An entire cottage industry has sprung up dedicated to selling “Death Before Decaf” merchandise: mugs, bumper stickers, socks, hoodies, aprons—there’s even a mystery novel by the same name. All of which goes to show that the public has plenty of love for a bitter alkaloid that, though naturally present in many plants, was once accused of exacerbating everything from heart disease and cancer to osteoporosis and addiction.
SPINS data suggests caffeine is the number two weight-loss ingredient, with $92,228,186 in current dollars among U.S. conventional multi-outlet stores (SPINSscan Conventional Multi-Outlet [powered by IRI], 52 weeks ending November 5, 2017). Caffeine took the number six spot in the energy support area for these store types as well.
And if caffeine now finds itself in people’s good graces, it’s “for the simple reason that it works,” says Brian Zapp, director of marketing, Applied Food Sciences Inc. (AFS; Austin, TX). “There are few functional offerings that provide the near-immediate efficacious result that caffeine does for the body.” Detox, relaxation, antioxidants, weight loss: “All have incremental impacts that are minute and difficult to notice,” he says. “Yet 125 mg of caffeine will work within minutes depending on how you deliver it in the body.”
Good for Body and Brain
The work that caffeine does is good for both body and brain. Says Isabel Gomez, marketing manager, Lipofoods, SLU (Barcelona, Spain), “Evidence suggests that safe levels of caffeine consumption”—a maximum intake of 400 mg per day— “can bring health benefits.”
For example, scientific literature describes its role in enhancing physical performance, improving team sports activity and reducing fatigue, Gomez says. And though precisely how it potentiates athletes’ performance “isn’t completely understood,” she notes, “experimental studies have shown that it can delay the depletion of muscle glycogen and encourage working muscles to use fat as a fuel by mobilizing fat stores.”
There’s more. “Caffeine has also been shown to have a significant effect on cognitive parameters, such as concentration and alertness,” Gomez continues, noting the it has rightly earned a place in many specialized sports nutrition and energy products as well as other supplements.
But experts agree that not all caffeine is created equal. According to a 2016 Mintel report on energy launch growth, one in four U.S. consumers would prefer drinking energy beverages or shots made with all-natural ingredients, Zapp notes. “Additionally, 30% are now, at least in part, consuming natural energy drinks,” he states.
Reflecting on the bad rap that has dogged caffeine for so long, Zapp observes, “It’s funny, because while some consumers are suspicious of caffeine, they tend not to be overly wary about coffee or especially tea—both caffeinated plants. So perhaps it’s not the compound in and of itself but rather the way it’s presented that causes skepticism.”
For this reason, he has witnessed manufacturers become “more intentional” in how they position their products’ caffeine content. “We have several organic offerings that naturally contain caffeine—sourced from green tea extract, green coffee extract, or guayusa extract—that have proven important because they’re standardized at caffeine levels low enough in concentration that manufactures can label the ingredient a botanical extract on their ingredient declarations.”
Guayusa, in particular, fits this “natural” description, putting it on Zapp’s list of “the most exciting new ingredients in energy.” The caffeinated leaf of a holly species grown in the upper Amazon and a cousin to yerba mate, guayusa stands apart thanks to a polyphenolic profile that includes chlorogenic acid—the antioxidants in green coffee—and the catechin antioxidants common to green tea. Preliminary research on AFS’s branded organic guayusa extract (AMATEA) indicates that it may help regulate the flight-or-fight hormone epinephrine.
All in Moderation
Gomez agrees, caffeine from “natural” sources “is expected to continue being one of the central ingredients used in almost all energy products, as it’s one of the most studied and well known central nervous system stimulants.”
But even when consuming “natural” caffeine, moderation remains key. Ironically, the rapid absorption that makes caffeine so immediately effective means that sensitive consumers can get a caffeine “hit” that fluctuates more than they may like. Thus, says Gomez, “There’s currently a need for caffeinated products that can continuously provide the desired benefits associated with caffeine without the unwanted effects.” His company’s answer are microcapsules (NEWCAFF) that slowly release caffeine to prolong caffeine’s effects over four hours.
As if that weren’t good news enough for caffeine, Hector L. Lopez, MD, CSCS, FAAPMR, FISSN, cofounder, Supplement Safety Solutions, LLC (Bedford, MA), and chief science liaison for Compound Solutions, Inc. (Carlsbad, CA), calls attention to the results of a human clinical trial1 published in the Journal of Caffeine Research in July 2017 showing that the pairing of caffeine with theacrine—a purine alkaloid found in cupuaçu (Theobroma grandiflorum), among other plants—can enhance the latter’s bioavailability and potency with no effect on subjects’ heart rate or blood pressure.
“Caffeine has been a longstanding staple ingredient for formulators from energy drinks and pre-workouts to ‘nootropics’ and weight-management formulas,” Lopez says. “But caffeine hasn’t always had a definitive synergistic ingredient to partner with.” The new trial, which used Compound Solutions’ theacrine ingredient (TeaCrine), “demonstrates real synergies where caffeine can elevate TeaCrine’s bioavailability, intensity and duration of energy, focus, mood and motivation response.”
Theacrine “promises to continue making a major splash in the dietary supplement and mass beverage/functional food channels as a ‘caffeine companion,’” Lopez says. Given caffeine’s rising star, that’s hardly a bad thing to be.
2018 Ingredient Trends to Watch for Food, Drinks, and Dietary Supplements:
1. He H et al., “Assessment of the drug-drug interaction potential between theacrine and caffeine,” Journal of Caffeine Research. Published online July, 2017.