What exactly IS caffeine? June 23 2018
Caffeine is primarily sourced from plants such as coffee, cacao and tea. It can also be synthesized in a pharmaceutical lab pretty easily (and is frequently done so for painkillers and energy drinks). When not concocted from scratch in a lab, caffeine sourced for sodas can be "naturally extracted" via rinsing coffee beans in a chemical bath (deemed safe by the FDA), then rinsed off and dried until only the crystalline white caffeine powder is left behind. The beans are now sold as decaf coffee and the caffeine powder is added to sodas, meds, etc. A similar process, "water process" decaffeination, yields the same result by boiling the beans in water, then drying the water and harvesting the caffeine sediment. This method also strips all flavor from the beans, so it's not great for salvaging decaf coffee to sell. Most caffeine extraction facilities will choose the chemical extraction approach to maximize profits. Capitalism!
Now you know what caffeine does to your body, what it looks like (both on a molecular level and in its visible pure crystal form), but the question still remains: why does it exist? Why do plants contain caffeine to begin with?
Fun botany fact: caffeine is a result of evolution to prevent predators. Think about new-growth leaves you've seen. Those tiny, soft, bright green baby leaves? Bugs LOVE 'em. New growth is in terrible danger of being chewed up by pests, which would prevent the plant from growing. Some hardier plants evolved caffeine as a natural insecticide, almost entirely present in the most vulnerable parts of the plant. In tea, 99% of the caffeine in the plant is located in the new bud and the youngest two leaves on the branch. In coffee and cacao it is the beans (they are found within the ripe fruit of the plant). Caffeine overloads the central nervous system so efficiently in insects that it causes paralysis and death. Gnarly, right?
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