Coffee, tea and chocolate. They have more than caffeine

More than Caffeine in Coffee, Tea and Chocolate

Coffee or tea? Our wake-up beverages is more than caffeine. Some like a soothing  cup of tea while others prefer a jolt of coffee. Both tea and coffee have caffeine but there are other active chemicals that change how the beverage effects us. They are not as well understood as caffeine but what do they do for us?


Caffeine is a xanthine, and it is found with its “t” siblings theophylline and theobromine. The three siblings are chemically very similar and they easily change from one to the other. It is just a matter of gaining or loosing a carbon and 2 hydrogen molecules. In the body pure caffeine can change to the  “t” siblings and the “t” sibling can also change back to caffeine.

The “t” siblings do not give you the wake up jolt of caffeine but they do increase alertness and they too are diuretics and make one pee more.

Coffee, tea and chocolate have a very different distribution of the three xanthines. Coffee has mostly caffeine, tea also has theophylline and chocolate has mostly theobromine. Here it is in a chart:

Caffeine Theophylline Theobromine
5oz – brewed coffee  160 mg  trace  trace
5oz – black tea  50 mg  1 mg  trace
5oz – oolong tea 40 mg ? ?
5oz – green tea  20 mg  ?  ?
5oz – white tea 10 mg ? ?
1oz – dark chocolate  12 mg  trace  200 mg
1oz – milk chocolate 6 mg trace 60mg

Caffeine: Found in coffee but also in tea is best known for it ability to increase our alertness, see last weeks post on caffeine for more.

Theophylline: the  “t” sibling  that is most abundant in tea, is a bronchodilator, it relaxes the vessels of the lungs. It is powerful enough that it is used as an asthma medication but in amounts you could only get with 100 cups of tea. It’s also a vasodilator, it relaxes blood vessels, possibly the reason tea is a frequent choice for tension headaches. Here’s a more in-depth article on theophylline.

Theobromine: the other “t” sibling is mostly found in cocoa and chocolate. It is less effective as a bronchodilator then the “t” sibling in tea but may help suppress coughing spasms. A few studies also show that it can inhibit some tumor growth but this is not proven, just an interesting possibility. Theobromine is well tolerated by humans but is lethal to many animals, especially to dogs and cats. It is therefore hard to study in animal models and is why we don’t give chocolate to cats and dogs.  Here’s a more detailed article on theobromine.

The three xanthines affect our feeling of alertness differently. In a study comparing caffeine, theophylline and a placebo, people were asked to take a test while on each. Caffeine got the best results but theophylline also performed significantly better than the placebo. Both are effective. Here is the caffeine and theophylline study.


Do you find that coffee wakes you up like a drill sergeant and makes you jittery?  Is tea a gentler wake up call? Many people feel that way and that may be due not only to the theophylline but also to an amino acid that’s primarily found in tea. It’s called  L-Theanine. It’s found in both back and green tea and the concentration goes up the longer the tea leaves are left to steep.

L-Theanine has been shown to calm people without making them sleepy, which may be why the caffeine in tea feels like a softer wake up call. Unfortunately studies on L-Theanine are in their infancy and nothing is proven, they are just interesting possibilities. You can buy L-Theanine as a supplement, but in their investigation the Berkley Wellness Newsletter found that much of the L-Theanine in supplements is the inert D-Theanine (see L-Theanine pills). A cup of strong tea that our mothers and grandmothers recommended is the safe and possibly the most effective way to recover that calm and alert mental state.


Coffee, tea and chocolate come from bright colored plants, colored plants are the sources of many of the phytochemicals we need in the diet. Some epidemiological studies suggest that people who drink coffee are healthier than those who don’t. Such studies need to be taken with a big grain of salt—Seventh Day Adventists avoid all caffeine and they are some of the healthiest people. Their diet though is rich in phytochemicals from other plant sources.  See my post to learn more about the benefits of phytochemicals.

Many tout the health benefits of green tea due to the phenols (a phytochemical) but when green tea leaves are fermented the phenols are transformed to other phytochemicals that are equally healthy. All teas as well as chocolate and coffee are good sources of phytochemicals and they can provide a significant percentage of our dietary phytochemicals.

Coffee, tea and chocolate all have a reputation as a pick-me-up. They all effect us differently and we tend to gravitate to the one that makes us feel best. Fortunately they also seem to be a healthy addition to the diet.

Which do you enjoy and why?