Caffeine - An Updated Series


   By: Talayna Tremblay

   2015-07-29 02:53 PM

Part I Key Points:

  • Caffeine: 
    • the most widely used naturally occurring substance in the world
    • found in more than 60 plants
  • Food/Drinks containing caffeine:  
    • coffee, tea, soft drinks, energy drinks, chocolate/cocoa products
  • Caffeine consumption is common in all parts of the world
  • Coffee originated from Ethiopia (1000-1400 AD)
  • Tea originated from China (750 AD)
  • Cocoa originated from Mexico (1500 BC)  

Coffee Tea Cocoa

Figure 1. The most common dietary sources of caffeine; coffee, tea and cocoa. 

Part I

Caffeine Consumption

         Caffeine is likely one of the most widely ingested chemicals in the world. It is mainly found in tea (often referred to as the most popular drink worldwide, after water), coffee, soft drinks, energy drinks, or in chocolate/cocoa products (Figure 1). Caffeine is a bitter alkaloid also found in leaves, seeds, fruits, and more than 60 plants around the world 8. Dietary supplements, certain medication such as Excedrin® Migraine7 and over the counter stimulants can contain caffeine as well 6. Caffeine was even added to the World Health Organization (WHO) essential list of medicines in 2007 for treatment of neonatal apnea 18. Coffee and tea have become quite a commodity, some 85% of Americans and 80% of the western world consume at least one caffeinated beverage per day 6. Caffeine is a central nervous system (CNS) stimulant known for it’s energizing effect 5. Consuming caffeine has it’s benefits such as mood elevation, increased attention and motivation, but research has shown that it could negatively influence your vital signs (blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory rate) 8. Since ~2007, in depth research has been done on caffeine’s effect on health. This series of articles will discuss the most recent consensus on these five areas of caffeine:

  1. History and evolution of caffeine (mainly coffee and tea)
  2. Chemistry and bio-availability of caffeine
  3. Chemical, physical, psychological, and social effects of caffeine 
  4. Medical benefits and risks
  5. Specific food/drink products with respective caffeine content and recommended intake

History and Evolution

The Coffee Bean    

Berry Flower Berry to Bean

        Historians have described, on various accounts, the origin of the coffee bean and its use as a drink. There are several reports suggesting that coffee originated from Ethiopia, anywhere from 1000 AD to 1400 AD 4, 6, 16 (Figure 3). Originally, travellers ate coffee beans as a snack, coated in a fatty blend 4. It has been said that around 1000 A.D., Ethiopians began boiling water and using the infusions to consume coffee as a drink 4. It wasn’t until the 14th century, however, when roasting coffee was discovered 4. The name coffee originated from the latin word coffea and Arabic word quahweh, coincidently meaning, drink from a plant 6. The Sufi Monasteries of Yemen have been credited with the first substantiated evidence of coffee drinking or knowledge of the coffee tree 16. The coffee plant was described in early literature to have white flowers and red berries (Figure 2A) 16. The berries of the coffee plant contain two beans within each berry (Figure 2B) 16. It has been said that, from Ethiopia, the coffee plant was introduced to Yemen. Originally, the Sufis drank coffee as part of religious practices to help keep them awake during night time prayer rituals 16. A Sufi named Baba Budan was credited with introducing coffee to Southern India, where cultivation began in the 1600’s 16.

        The coffee tree subsequently found its way to other middle eastern countries (predominantly by travellers) including Mecca (Saudi Arabia), Medina (now Saudi Arabia), Cairo (Egypt), Damascus (Syria), Baghdad (Iraq) and Constantinople (Turkey) 16. The amount of coffee being consumed around Ethiopia and Africa paved the way for the emergence of coffee houses (called quaweh khaneh) 16. The first coffee house was built in Constantinople (Turkey) in 1554 4. Quaweh Khaneh's were quickly established as a place for intellectual, social and cultural activities 4. Coffee became increasingly popular and was being drank both at home and in coffee bars, but people already expressed health concerns 4. The governor of Mecca, Kair Bey, prohibited the use of coffee in 1511 although this notion did not hold long 16. Once Bey had settled the prohibition of coffee in Mecca, he journeyed to Cairo to speak with his superior who condemned him for attempting the prohibition when it was legal and accepted in his kingdom 16. On the other hand, Turkey encouraged coffee drinking in attempts to reduce the use of opiates 4. Coffee continued it’s journey throughout India, Northern Africa, the Balkans, Indonesia, Italy and Europe 6, 16.

        The first knowledge of coffee in Europe came from a German traveller, named Leonhard Rauwolf, who travelled to Syria and wrote about the dark coloured beverage in 1573 16. Coffee spread throughout Europe by Venetian merchants in early 1615 16. The first European cup of coffee was said to be drank in Venice, close to the end of the 16th century 6, 16. It was not until ~1645 that European coffee houses, modelled from the Arabian coffee bars, emerged 16. The first coffee house in Austria, Vienna was called The Blue Bottle, built in 1684 16. In England, St. Michael’s alley was the first coffee house built in 1652 16. By the mid-17th century, there were more than 300 coffee houses in London 11. Europeans called these coffee houses ‘botteghe del caffë' and these establishments eventually evolved into famous cafés like Caffé alla Venezia (1720); the beginnings of the modern day café 4.

        The Dutch were instrumental in spreading coffee, leading early in cultivation of the coffee plant, and extending their cultivation to Japan in the 17th century, Indonesia, Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), and later to New Amsterdam (New York) 16. It was said that a Dutch merchant, Pieter van der Broecke, obtained a Yemen coffee plant and transferred it to Amsterdam’s Botanical gardens in 1696 16. The Botanical Gardens in Amsterdam subsequently cultivated the plant in Java (now Indonesia) 16. The plants were sent back to Amsterdam in 1706, where these plants served Europe the majority of their coffee 16. The Dutch extended cultivation to Sumatra, the Celebes, Timor, Bali, and other islands of the Indie Netherlands as well 16.

        It has been said that coffee was brought to Paris (France) from the Dutch who sent a young coffee plant as a gift to King Louis XIV 11. The King transferred this gift to the Royal Botanical Garden in Paris (Jardin des Plantes), where it was subsequently the progenitor of almost all coffee in France, South America, Central America and Mexico 16. A naval officer from France, Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu, successfully obtained a seedling from the plant before it arrived at the Royal Botanical Garden and was credited with introducing the coffee plant to the island of Martinique in 1720 16. The single seedling thrived on the island of Martinique, spreading to produce more than 18 million coffee trees over the proceeding 50 years 11. From there, these plants were introduced to Haiti, Mexico and other caribbean islands 16. The first plantation of coffee beans in Brazil started in 1723 when the French Guiana brought coffee seeds to Surinam, but it was not successful 16. By 1752 however, further attempts in Brazil were made a success. There was intensive cultivation of coffee in Brazil, mainly attributed to Pará and Amazonas Portugese colonies 16. The coffee bean was later introduced to Kenye and Tanzania in the late 1800’s 16 (Figure 3).   

Coffee Map 2

Figure 3. The historic distribution of coffee, provided by the National Coffee Association USA 12.

        By the 17th century, coffee was widely consumed throughout Europe and was eventually introduced to America by Captain John Smith (founder of the Colony of Virginia at Jamestown) in 1607  6, 16. It’s been stated that Smith’s awareness of coffee stemmed from his travels in Turkey 16. It was suggested that the Dutch imported coffee from Holland between 1624 and 1664, when New York was New Amsterdam 16. There was substantial evidence to suggest that Holland exported tea to New York before coffee. The English may have exported coffee to New York between 1664 and 1673, but positive evidence was lacking 16. Tea was more common than coffee in America, until King George elicited his stamp act of 1765. The act was annulled in 1766, but reinstated in 1767, causing tea tax to raise significantly 16. The earliest reference to coffee in New york was in 1668 16. After introduction in the U. S., coffee was served in coffee houses but it was not until 1773, following the Boston Tea Party, that coffee would become America’s favourite beverage 11. The Boston Tea Party of 1773 (where they threw crates of tea out of ships) marked the start of American ‘prejudice’ against tea and the crowning of coffee as the “king of the American breakfast table” 16. Coffee houses were prominent in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Norfolk, Chicago, St. Louis, and New Orleans 16. It is not entirely clear which company started the first coffee house in the U. S., although it has been said that the first coffee house opened in Boston, called the London Coffee House in 1689 16. It has been suggested that coffee was first introduced to Canada during the late 1500’s 17. One of the first coffee shops was built in Toronto in December, 1801, named Toronto’s Coffee House 17. The Modern day equivalent of large coffee shop companies found today such as Starbucks, Tim Horton’s, Second Cup, etc., have evolved from a multitude of small and large coffee shops over the following three centuries (The 2nd London Coffee House, 1754).

The Beginnings of Tea  

Tea Garden

Figure 4. Photo taken by Lenka Cisáróva in China of green tea picking See her instagram page here.

        The history of tea dates back to 750 AD in China,where cultivation began shortly after its discovery (Figure 4) 4. Many people believed tea was utilized in times before christ (BC). Speculation of the existence of tea in BC times arose because of an early script that claimed an alerting and mood elevating effect from the drink 4. In this early literature, tea was mainly referred to for it’s medicinal use, but Emperor Tai-tsung (627-649 AD) emphasized tea as part of cultural/ceremonial practices during the T’ang Dynasty (500-1000 AD) 1, 4. During the T’ang Dynasty, Taoism and Confucianism (religions) incorporated tea most prominently in practice 4. At the time of Marco Polo, in the Yuan Dynasty (13th century), tea was most emphasized for it’s importance in China’s national economy, but it was not apparent to be a popularized drink yet 4. Tea did play a major role in China’s national defence; China traded horses in exchange for tea to strengthen their army 4. Tea drinking became more popular in China, parallel to it’s popularity in Europe, during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD). At this time, tea was being steeped and brewed with loose leaves, a method of preparation that has remained to this day 4. Similar to the popularity of coffee houses, tea houses became popular. The high demand of tea initiated China to create a variety of tea blends 4. Around the late 1600’s, China produced black tea, green tea, and oolong tea. These teas are created from the same plant, but black, green, and oolong tea blends differ by their fermentation; fermented, unfermented and semi-fermented, respectively 4.

        Japan was introduced to tea around 800 BC 4. For many centuries, tea was associated with religion and not common as a daily beverage, similar to China’s use during the T’ang Dynasty. The Book of Tea demonstrated the exact essence of tea drinking with regards to it’s spirituality 10

The Philosophy of Tea is not mere aestheticism in the ordinary acceptance of the term, for it expresses conjointly  with ethics and religion our whole point of view about man and nature. It is hygienic, for it enforces cleanliness; it  is economics, for it shows comfort in simplicity rather than in the complex and costly; it is moral geometry,  inasmuch as it defines our sense of proportion to the universe. It represents the true spirit of Eastern democracy by  making all its votaries aristocrats in taste. (p. 4)

        The popularization of tea in Japan ran parallel to the rise of Zen in Buddhism 4. Zen signifies meditation in Buddhism and is one of the six methods Buddha-hood can be reached. Myoan Eisai (Monk) was the first to claim that tea will help hydrate and sober after too much sake, and in turn, responsible for tea’s popularization in Japan. Japan’s ‘tea movement’ was highly influenced by many Zen Monks 4. The Japanese monk, Sen No Rikyu (1522-1591 AD), changed Tea Ceremonies with the incorporation of Zen which is still an integral part of ceremonies today 4

        In Europe, tea integrated at about the same time as coffee did (Figure 5). Green tea leaves were distributed from China to Amsterdam and was evidently drank in France by 1636 AD, correspondingly, near the end of the Ming Dynasty in China 4. Tea did not surpass popularity of coffee until 1730 AD in England, but was publicly distributed in coffee houses, starting in the 1650’s 4. In 1618, tea was offered as a gift to Czar Michael of Russia and thereafter tea became a popular drink in that nation 4. A few years later, in 1657, tea was made known to Germany 4. North America was introduced to tea before coffee around 1668 16. Tea was a very popular beverage in America preceding the Boston Tea Party. In North America, tea eventually fell out of popularity because tea tax experienced large increases on two different occasions; in 1765 and 1766 16 (Figure 5). Most of North American tea and coffee were later imported by the British East India Company 16

Tea Map

Figure 5. The historical distribution of tea provided by Teasenz 14

The Cocoa Bean

        Contrary to popular belief, tea was not the first source of caffeine discovered 4. The cocoa bean was actually discovered much earlier, dating back to 1500 BC, when the Olmac (Mexico) people cultivated a cocoa tree 4. The Olmac people introduced cocoa to the Mayan culture, subsequently to the Toltec and Aztec people and then to the Spanish 4. Cocoa beans were prepared as a drink, similar to today’s hot chocolate, minus all the additives. Columbus reportedly shipped cocoa beans to King Ferdinand in 1502, making cocoa beans the very first exposure of caffeine to Europe 4. The cocoa drink was a smashing hit in Europe, referred to as “the drink of Gods”, and subsequently became notorious throughout the continent 4. Plantations of cocoa beans were soon established in Haiti, Fernando Po and Trinidad under the order of King Charles V for cultivation and distribution 4. Europe was the first to add sugar and dairy to enhance cocoa’s bitter taste to a sweet, luxurious beverage 4. Coffee and chocolate were said to be introduced simultaneously to North America, where coffee was drank daily and chocolate was treated as a luxury 16.

Other Sources: Guarana

        Guarana (Parullinia cupana) is a plant species native to the Amazon, traditionally known for it’s antioxidant properties, used in traditional medicine, and as a stimulant 10. These properties of the guarana plant are most probably attributed to the naturally occurring caffeine. Guarana’s seeds can contain four times the amount of caffeine as coffee beans 10. These interesting seeds  contain many other compounds (catachins, tannins, theophylline and theobromine) that are thought to add an enhanced stimulatory effect (over caffeine alone), but reasoning regarding the enhanced effect is still inconclusive10. The berries show a similar resemblance to that of the human eye (worth a quick google).

        Today, energy drinks are becoming an increasingly popular trend, especially among adolescents and university students, with more than 500 new brands 2. Energy drinks have a high caffeine content and often include other stimulatory ingredients such as guarana, yerba mate, acai, and taurine 2. Energy drinks were first created in Europe and Asia in the 1960s2. It was not until Red Bull released their brand in 1987 (in Austria) that a vast increase in energy drink consumption occurred; distribution in western countries began in 1997 2.

Closing Remarks

        Caffeine is arguably one of the most commonly used stimulants in the world. Caffeine from the coffee bean (Ethiopia), tea leaf (China), and cocoa bean (Mexico), has found its way into a multitude of drinks in coffee shops, stores, and a vast variety of settings. People all around the globe get together to enjoy their caffeinated cup of choice for social, recreational, occupational, or spiritual purposes. Many health benefits have been attributed to caffeine in these drinks; there are also studied adverse effects that will be discussed in subsequent articles. In the meantime, grab your favourite cup of java, oolong, or cocoa and enjoy, cheers!


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  3. Fredholm, B. B. (2011). Handbook of experimental pharmacology: Methylxanthines.Springer Berlin Heidelberg, 200, 1-9.
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  10. Moustakas, D., Mezzio, M., Rodriguez, B. R., Constable, M. A., Mulligan, M. E., & Voura, E. B. (2015). Guarana provides additional stimulation over caffeine alone in the planarian model. Plos One, 10(4), 1-17.
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  14. Teasenz (2015). How tea was distributed over the world. [Image]. Retrieved from:
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  17. WickedCafe (2014). The history of coffee in canada. Retrieved from:
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