Many people use caffeine to boost their energy every day. In the U.S. alone, 85% of the population drinks at least one caffeinated beverage each day, mainly in the form of coffee.
But, caffeine—which can be natural or synthetic—can also show up in some expected places, like a piece of chocolate or a cup of decaf. However, it’s not always clear whether a product has caffeine, or how much it contains.
To help, here are some surprising sources of caffeine that you may want to add to your diet, or try to avoid.
What Is Caffeine?
Caffeine is a psychoactive stimulant drug that speeds up the central nervous system and can help you feel more awake and alert.
Central Nervous System
The central nervous system is made up of the brain and spinal cord which controls memory, movement, concentration, and the five senses.
Caffeine is naturally present in the seeds, leaves, and nuts of several plants including cacao and coffee beans, guarana seeds, and tea leaves. In addition to caffeine, these plants also contain other nutrients and compounds like antioxidants. Natural sources of caffeine commonly include:
- Coffee or espresso
- Brewed tea
- Yerba mate
- Certain energy and soft drinks
Synthetic caffeine, or caffeine that is manufactured in a lab rather than derived from plants, is often found in a variety of prepackaged foods and drinks.
When used in moderation, caffeine is generally a safe way to boost energy, concentration, and athletic performance. Most adults can safely consume up to 400 milligrams of caffeine per day (about four to five cups of coffee). Depending on the brand and how it's prepared, a cup of coffee may have about 95 milligrams of caffeine.
But as for caffeine sensitivity? How the body responds to caffeine can vary from person to person.
Consuming more than the daily recommended limit of 400 milligrams of caffeine can cause negative side effects such as:
- Heart palpitations
- Elevated blood pressure
Sometimes, it can be hard to know how much caffeine you are consuming each day. Even though many food manufacturers add caffeine content to their product labels, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t require them to do so. Many products may not outwardly seem caffeinated but may still contain the stimulant, which is why it’s important to know which unexpected foods contain caffeine.
Chocolate is derived from naturally-caffeinated cacao beans, so it can contain varying amounts of caffeine.
The type of chocolate matters here. A higher percentage of cacao in chocolate means that it has more caffeine.
Dark chocolate is more caffeinated because it is made with a higher cacao content, which usually varies between 45% and 85% cacao. Milk chocolate has a lower amount of caffeine because it generally contains 10% to 30% cacao. White chocolate on its own usually has no caffeine because it is not made with any cacao.
Because chocolate is made from natural cacao beans, other chocolate-based products will also contain some of the caffeine that comes from the beans. Other products that include chocolate, like hot chocolate, chocolate pudding, and chocolate-flavored cereals, will have smaller amounts of caffeine because they are typically mixed with other non-caffeinated ingredients.
Don’t let the name trick you: “decaf” does not mean zero caffeine. The FDA requires decaffeinated coffee manufacturers to strip away 97% of the caffeine from coffee beans in order to market their products as decaf. That said, decaf coffee will still contain small, varying amounts of caffeine.
An 8-ounce cup of decaf coffee might contain 2 milligrams to 15 milligrams of caffeine. How much caffeine that's in your cup of decaf depends on whether you make it at home yourself, pick it up prepackaged from a grocery store, or order it from a cafe and add additional sweeteners or flavors.
Decaf coffee drinkers can still reap some of the health benefits associated with consuming regular coffee, but at a fraction of the caffeine content. Research suggests that drinking coffee — either decaf or caffeinated — is associated with a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes, when compared to not drinking any coffee. The nutrients and antioxidants in regular coffee may also still be present in decaf to offer you disease-preventing health benefits.
Japanese matcha—like green tea—is derived from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant, but comes in a powdered form. While most brewed teas are made by steeping tea leaves in water, matcha powder uses the whole tea leaf, hence the green color.
Other brewed green teas can contain about 29 milligrams of caffeine per cup, but matcha contains a bit more at 19 milligrams to 44 milligrams of caffeine per gram, or up to 88 milligrams per teaspoon serving of powder. Because matcha powder is also commonly added to baked goods, ice creams, and lattes, those can contain caffeine, too.
Despite having a caffeine content similar to that of a cup of coffee, people report drinking matcha makes them feel calmer and less jittery as opposed to drinking coffee. This could be due to an amino acid found in matcha powder called L-theanine which can help reduce stress and anxiety.
On-the-go protein or energy bars are often high in calories and carbohydrates, and typically include ingredients such as dried fruits, nuts, and other sweeteners. But they could also contain varying amounts of caffeine.
The caffeine in these bars may come from small amounts of ground coffee beans, matcha and green tea extract, yerba mate, or cacao.
Sometimes, protein or energy bars explicitly state how much caffeine they contain—especially if they’re coffee-flavored. Most bars, however, usually have less than 10 milligrams of caffeine, but this number may change depending on the added flavors and ingredients in each type of bar.
Most ice creams typically have no more than five milligrams of caffeine. This is because the addition of milk, cream, and sugar to ice cream dilutes most of the caffeinated ingredients.
There is a slight exception here though. Coffee, mocha, or chocolate-flavored ice creams tend to have a higher caffeine content because they are made using coffee and cacao beans.
Kombucha is a type of fermented tea made from black, green, and sometimes oolong tea—all of which naturally contain caffeine. The amount of caffeine in kombucha often varies based on how it is made and what brand is making it, but the caffeine content tends to decrease during the fermentation process.
Some kombuchas can contain five to 15 milligrams of caffeine per serving. You might notice higher amounts of caffeine in certain kombuchas, especially if it contains an added source of natural caffeine, such as green coffee bean extract or black tea leaves.
Pre-workout supplements—commonly known as just “pre-workouts”— are multi-ingredient supplements that are meant to be taken before working out to boost energy and performance.
The ingredients of a pre-workout generally include caffeine, creatine, and amino acids. Most formulas come in powder form which you can mix in water and drink.
Pre-workouts can contain a lot of caffeine. Some brands can have 400 milligrams of caffeine per serving, which is the cutoff for the daily recommended limit. Because these supplements are not monitored by the FDA, the caffeine content listed on the labels may not be entirely accurate and can sometimes contain more or less caffeine than originally advertised.
While cola sodas—which are typically darker in color than non-cola sodas—contain caffeine, some lighter sodas, like orange or lemon-lime sodas, have it too.
A standard 16.9-ounce bottle of dark cola can contain about 47 milligrams of caffeine, but lighter-colored sodas can contain as much as 78 milligrams of caffeine per bottle.
Traditionally, several types of cola and non-cola sodas were made from kola nuts, which naturally contain caffeine. However, modern manufacturers of these drinks rely on synthetic caffeine, artificial flavoring, and added sugars. While drinking soda from time to time is OK, you may want to consider healthier alternatives if you are looking for the energy-boosting effects of caffeine.
Several over-the-counter (OTC) medication brands of ibuprofen and aspirin, contain some amounts of caffeine.
In addition to boosting energy levels, caffeine may also play a role in pain relief. Caffeine can temporarily reduce blood flow. When blood flow is restricted, it can help alleviate some pain in your body. The pain-relieving effect of caffeine is one reason certain OTC medications contain the stimulant.
Depending on the pain reliever you are using, the amount of caffeine can range between 100 milligrams and 150 milligrams per two-tablet dose. It is essential to note that medications should be taken as directed on the prescribed bottle or as advised by your healthcare provider.
A Quick Review
While common sources of caffeine include coffee or tea, several other foods and drinks can contain caffeine. As a stimulant drug, caffeine can bring you a jolt of energy and an increase in focus.
However, caffeine should be used in moderation for optimal health benefits. Generally, you can consume up to 400 milligrams of caffeine per day, but you may need to reduce your intake if you are pregnant, breastfeeding, or sensitive to caffeine. If you're concerned about your caffeine intake, talk with your healthcare provider about a daily limit that's safe and healthy for you.