The Various Uses of Caffeine

Closeup coffee beans which contain caffeine

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Caffeine is a naturally occurring psychoactive substance with stimulant properties. Caffeine use is common, and it is the world's most popular psychoactive drug. It is completely freely available and unregulated in the United States and throughout much of the globe.

It is an ingredient in a large variety of everyday foods and drinks and can be found in many over-the-counter and prescription medications. It is also often used as a cutting agent in illicit drugs, particularly stimulants.

Where Caffeine Come From

Caffeine occurs naturally in many plants and is most commonly known for its presence in the coffee bean (used to make coffee), the cacao bean (used to make chocolate), and the tea leaf (used to make tea). It also occurs in the kola nut (used to flavor cola drinks) and the guarana berry, a less common additive to beverages which is also available as a health food supplement.

There are over 60 plants that naturally contain caffeine. Furthermore, synthetic caffeine is a surprisingly common food and beverage additive.

Use in Everyday Foods and Drinks

It is well known that caffeine is present in coffee, a very popular adult beverage in the United States. Less commonly known is the presence of caffeine in a large array of other beverages, such as soda, sports drinks, and energy drinks. Matcha green tea has a caffeine level similar to coffee, even though green tea is usually marketed as the low-caffeine alternative to black tea.

Caffeine is also a common food ingredient in chocolate and other foods containing cocoa (the processed form of cacao beans). In the past, caffeine has been blamed for chocolate cravings. In fact, the true picture is much more complex, as chocolate contains another potentially addictive substance: sugar. The phenomenon of sugar addiction has been the subject of many studies, and some scientists believe sugar, not caffeine, is the primary driver of chocolate cravings. However, the concept of food addiction is not without controversy, and research in this field is still ongoing.

Use in Recreational Drugs

There is a fine line between whether caffeine is considered a food or a recreational drug. We think nothing of adults drinking tea and coffee in front of their children, whereas injecting heroin or smoking crack in front of a child would be shocking—and grounds for removal of the child from their parent's care. Yet as the concentration of caffeine gets higher, the effects become more pronounced, and now some high-caffeine beverages are essentially being used as legal recreational drugs.

The stimulant effects of caffeine, as well as its legal status and availability, make it a common cutting ingredient in street drugs, such as cocaine and meth.

Use in Pharmaceutical Drugs

Caffeine is also used as an ingredient in a variety of pharmaceutical drug preparations. Many painkillers contain caffeine because caffeine increases their effectiveness. It is also added to many medications that cause drowsiness in order to counteract this side effect.

Caffeine Use in Sports

Prior to 2004, caffeine was included as a prohibited substance with the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). In 2004, caffeine was removed from the prohibited list. WADA acknowledges the presence of caffeine in many foods and beverages, and the risk that it can be abused in sports. Therefore, although the use of caffeine is not prohibited, it is part of WADA's monitoring program.

Also Known As: 1,3,7-trimethylxanthine

Common Misspellings: caffiene, caffeen, cafeen, cafine, caffine, kaffine

9 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD
Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD is a psychologist, professor, and Director of the Centre for Health Leadership and Research at Royal Roads University, Canada.