The History and Use of Caffeine

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The history and use of caffeine and its effect on the human body.

Caffeine has been used as a drug for thousands of years. The use of caffeine has gradually shifted from medical to recreational applications. There are several plants that contain the substance that were cultivated or harvested, but today caffeine is added to many foods. Despite the increase in caffeine use in recent times, many people have little knowledge of the overall effects it has on their bodies.

Plants that contained caffeine have been used as a stimulant and source of energy since as they were discovered. Different cultures all around the world used caffeine long before they knew what caused the effects used the plants that produce this drug for medical uses and to increase energy. It was not until 1819 that the drug caffeine itself was isolated as the source of the effects. Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge made the discovery in Europe as a result of the growing interest in plant chemistry that began there in the nineteenth century.

The poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe gave Runge some coffee beans as a gift, and told him to analyze them. Within a few months Runge was able to extract and purify caffeine from the beans. Four other scientists are credited with independently discovering caffeine soon after Runge without hearing of his work. From this point on caffeine was identified in many plants all around the world. Only a year later, in 1820, it was found that the thein in tea was also caffeine, but it was not until 1865 that it was discovered in kola nuts.

History of Caffeine

The oldest sources of caffeine that are commonly used today are tea, chocolate, coffee, and cola.

One of the first plants discovered and used for the effects of its caffeine was the tea plant. Most people associate tea with China, as that is where European nations first learned about tea. Ancient writings detail how tea could improve alertness and concentration, although it was not known at the time this was caused by the caffeine. The Chinese likely learned about tea from either natives of northern India, or tribesmen from Southeast Asia.

The cacao bean is another common plant that has long been used for the effects of caffeine. Archaeological discoveries in Mexico have found the first use of the cacao bean to be by the Olmecs who lived in Mexico between 1500 and 400 B.C.E. The Olmecs harvested wild cacao pods to make a chocolate drink. Following the Olmecs, the Maya became very wealthy trading cacao. Within Mexico, chocolate was then passed on to the Toltecs and finally the Aztecs in twelfth century. In the early sixteenth century, the Spanish conquistadors first learned of chocolate from the Aztecs, and it was spread through Europe from there. Although the Maya were the first civilization of the New World to keep historical records, most information about the early use of cacao was lost when conquistadors and missionaries destroyed much of the culture. Mayans used the cacao bean as currency.

Despite being the current primary source of caffeine, coffee did not make its appearance until the ninth century in Ethiopia and possibly not until the fifteenth century in southern Arabia. This late discovery of coffee is unusual since coffee grew along trade routes between Ethiopia, Abyssinia, and the Middle East. Unlike chocolate and tea, coffee beans were eaten instead of made into a drink. The Galla tribe of Ethiopia mashed the beans and mixed them with animal fat to make a filling and energizing food for war trips.

One of the most popular forms of caffeine currently is soft drinks. The 1830s saw the first flavored soft drinks which were actually considered health drinks. The original flavors came from bark and flowers added to the drinks which gave birth to sodas such as root beer, ginger ale, and lemon. Root beer was in wide distribution by 1876, and by 1881 so was the cola flavor which is made from kola nuts. While the kola nuts do add caffeine to sodas, today 95% of the caffeine in most sodas is added for extra effect. Due to current knowledge of the effects of caffeine, US regulations have limited the caffeine content of sodas to no more than 6 mg/ounce. This level of caffeine is much lower than the amount naturally found in coffee and tea.

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