If you’re like most adults, you probably enjoy a cup of coffee or tea now and again. These drinks are natural sources of caffeine, the most commonly used stimulant in the world (1).

Although commonly added to many products, caffeine is found naturally in only a handful of foods and beverages.

Natural and synthetic types of caffeine tend to be very similar but can have slightly different effects on your body.

In this article, I’ll discuss the difference between natural and synthetic caffeine and review the foods and drinks most rich in natural caffeine.

A person pours coffee from a red carafe into a small glass to make a latte.Share on Pinterest
Guaita Studio/Stocksy United

Natural caffeine is the type of caffeine that is naturally found in foods like coffee, tea, and chocolate.

It works by blocking adenosine receptors in your brain. Adenosine is a neurotransmitter that relaxes your brain, making you feel tired (1).

By blocking adenosine receptors, caffeine prevents adenosine from binding to them. This keeps your brain from realizing that it’s tired, which is why caffeine is so effective at fighting off sleepiness and helping you remain more alert (1).

How is natural caffeine different from synthetic caffeine?

Unlike natural caffeine, which comes from foods found in nature, synthetic caffeine is produced in a lab. It’s commonly added to packaged foods and beverages such as soda, juice, chewing gum, candy, and energy drinks.

Synthetic caffeine is also often added to non-food products such as pain relievers, makeup, face creams, and other cosmetics (2, 3).

A 2012 study found that extracting caffeine from natural sources is more expensive than making caffeine synthetically. That’s why natural caffeine is rarely added to foods that don’t naturally contain it (4).

The Food and Drug Administration requires that caffeine be listed on food labels when it has been added during production. This is not required of foods that naturally contain caffeine, such as coffee or tea (5).

So if you see caffeine on a food or beverage’s label, that product most likely contains synthetic caffeine.

Summary

Natural caffeine is found in only a handful of foods. It differs from synthetic caffeine, which is made in a lab. You can usually tell whether a food contains synthetic caffeine by looking at its label.

The chemical structure of synthetic caffeine is almost indistinguishable from that of natural caffeine.

Despite this, many claim that synthetic caffeine is absorbed much more quickly than natural caffeine, causing a peak in energy followed by a steep crash. However, there is very little scientific backing to this claim.

Natural caffeine and synthetic caffeine have similar effects on your body

The only recent studies I could find that researched this topic found just slight differences between the effects of natural and synthetic caffeine.

One study compared synthetic caffeine with natural caffeine sourced from green coffee beans. The natural caffeine took 45 minutes to peak in the blood, while the synthetic caffeine took 37.8 minutes (6).

In addition, there was no evidence of a quicker decline in blood caffeine concentrations when the participants consumed synthetic caffeine instead of natural caffeine.

So while it’s technically true that synthetic caffeine is absorbed more rapidly than natural caffeine, it’s very unlikely that this slightly quicker absorption leads to the peak-and-crash scenario.

A small, slightly older study reported similar findings. It compared the effects of two sources of natural caffeine with that of a synthetic caffeine control. The natural caffeine was sourced from either green coffee beans or a guayusa tea leaf extract (7).

The researchers found that all three types of caffeine were absorbed about as quickly, although the absorption of synthetic caffeine was slightly slower than that of the two natural types.

All three caffeine sources had similar effects on the participants’ heart rate, blood pressure, and nervous systems.

Foods rich in natural caffeine are typically richer in nutrients

Although they have a similar chemical structure and similar effects on the body, I believe that natural and synthetic sources of caffeine have two main differences that are worth considering.

The first is that foods containing natural caffeine often offer nutrients and other beneficial compounds that foods containing synthetic caffeine usually don’t.

For instance, coffee contains magnesium, potassium, manganese, phosphorus, and several B vitamins (8).

Coffee also offers varying amounts of antioxidants, which are beneficial compounds that help protect the body from damage and disease. According to a 2013 study, coffee’s antioxidant content varies depending on the way it is roasted (9).

Soda and energy drinks, two of the main sources of added caffeine, generally lack these beneficial compounds.

This could explain why coffee is linked to health benefits, such as a lower chance of developing heart disease and certain cancers, while soda and energy drinks aren’t (10).

Natural sources of caffeine may contain fewer harmful compounds

Another consideration is that foods containing synthetic caffeine often contain other compounds that you generally shouldn’t have too much of.

For instance, regular soda contains large amounts of processed sugar, which has been linked to a variety of negative health outcomes, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease (11).

Energy drinks contain various nonnutritive stimulants, such as taurine, L-carnitine, D-glucuronolactone, and inositol. The long-term effects of ingesting these are still unknown (12).

Summary

Natural caffeine and synthetic caffeine have very similar effects on your body. However, foods that contain natural sources of caffeine are often more nutritious and less likely to contain harmful compounds.

Caffeine is found naturally in only a handful of foods, including:

  • Coffee: espresso, filtered coffee, and, to a much lower extent, decaffeinated coffee
  • Tea: black, green, oolong, and white teas as well as matcha and yerba mate
  • Cocoa: chocolate, hot chocolate, and chocolate milk
  • Guarana: both guarana supplements and foods that contain it as an ingredient

The amount of caffeine found in each of these foods will vary based on the portion size and preparation methods.

However, the caffeine content per portion generally ranges from about 3–12 mg of caffeine per cup (240 mL) of decaffeinated coffee to 102–200 mg per cup of regular brewed coffee (13).

Summary

Coffee, tea, cocoa, and guarana are some of only a handful of natural sources of caffeine. Their caffeine content typically ranges from about 3–200 mg of caffeine per portion.

Natural and synthetic caffeine are similar in many ways.

Despite the popular belief that synthetic caffeine will cause your energy levels to spike and crash to a greater degree, the effect it actually has on the human body is almost indistinguishable from that of natural caffeine.

The advantage natural caffeine has over synthetic caffeine is that food products containing it also tend to contain higher levels of nutrients and other beneficial compounds. These foods and beverages also tend to have lower levels of potentially harmful compounds.

Therefore, opting for natural sources over synthetic ones when getting your caffeine fix remains the better option.