Caffeine in tea. You may have heard things like: black tea has the highest levels of caffeine while white tea has the least (i.e. caffeine increases with oxidation during processing), or you can get rid of the caffeine in your cup of tea by pouring out the first steep, or that decaffeinated teas have zero caffeine – keep reading below to learn how to dispel these common myths!
WHAT IS CAFFEINE?
Caffeine is nature’s bug repellent. It is a compound produced by certain plants to help protect themselves by paralyzing and killing bugs that attempt to feed on them. Some species that naturally produce caffeine include coffee beans, cacao beans, kola nuts, yerba mate, and tea.
Most people consume caffeine on a daily basis – in the form of coffee, tea, energy drinks or soda – to promote wakefulness and alertness. It is also commonly added to foods and pharmaceuticals. Moderate consumption of caffeine is generally safe and has proven health benefits, but long-term excessive caffeine intake can pose certain risks. We'll go into these statements more in a later lesson.
CAFFEINE LEVELS IN TEA
All true-to-form "tea" comes from the camellia sinensis plant – white, green, oolong, black, pu-erh – and contains caffeine, to varying degrees (even if it says it’s “decaffeinated,” it will still have trace amounts of caffeine). Whereas a cup of brewed coffee contains on average about 100 mg, a cup of tea tends to be within the range of 15-70mg. So what are the varying levels of caffeine within your cuppa? How do you know which teas to go with if you like a caffeine boost? What if you don't want any caffeine at all? While there are general rules you can follow (i.e. white teas generally have the least amount of caffeine, followed by green, oolong, and then black/pu-erh), these rules don't always apply. We focus on highlighting the big exceptions below - keep reading to learn about the biggest exceptions.
MYTH #1: Black tea always contains more caffeine than green tea.
MYTH #2: White tea contains the least amount of caffeine out of all the tea types.
Contrary to popular belief, you can’t tell how much caffeine is in a cup of tea based on tea type (i.e. green vs black vs white) or by oxidation level. Caffeine levels actually vary more among individual teas than they do across broad categories. Also, the unique chemical makeup of tea leads to a very different effect on our bodies than coffee has. Matcha (depending on the grade and preparation) may have a similar level of caffeine to a cup of brewed coffee, BUT the effect it has on our body is completely different. This is because tea also contains catechins (antioxidants) and L-theanine (amino acid), and the combination allows the caffeine to be absorbed much more slowly and sustainably than if we were to drink the same amount of caffeine from coffee. The caffeine in coffee is absorbed quickly into our bloodstream, which for some people tends to cause a sudden jolt of energy, followed by a crash a few hours later. However, the caffeine in matcha can take several hours to be fully absorbed, so the affect is smoother and more pleasant, creating a calm feeling of alertness and concentration.
FACTORS THAT DETERMINE CAFFEINE LEVELS IN TEA
There are so many different factors that influence the amount of caffeine in your cup of tea, that it’s difficult to make generalizations. These factors include the cultivar or variety of tea, the growing conditions and region, part of the plant infused, processing method, and steeping method, time, and water temperature.
MYTH #3: you can get rid of the caffeine in your cup of tea by pouring out the first steep.
TEA PLANT CULTIVAR/VARIETY: In Lesson 103, we talked about the different types of tea plants, such as the two varieties, camellia sinensis sinensis (“small-leaf”) and camellia sinensis assamica (“large-leaf”). Different cultivars or varieties can have very different caffeine levels (for example, assamica may have more caffeine than the sinensis variety). These are completely independent of tea type (such as green or black), which is determined by the processing method after the tea is harvested. Therefore, two different cultivars both processed as an oolong may have greatly different caffeine levels in the cup.
GROWING REGION: Different regions have different variables that influence caffeine levels (including altitude, climate, soil type, etc). For example, studies show that Sri Lankan (Ceylon) teas have higher caffeine levels than teas from South India (such as Nilgiri).
PART OF THE TEA PLANT USED: Different parts of the tea plant have varying levels of caffeine. For example, buds/tips and young leaves at the top of the plant are higher in caffeine because they are more threatened by bugs, whereas stems and older, lower leaves are tougher and therefore lower in caffeine. This is why Yunnan Gold (with lots of golden tips) is higher in caffeine than black teas made from larger leaves, and Silver Needle (a white tea consisting of purely buds) may have more caffeine than most other tea types, contrary to the popular belief that all white tea has hardly any caffeine. This is also why Kukicha, made from twigs and stems on the lower part of the tea plant, contains very low levels of caffeine.
PREPARATION METHOD: The amount of caffeine in your cup of tea will increase with a higher quantity of leaf and with a longer steep time. Some people think you can “decaffeinate” your own tea by making a quick infusion and throwing it out (MYTH #3). Not only will this get rid of flavor and beneficial compounds such as antioxidants, but also there will still be a significant percentage of caffeine left in the remaining steeps.
There are so many different factors that influence the amount of caffeine in your cup of tea, that it’s difficult to make generalizations. These factors include the cultivar or variety of tea, the growing conditions and region, part of the plant infused, processing method, and steeping method, time, and water temperature. Read below to learn our recommendations for how to best enjoy a decaffeinated cuppa, and how producers turn naturally caffeinated leaves into decaffeinated.
MYTH #4: decaffeinated teas have zero caffeine.
HOW TO (BEST) ENJOY A DECAFFEINATED CUPPA: We recommend going with a non camellia sinensis variety of plant or herb to enjoy a non caffeinated cup of tea. Why? Well, for starters, even "decaffeinated" teas still have trace amounts of caffeine, and secondly ... well, why not select one of many options available that are, in their natural state, not caffeinated There are so many different enjoyable herbs and plants to choose from that are naturally not caffeinated. One we enjoy most (really, it's one of our favorites) is rooibos, a naturally non caffeinated and nutty flavored infusion that blends well or stands beautifully on its own (and it's also *packed* with antioxidants). Another one of our favorites is hibiscus (the flower!), which is harvested to produce an amazingly tart, cranberry tasting and brilliantly -and naturally!- red colored brew. And another, which we know you've enjoyed at bedtime is chamomile, an herbal tasting flower that can promote relaxation. We'll have more information on some of our favorite naturally non caffeinated tissanes in a later lesson. For now, if you'd like to learn more about how producers turn caffeinated into "non-caffeinated" read more below.
ETHYL ACETATE: Ethyl Acetate is a natural solvent that binds to caffeine. Tea leaves can be moistened with water and ethyl acetate, and then dried in order to evaporate the water as well as the caffeine bound to the ethyl acetate. However, this process may also extract other organic chemical components form the leaf, such as ECGC and other beneficial antioxidants. It also may leave some residue behind on the leaves, giving them a chemical taste.
SUPER CRITICAL CO2: This method uses highly pressurized carbon dioxide to “pressure cook” the caffeine out of tea. At very high pressure, carbon dioxide becomes as dense as a liquid and as viscous as a gas, so it works as a solvent. It is pumped into a sealed chamber containing tea, and circulates and removes caffeine. The CO2 is then separated from the tea and the caffeine is removed by either activated charcoal or water. The purified CO2 is then recirculated into the pressurized chamber, and the process is repeated until enough caffeine is removed. Although it is expensive, this process has the most advantages – it does not leave chemical residue, has a minimal effect on the flavor and healthy compounds in tea, and hardly any impact on the environment.
LOOKING FOR A COFFEE ALTERNATIVE?
If you're used to drinking coffee for the boost of energy, but looking to switch to tea, there are many great options that provide a more sustained caffeinated lift, with an extra benefit of increased mental clarity and focus due to unique compounds found in tea and related herbs, such as caffeinated hollies. A few of our favorites for mental and physical energy are high octane teas from Zest Tea, productive energy tea from CogniTea, The Early Bird from Tea Hee Hee, and Guayusa from Waykana.
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