Tea vs coffee – an age old dispute not based in science

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I have a long-lasting affair with coffee and much more recent fling with tea. however, I have often wondered about why we feel differently when drinking either and what’s the chemistry behind the refreshing effect and its Addictiveness.

What's in a cup?

Why some of us are affected differently by coffee and tea? Why don’t we often get the same energy boost from either? Do they contain the same stimulating compounds?

There is a lot of chemistry in a single cup of coffee and  tea. Both can be very rich in energy boosters, antioxidants and flavors. The amounts of consumed cups for both is mind-blowing, and there’s a reason why

Many people compare the boost they get from the morning cup to kick from other, less legal, stimulants, and the craving for that first cup – to the yearning experienced with drug addiction.

But is that thanks solely to caffeine? And what about theine – the compound from tea? And what about guaranine from energy drinks?

tea coffee incubatorium blog chemistry

What's to a myth?

What if I told you the distinction between those three chemicals is completely superficial and they are exactly the same thing?

Yes! Yes – they are. Caffeine, theine and guaranine are all alternative names for a chemical compound, scientifically known as 1,3,7-Trimethylxanthine

But why do we have different names and perceive the different brews to contain chemically different molecules?

Chemical structure of caffeine, Credit: Wikipedia

It is all about perception and history

Coffee houses were not considered places for “decent folk” back in the day, exactly due to the intoxicating effect caffeine. At the same time, tea was perfectly acceptable beverage for people of class and even women (not going into the inflammatory discussion of why this distinction existed at all). 

But why was this distinction made between coffee and tea? Today we know that most tea contains more caffeine than coffee, when simply compared per dry weight of either. Still, when brewed, the amount of water diluting the caffeine compensates the total amount of it in the dry state, resulting in a coffee cup having more caffeine than a tea cup, on average.

Next to the natural variation in content, the ways of brewing (hence extracting) the caffeine from coffee and tea also affects the overall effect the final beverage has on our body.

coffee tea incubatorium

A chemical "soup"

While caffeine is a shared molecule for both coffee and tea, there’s plenty more chemistry in a single cup of either that can contribute to our preferences, among others – flavors and taste-contributing molecules.

The blog CompoundInterest has two great posts on the chemicals in coffee and tea and I strongly suggest checking them out!

Why does caffeine work?

Now that we’ve established that when drinking tea and coffee, we drink the same caffeine, but different other compounds, lets look into why do we feel refreshed after a cup.

The stimulant and the drug

This brings us to the next natural question – is caffeine addictive? 

In the broad sense – yes. You can get desensitized to caffeine after prolonged and intense consumption. These are the very properties of a drug as such. Here’s and explanation on how this happens.

However, while many of us have experienced the need to over-consume caffeinated beverages and the drowsiness of a sudden “withdrawal”, caffeine is so to speak reversibly-addictive, which is not the case for many “hard-core” drugs.

So, in conclusion, as always – moderation is the key. In order to reap all the benefits and avoid the negative side effects of caffeinated beverages consumption, the key is to not overdo it. 

Have coffee in the morning and tea in the afternoon, or keep the coffee for the working week and enjoy a calming tea over the weekend to allow yourself some rest while still enjoying an aromatic cup!

2 Replies to “Tea vs coffee – an age old dispute not based in science

  1. As a bit of further reading, maybe check out this other, Chemistry of Coffee, post that looks at the science behind health benefits and risks of coffee consumption! ‬

    ‪https://scientiapotentiaest.blog/2018/01/08/coffee-or-not-a-discussion-of-the-science/‬

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