea and coffee still dominate our daily drinking habits, and their taste is at least as important as their caffeine.
We all have different sensitivities and what is a kick-start for some can seem a kick in the head to others. That’s why many pay extra to have that caffeine removed.
Decaffeinating coffee and tea involves soaking the beans or leaves in water, or a water and chemical mix, to dissolve most of the caffeine. This is then extracted from the water by passing it through carbon.
The canny manufacturers have found a useful market for the extracted caffeine. They sell it to soft drink manufacturers!
Since the late 1980s, the fizzy caffeinated drinks market has exploded from nothing.
Red Bull was first on the scene, when Austrian salesman Dietrich Mateschitz developed a sweet and fizzy concoction from a drink popular in the Far East.
According to Forbes magazine, he’s now worth $26 billion and ranked as the 37th wealthiest person in the world. That’s certainly a kick from caffeine!
Many other soft drinks followed, and they are popular with club-goers wanting to dance till dawn. This image, plus the heavy payload of sugar and names like Monster, Relentless and Rockstar, have given the drinks an allure to children, with many parting with pocket money for a can of playground kudos.
Teachers, understandably, don’t want buzzing, sugar-high, caffeine-fuelled kids.
Union NASUWT called for a ban on the sale of energy drinks to under-16s, and supermarkets have signed up to a voluntary code requiring proof someone is over 16 to buy drinks exceeding 150mg of caffeine.
By law, such drinks have to be labelled “not recommended for children”. Some schools ban them outright.
But we don’t just drink caffeine. It is also available in chewing gums and tablets.
Nor is it just a pick-me-up. It is added to painkillers to make them more effective and you’ll find it in cosmetics too.
Traces of caffeine in various pricey potions are claimed to “brighten” skin and reduce puffiness around the eyes.
In body scrubs, it is said to reduce the appearance of cellulite. Caffeine shampoos, meanwhile, claim to reduce hair loss and strengthen regrowth, though we haven’t yet been shown any impressive results.
We can also find caffeine in the form of spent coffee grounds in many a garden shed.
They are beloved by organic gardeners as they are loathed by slugs. A good sprinkling of grounds around tender shoots of ornamentals is a deterrent.
Pests avoid many coffee and tea crops themselves because of the bitter caffeine, but it’s most likely the grittiness of grounds the slugs really hate.
Perhaps the strangest use of all for caffeine is in tiny gelatine beads in tights and leggings.
The caffeine is released gradually and absorbed by the wearer, allegedly speeding up the metabolism and resulting in enhanced fat-burning and inch loss. Again, the claims are somewhat woolly and the pricey products have never caught on.
For now, we are more than happy to accept caffeine as a perker-upper not a fat-burner.
As a nation, we are turning more toward coffee and our cafe culture is blooming once more.
The three biggest chains alone, Costa Coffee, Starbucks and Caffè Nero have over 3,300 outlets. This spring, Costa even comes to Coronation Street!
Caffeine is less addictive than alcohol and smoking — and less harmful. In moderation, it is a joyous perk.
So whether it’s tea, a frothy cappuccino or a fizzy cola, let’s just enjoy!