Gaining Caffeine Clarity: Alternate Sources of Caffeine

Coffee is so famous for its caffeine content that it’s easy to forget it is not the only source of the world’s favorite pick-me-up. With over 60 caffeinated plant species around the world, caffeine occurs naturally in many sources beyond even tea and cocoa.1 What’s more, it is often added to a wide range of consumer products, from supplements, workout drinks and over-the-counter medications to sodas, chewing gums and body lotions. The number of choices can be overwhelming, and regardless of the source, it’s important to know where caffeine can be found and what to look for on a label. Below are several caffeinated plants that are gaining popularity and just might be in the next beverage, gum, or body lotion you purchase.

Guarana (paullinia cupana)

Native to the Amazon rain forest region, guarana is a climbing plant that ripens into a red flower and sprouts a black and white fruit resembling a human eye.1 This grape-size fruit3 contains four times more caffeine than a coffee bean2 and has traditionally been used by local tribes to brew tonics that provide long-lasting energy.1 Sometimes called Brazilian cocoa or guaranine, 4 guarana can be found in capsules, powders, energy drinks, sodas, bars, juices and body moisturizers.

Yoco (paullinia yoco)

Yoco is a woody vine that grows in the Amazon regions of Ecuador, Columbia and Peru. The vine, or liana, contains a caffeinated layer that can be scraped away and infused in water for a stimulating refreshment.5 The stems and leaves of the yoco plant contain anywhere between 0.1–3.6 percent caffeine (up to two times more than a coffee bean), with the stems containing the highest amount of caffeine.5 Yoco isn’t as popular as its guarana relative, so it may be less available in mainstream products.

Yerba Mate (Ilex paraguariensis)

Yerba mate is a member of the holly family and originates in South America. It’s brewed from the leaves of the evergreen tree, Ilex paraguaiensis. Once the leaves are dried, they’re steeped to make a tea called maté. 6 The beverage has been enjoyed locally for centuries for its social and believed medicinal properties. Yerba mate is less astringent than tea and contains 1–2 percent caffeine per dry weight, a caffeine percentage similar to that of the coffee bean.7 Yerba mate can be found in iced tea, energy drinks and dietary supplements.

Guayusa (Ilex guayusa)

Guayusa, also from the holly family, is a tree with small white flowers that grows in the Amazon. The caffeinated leaves are dried to make a popular early-morning tea enjoyed by the Kichwa people of Ecuador. The leaves contain an amount of caffeine similar to yerba mate.9 If you are looking to try guayusa, it can be found in hot and cold teas, energy beverages and dietary supplements.

Yaupon Holly (Ilex vomitoria)

Yaupon holly is a tree with oval leaves and red berries that grows in the southeastern United States. Traditionally, Native Americans used the leaves to make drinks that were consumed in large quantities during cleansing ceremonies.10 This overconsumption led to the drink being known for its emetic (vomit-inducing) properties, which are reflected in its species name, vomitoria.11 The red berries are poisonous, but the non-poisonous leaves contain caffeine and are used to make yaupon tea. Yaupon holly is generally sold as a tea, and like its holly relatives, the caffeine content is similar to that of coffee beans (0–1.91 percent by dry weight).12 Modern chemical analysis shows that the tea does not have emetic effects in normal dosages.13

Kola Nut (cola acuminata and cola nitida)

The kola nut is native to tropical Africa and grows on the cola acuminata and cola nitida trees. Kola nuts resemble chestnuts and, in traditional use, are sometimes chewed to decrease hunger and fatigue and before meals to aid digestion.14 While kola nut can be an ingredient in soft drinks, American soft drink manufacturers typically do not use it. Instead, they use synthetic ingredients that resemble the flavor of kola nut.14 The kola nut—at about 2–3.5 percent caffeine by dry weight—can contain up to two times more caffeine than the coffee bean.15 Kola nuts can be found in soft drinks, powders, capsules and even fluid drops to be added to beverages.

Final Thoughts: Check Your Labels!

The innovation in caffeinated products continues to grow, and as the popularity of new alternative sources of caffeine rises, it is important to understand how the ingredient may be labeled and how much is present in various products. Most mainstream manufacturers voluntarily list the quantity of caffeine on their product labels. For more information on the amounts of caffeine in common products, check out this resource.