Ask the Alchemist #13

“I meet a lot of people who have stopped eating chocolate because they are sensitive to caffeine. How much caffeine is actually in chocolate?”

Well – what a mess this this. While digging up some (semi)solid data for this, I came across both of these:

“Chocolate contains no caffeine” is an urban legend.

“Chocolate contains caffeine” is the urban legend.

Well, and then this one…but that is just clouding the issue, but it’s fun.

“the urban legend regarding caffeine and chocolate is that the urban legend is simply an urban legend masquerading as an urban legend”

Moving on….

What’s an Alchemist to do when trying to answer a question….? Well, THIS alchemist is also a chemist and at some point in the past analyzed organic compounds for a living on GC/MS and HPLC. Very briefly, just so I could know which way to take this discussion, I pulled out my notes for the analysis I did…..and found that cocoa DOES contain very small amounts of Caffeine – but a whole lot less than a very similar compound called Theobromine.

For the record, this is what both compounds look like.
theo-v-caff.jpg

Yeah, they look a bit alike. And there is quite a bit of discussion out there that people are mixing up the two compounds since they are both alkaloids and look alike. But that just does not hold water for me as an argument. I really wanted to put up the chromatograms and spectral fingerprints of the two compounds and show how once you extract them and analyze them, there is just no possible or feasible way to mix them up or confuse one for the other. But as I’ve learn in the past, that kind of thing seems to just make people’s eyes glaze over as if they are seeing light and sound gel and bend like hot taffy….kind of cool (for me) but not very productive. So, all I can do is say, ‘trust me – I did not mix these up, I’m a professional’. With that, here is some of that semi-solid (hrm, taffy like?) data about caffeine.
caffeine-content.jpg

As you can see, it’s rather all over the board.

Cocoa beans contain between 0.05% and 0.75% caffeine, around 0.2% being the most common and average amount found. Caffeine is also present in lesser amounts in the husk that surrounds the cocoa beans, usually from 0.05% to 0.3%. In comparison, dry tea leaves are 3-4% caffeine, and roasted coffee beans are 1-2% caffeine. And that says nothing about how much is actually in your brewed beverages.  The amount that makes it into chocolate depends which cocoa you are talking about, how it was fermented, roasted, refined and of course the recipe.

So, chocolate has about as much caffeine as decaffeinated tea and coffee. That’s it right? Well, yes and no. Theobromine. There is actually quite a bit in cocoa (roughly 10-50 times that of caffeine). And it does have a stimulant effect, a little bit like caffeine – but it is NOT caffeine, it does NOT break down into caffeine (aromatic ring rupture is going happen before uncatalyzed demethylization thank you very much) and has a much shorter and milder stimulant effect than caffeine.

It is rather difficult to quantify a stimulant effect, but painting with a broad brush, and generalizing something awful, Theobromine seems to have about 1/10 of the affect and staying power of caffeine. Given that there is more of it, but it is so much milder, the net effect almost cancels out (again, I’m going to leave out the fun equations where x goes to zero, your eyes glaze over and light starts to bend like hot taffy, as much enjoyment as I might get out of it) and you are left with something that has about twice the kick (including the caffeine that we have established is there) as two whole cups of decaf tea.

So it looks to me like “Chocolate contains no caffeine” is the urban legend.

In summary:

1. Chocolate does contain a small amount of caffeine.

2. The amount of caffeine in the chocolate depends on how the cacao is processed.

3. The amount of caffeine is much lower, 10 to 100 times lower, than the amount of caffeine in most coffee and more like decaf tea or coffee.

4. Theobromine is present in higher concentrations, and has some of the same affects to as lesser degree, as caffeine. So, even without the caffeine, the affect is similar, but significantly milder.

Go forth and Theobrominate.

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