Coffee and tea: caffeine versus antioxidants

I love getting up to the smell of fresh coffee, catching up with a friend over a lovely cup of tea in the afternoon and, of course, a bit of dark chocolate every now and again.

All these lovely things have something in common: they all contain caffeine.

Good quality coffee, tea and dark chocolate , especially if organically grown and traditional prepared contain plenty of antioxidants that help us reduce the harmful effects of free radicals.

Tea, especially green tea, has high concentrations of polyphenols that also have antioxidant properties.

However, we can not forget that caffeine is a stimulant and therefore can affect our energy balance during the day, our mood and even concentration. I’m not just talking about the energy boost you get when you have a cup of coffee but also about what happens when the stimulant effects wear off and you feel tired and grumpy again and have to fight the urge to run down to the nearest coffee shop.

A little caffeine can help you perk up a bit, not a bad thing, but too much can lead to anxiety, insomnia, high blood pressure, tremors and even dehydration because caffeine is a diuretic. In some cases, too much coffee can cause stomach pain and even vomiting.

Caffeine, especially in high amounts, reduces calcium absorption and may lead to weaker bones (osteoporosis) so it is important to limit caffeine intake in young adults as our bones accumulate calcium up to age of 18 and for women entering menopause as lowering oestrogen levels also reduce calcium absorption.

Tea might be a better alternative, especially green tea as it is very high in antioxidants known as polyphenols, for people with high sensitivity to caffeine. Tea also contains caffeine but in lower concentrations than coffee so its effects are not quite as sharp.

In people with high sensitivity to caffeine, drinking coffee or tea even several hours before bedtime can lead to insomnia. So, herbal or decaf versions of your favourite brews are a good option after dinner.

What foods and drinks contain caffeine?

Caffeine is not only found in high concentrations in coffee and tea, also appears cola drinks, energy drinks and chocolate products:

Coffee contains 100 to 200mg of caffeine per cup depending on strength and brewing method, while tea contains much less, between 15-70mg per cup.

The NHS recommendation is to limit caffeine intake to 400mg a day, i.e. up to 2-4 cups of coffee depending on how strong you like it and a maximum of 5 cups of tea a day.

Let’s not forget that cola drinks also contain caffeine albeit much less than coffee and tea, approximately 30mg per can.

Chocolate also contains caffeine, so it is advisable not to consume it before going to bed and ensure children and teenagers consume it in moderation. It also contains high amounts of refined sugar which also affects blood sugar levels and the body’s energy balancing system.

Energy drinks contain high levels of caffeine: about 80mg per 250ml, roughly the same as a coffee. Like chocolate and cola flavoured drinks these beverages have a high sugar content and therefore are high in calories and alter your body’s energy balance leaving you a lot more tired once their effects wear off.

How to enjoy the coffee / tea in a healthy way?

In moderation. Limit your intake to a maximum of 4 cups a day but keep in mind that caffeine affects some people more than others and you know your body better than anyone else so stop at two espressos if the third cup starts making you jittery!

Mix it up. Avoid drinking caffeinated drinks on an empty stomach because its stimulant effects are much greater than if they are part of a balanced meal.

White or black? If’s down to taste but mixing a little milk into your coffee can counteract the reduced calcium absorption effect of caffeine. If you are dairy intolerant or have an allergies/sensitivity to dairy products, you can try alternatives to cow’s milk such as soy or rice milks but ensure they are fortified with calcium.

No sugar. Do not add sugar to your tea or coffee as the stimulating effect of coffee will increase the sugar rush affecting your energy levels much more sharply. I mean not just the sugar in your coffee but also the sweets that go so well with it: croissant, a chocolate cookies, a piece of cake, etc.

Don’t get hooked. Do not make a habit of drinking coffee all the time because caffeine is addictive. If you associate coffee with a break at work, switch to herbal teas or green tea it is even higher in antioxidants.

How you brew it matters. Drink your coffee as fresh as possible, to make the most of its antioxidant properties.

Brew your coffee in a stainless steel coffeepot to avoid contact with aluminium or plastic at high temperatures.

Heating food or drinks in aluminium containers (such as take away boxes or foil) leads to this heavy metal leaching into the food. High levels of aluminium in the body have been linked to bone, kidney and nerve diseases.

The same applies to electric coffee makers where plastic parts may contain BPA, which has been linked to some cancers.

Coffee pods are easy to use but when boiling water gets pushed through the container, it heats the aluminium cover or plastic film that sits between the coffee granules and the aluminium with the same consequences as described above.

Decaffeinated coffee and tea have the healthy benefits as the caffeinated version without the problems that high amounts of caffeine can cause.

Avoid caffeinated soft or energy drinks, get your caffeine the natural way with a lovely properly brewed coffee or tea!