Like most people, I love the smell of a freshly made espresso coffee - the inviting and invigorating aroma that makes you want to wrap your hands around the cup, breathe in the scent and take a long body-and-soul-warming sip.
Much to my dismay, I had to give up coffee a number of years ago due to an increasing sensitivity to caffeine. Even if I had an espresso at 8am, I couldn’t sleep that night, my heart rate would accelerate and I would have the jitters all day.
But, I now drink 6 – 8 cups of tea every day and feel no adverse effects from my tea-related caffeine intake. So, why is this the case?
The purpose and effect of caffeine
According to ‘The Art and Craft of Tea’ (1), caffeine’s presence in the tea plant, Camellia Sinensis, serves two purposes: ‘it is a natural insecticide, killing pests that ingest it; and it strengthens the memory of the bugs that pollinate the plant, allowing them to return year after year to pollinate its flowers.’
So it’s a pretty clever alkaloid that has a significant effect on bugs…. and people.
When we consume caffeine, it affects our body in a number of different ways – both positive and negative. It can boost wakefulness, improve our mood, enhance focus, reduce our appetite and increase adrenaline production. But it can also increase stomach acid (causing heartburn), induce anxiety, increase blood pressure and make us irritable and moody. (2)
Caffeine is the world’s most widely consumed psychoactive drug. It’s no wonder the consumption of coffee and tea is so pervasive across the world when you consider its powerful effects.
How much caffeine am I drinking?
No matter what you might read, it is simply not possible to accurately state how much caffeine is in your daily cup of tea. It depends on a number of factors: how long you steep your tea for, the volume of leaves you use, how old the leaves are when they are plucked, the variety and cultivar of tea plant and the ‘terroir’ the tea is grown in.
To give you an approximate idea though, we often say a cup of tea has roughly a third of the caffeine content of a cup of coffee. The Food Standards AUS NZ website has the following guidance*:
|Percolated coffee||60-120 mg/250 mL cup|
|Instant coffee (1 teaspoon/cup)||60-80 mg/250 mL cup|
|Tea||10-50 mg/250 mL cup|
Why caffeine in tea makes you feel different
Where it gets interesting is when we look at how caffeine in tea behaves differently in our bodies compared to caffeine in coffee. When tea leaves are infused, the caffeine attaches to the tea’s tannins and this stabilises and reduces its effect. The caffeine is released more slowly and it stimulates our full central nervous system and our cardiovascular system – in an even and regular way. In contrast, caffeine in coffee has a direct effect on blood circulation through the coronary systems, stimulating an accelerating of the heart rate (3) – hence the reason my heart would pound after an espresso.
To put it simply, tea gently stimulates our body and mind and coffee excites it.
Scientists also believe that the combination of caffeine and the amino acid L-theanine found in tea may be the reason behind why tea not only makes us feel refreshed and alert but also calm at the same time.
Does black tea have more caffeine than green tea?
It’s a common misconception that black tea has more caffeine than a lighter style tea such as green or white tea. A study by the Camellia Sinensis tea house found there is no relationship between the type of tea and the level of caffeine. The only exception is matcha – the Japanese green tea where the leaves are ground into a powder that we ingest entirely – which consistently has the highest level of caffeine (as well as other beneficial antioxidants). Out of 31 different teas they tested, the 10 that had the highest caffeine levels were a range of green, white, black, oolong and fermented teas. (4)
And the old tea hack of discarding the first 30 second steep to remove the caffeine is also a myth. The same study also showed a similar amount of caffeine is drawn out of the leaves when you steep the same leaves multiple times. When you throw out the first steep, you also throw out plenty of body-friendly nutrients.
So where does that leave us?
Tea comes from nature and one of the aspects I love about it, is that it's wonderfully complex and can’t be constrained by rules or formulas; it does its own thing in its own way and that makes it both intriguing and at times, frustrating! When it comes to caffeine however, the facts we can feel confident about is that there is no consistency in caffeine content across different tea types; there is less caffeine in tea than coffee, and tea’s caffeine has a gentler effect on your body. But as with everything, you know your body and are the best person to judge what is right for you.
Time for a cup of tea,
Note: tolerances for caffeine are different from person to person and people that are sensitive to caffeine may still have an adverse reaction to caffeine from tea.
1. Uhl, Joseph Wesley. (2016) The Art and Craft of Tea, Massachusetts. Print.
2. Brodwin, Erin; Orwig, Jessica. (26/09/2015) Surprising ways that caffeine affects your body and brain, Business Insider Australia, https://www.businessinsider.com.au/how-caffeine-affects-the-body-2015-8?r=UK&IR=T, accessed 20 March 2018.
* As at 22 May 2018.
3. Keating, Brian R. Long, Kim. (2015). How to Make Tea; The Science behind the Leaf. Lewes. Print.
4. The Camellia Sinensis Tea House. (2014) Tea, Histories, Terriors, Varieties, New York. Print.