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How is Caffeine Made: Artificial vs Natural

How is Caffeine Made: Artificial vs Natural

Everyone knows what caffeine is. In fact, many of us have it coursing through our bloodstreams right this minute. But how many of us know where our caffeine comes from?

Those who grind their own beans and steep their own tea leaves can answer this question without hesitation. Most caffeine in the world comes from obvious natural sources: coffee, green tea, yerba mate, and so on. But when our caffeine comes in a can, a pill, or a powder, the true origins of our favorite stimulant become a mystery. 

The Two Types of Caffeine

Perhaps you’ve held a caffeine pill in your hand before, and perhaps you’ve noticed that it looks nothing like a coffee bean (nor does it smell like one). So how in the world do chemists derive pure powdered concentrates of caffeine?

There are essentially two possible methods: 

Gathering up the caffeine extracted from plants like coffee and tea during the commercial decaffeination process.

  1. Gathering up the caffeine extracted from plants like coffee and tea during the commercial decaffeination process.

  2. Creating synthetic caffeine completely from scratch using chemicals in a lab.

So what we’re looking at here is a natural method of extracting caffeine and a synthetic method of building it with chemistry. 

(A fun fact for the brainiacs: synthetic caffeine is also known as ‘anhydrous’ - a fancy scientific way of saying ‘dehydrated’ - caffeine). 

 

Natural Caffeine Extraction

The natural method is a pretty intuitive one. Given the great demand for decaffeinated versions of popular drinks like coffee and tea, beverage manufacturers have developed several methods of extracting caffeine from consumable plant material. In the case of green tea leaves, for example, the process can be as simple as soaking the leaves in water. 

Other labs may make use of chemical solvents, though many prefer supercritical carbon dioxide. And no, supercritical CO2 is not CO2 that puts you down on a bad hair day. While most CO2 appears in nature as either a solid or a gas, supercritical carbon dioxide is CO2 that is artificially held in a liquid state. Supercritical CO2 is a notoriously effective solvent, and is particularly good at extracting caffeine from plant matter. 

By the time the decaffeination process is over, any chemicals used have been cleaned from the treated leaves and the chemists are left with a sizable quantity of naturally sourced caffeine. This pure caffeine is then sold to soft drink and energy drink manufacturers - or at least, the ones with high standards and discerning taste (like Proper Wild, for example). 

The natural process of extracting caffeine is a win-win. Beverage makers who want to remove caffeine from their product win and beverage makers who want to add caffeine to their product win. Unfortunately, there is a problem: the global demand for caffeinated drinks and pure caffeine supplements more than eclipses the amount of caffeine extracted via the natural decaffeination process. 

Furthermore, anhydrous caffeine is less expensive than natural caffeine, especially as natural sources of caffeine become depleted in the face of ever-growing consumption. To meet the enormous global demand for their stimulating products, many of the companies that use caffeine in their beverages turn to purely synthetic lab-derived caffeine powder.

 

Synthetic Caffeine Production

Now, we’re only stating the facts when we say that artificial caffeine was first synthesized by the Nazis during World War 2. Trade embargoes had cut Nazi Germany off from the rest of the world, and the Third Reich were terrified of the advantage their armies would lose without a reliable stimulant. When their early experiments with methamphetamine proved unsatisfactory, they resorted to building caffeine from scratch (this method would later be adapted by American agri-businesses like Monsanto and pharmaceutical concerns like Pfizer). 

So, how does a team of chemists create synthetic caffeine in a lab?

They start with ammonia. Yes, that ammonia - the pungent caustic chemical used as a fertilizer, a cleaning agent, and as a precursor to nitrogenous compounds. It’s that last item that’s relevant to caffeine synthesis, for the ammonia must be converted to urea. Yes, that urea - the same chemical found in human urine. This urea is combined with chloroacetic acid to create uracil, which is then converted to theophylline. 

Like caffeine, theophylline is a xanthine, and is often found alongside caffeine in cocoa beans, guarana, and kola nuts. Finally, the addition of methyl chloride transforms the theophylline into methylated theophylline - synthetic caffeine, at long last.

Actually, there is one more step: synthetic caffeine glows blue and must be washed with sodium nitrite, acetic acid, sodium carbonate, and chloroform to remove the blue phosphorescence, resulting in a generic white powder that won’t remind anybody of Dr. Manhattan.

Okay, so where is most of the world’s synthetic caffeine manufactured? Most anhydrous caffeine is made in China - specifically the city of Shijiazhuang, notorious for its legion of chemical processing plants. 

But while China may be responsible for creating most of the world’s anhydrous caffeine, it seems that Europe has no interest in buying. Why not? 

Because many of these Chinese chemical plants won’t let the EU - or anybody else for that matter - inspect their factories.

What do they have to hide? Cost-cutting measures most likely, cost-cutting measures that could result in an inferior product at best and a dangerously contaminated product at worst. For beverage makers in the EU, this is unacceptable. But as far as most of the world’s beverage manufacturers are concerned: hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.

So while synthetic laboratory caffeine and naturally sourced caffeine may be chemically analogous, they are clearly not the same.

 

How Can You Tell The Difference?

Let’s say a shopper is in a grocery store and they take an energy drink or soda off the shelf. How are they to know if the can in their hands contains natural or synthetic caffeine?

Well, any company that cares enough to use organic caffeine (Proper Wild, for example) will certainly also be proud enough to advertise that fact. Their ingredient list will specifically mention ‘organic’ caffeine, or coffee extract, or green tea extract (or guarana extract or mate extract, etc.). But when you read the ingredient list of a soda or an energy drink that uses synthetic caffeine, it will be described only with the general term ‘caffeine’.

 

In Conclusion

Beverage manufacturers are under no obligation to inform anyone of the source of their caffeine, or whether or not their caffeine was extracted from a plant or synthesized in a factory. So stay informed, and consume with caution!

Or better yet, stick with Proper Wild - a trusted, healthy, and delicious brand whose caffeine we guarantee comes from organic green tea extract.

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