Market predictions indicate the consumption of synthetic caffeine is increasing as processed beverages like soda and energy drinks grow in popularity.
Natural product testing, based on international testing standards such as ASTM D6866 and ISO 16620, is an accurate method conducted via carbon-14 analysis to authenticate natural-sourced ingredients. Product manufacturers, suppliers, and distributors use natural product testing to differentiate the percentage of a product or ingredient that was sourced from biomass as opposed to synthetic compounds made from chemicals sourced from petrochemicals.
Natural product testing is applicable to food ingredients, flavors, supplements, and beverages. Due to high demand and the cost of producing natural caffeine, synthetic caffeine is commonly used in popular products such as soda, energy drinks, supplements, and more. Although synthetic and natural caffeine are molecularly identical and affect the body in similar ways, the difference between the two can be detected by measuring the amount of carbon-14 in a product sample to identify what percentage of the product is naturally sourced.
Natural Versus Synthetic Caffeine: What’s the Difference?
Caffeine is a chemical component found in over 60 plant species. Natural sources of caffeine include coffee beans, cacao beans, tea leaves and buds, and others. Caffeine is a popular ingredient found in numerous products. Consumption offers physiological benefits, including increasing alertness, stimulation of the nervous system, increased energy and stamina, as well as improved athletic performance.
Natural and synthetic caffeine are identical at the molecular level and have similar effects on the body. While natural caffeine is extracted from plant sources, synthetic caffeine is lab-produced from urea and chloroacetic acid. Synthetic caffeine is most commonly found in energy drinks and sodas; however, it is also used in a variety of other products, from food and beverages to gum, nutritional supplements, and personal care products.
Caffeine Products Are Susceptible to Economically Motivated Adulteration
Economically motivated adulteration occurs when companies willingly deceive consumers by replacing natural-derived ingredients with synthetic alternatives without disclosing it on the product label. The practice occurs due to high demand for natural-sourced products and the associated higher cost of natural-derived ingredients. This leads some manufacturers to use more affordable synthetic ingredients as an alternative to their authentic counterparts.1
Market predictions indicate the consumption of synthetic caffeine is increasing as processed beverages like soda and energy drinks grow in popularity.2 Synthetic caffeine is cheaper to produce and source, making it appealing to companies seeking a cost-effective alternative to natural caffeine. The use of synthetic caffeine is expected to continue to increase in the coming decade due to high demand.3 Another factor motivating the substitution of natural caffeine with the synthetic version is climate change, which affects the production of natural caffeine sources such as tea and coffee, making synthetic alternatives more reliable and affordable to source.4
Companies can prove their products are naturally derived and not falsified with synthetic alternatives through natural product testing.
Carbon-14 Analysis Detects Natural Caffeine
Natural product testing, based on the ASTM D6866 and ISO 16620-2 standards, is applicable to sample types including beverages, flavors, fragrances, food, and supplements in powder or liquid form. The test uses carbon-14 analysis to determine the natural (or biobased) versus synthetic (or petroleum-derived) origin of product ingredients such as natural caffeine and coffee extract.
Carbon-14, also known as radiocarbon, is an isotope present in living organisms such as plants and biomass. Carbon-14 analysis is conducted using an accelerator mass spectrometer instrument to measure the amount of radiocarbon present in a sample. Because the chemical ingredients used to produce synthetic caffeine are derived from fossil fuel sources and have no radiocarbon content, carbon-14 analysis is an accurate method for determining whether the caffeine in a product is synthetic or natural-derived.
The results of natural product testing are reported as a percentage of biobased versus petroleum-derived material. A sample that is completely natural-sourced will be 100% biobased, while a completely petroleum-derived material will have 0% biobased content. A percentage in between indicates a mixture of natural and synthetic content.5 Test results can also be used for quality control and to validate the accuracy of product label and marketing claims.
Recognizing the amount of natural versus synthetic caffeine in a product helps manufacturers and distributors of food products, beverages, and supplements validate the natural content of their products. Additionally, testing combats the prevalence of economically motivated adulteration and use of synthetic caffeine that has increased in the industry due to increasing production and sourcing costs of natural caffeine and high demand for caffeinated products such as soda and energy drinks. Although synthetic caffeine is easier and cheaper to source than natural caffeine, it is derived from petrochemical-sourced components that are factory mass-produced. For those companies seeking to support sustainable products, authenticate their natural products, and verify their label claims, natural product testing via carbon-14 analysis is an accurate and industry-recognized method.
About the Author
Jordan Turner is marketing coordinator at testing laboratory Beta Analytic (Miami, FL). ISO 17025–accredited Beta Analytic is a dedicated biobased content–testing laboratory respected worldwide for accuracy, high quality, and customer care. All analyses are performed in-house by dedicated professional scientists.