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Secret Shopper: What is 'clean' or 'natural' caffeine?

Caffeine is having a heyday. But consumers likely have questions about products' caffeine claims. Find out what your team needs to know.

Melaina Juntti

March 16, 2023

3 Min Read
coffee beans on a table

With an influx of natural energy drinks, shots and other products containing caffeine hitting the market, consumers have questions about the tried-and-true stimulant. Specifically, many are unclear what exactly brands mean when they tout their use of "natural" or "clean" caffeine. We sent our Secret Shopper into the field to see how one retailer responded.

Natural Foods Merchandiser: What does it mean when a product contains "natural" or "clean" caffeine?

Retailer: That just means the caffeine is extracted from a plant, such as coffee, tea or guayusa, versus being made synthetically. And when brands say their caffeine is clean, it usually means no harsh chemicals were used to process it.  

Natural Foods Merchandiser: OK, but once caffeine is isolated from a plant, is it really any different than synthetic caffeine?

Retailer: It's the same chemical, just a different way of getting it.

Natural Foods Merchandiser: Does its effect on the body differ at all? I've heard that natural caffeine doesn't cause jitters or dramatic energy spikes and crashes like synthetic caffeine can.

Retailer: I think that really depends on each person and how sensitive they are to caffeine. It's hard to say that one or the other affects people this way or that way.

How did this retailer do?

Susan Kleiner, PhD, RD, CNS, owner of High Performance Nutrition and co-founder of the International Society of Sports Nutrition

Our expert educator: Susan Kleiner, PhD, RD, CNS, owner of High Performance Nutrition and co-founder of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 

I think this retailer deserves an A+. They were correct that "natural" caffeine is extracted from a plant instead of made in a lab. And yes, a brand might say "clean" to describe the processing.

But in terms of how caffeine impacts the body, the source doesn't matter. Sure, you can find people on the internet who say that natural caffeine affects the body differently—that it is absorbed more slowly or doesn't cause jitters—but I just shake my head. There is no good research to support that. When talking about caffeine as an isolated compound, the body doesn't recognize what the original source was—it only recognizes the compound consumed. And whether that compound was extracted from a plant or made in a lab, it is identical.

Now, if you consume a plant-based beverage that naturally contains caffeine, such as coffee or green tea, that's different than drinking a beverage with isolated caffeine added to it. These are very complex beverages, full of naturally occurring vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals with health-promoting properties. They could impact the absorption of caffeine and give you additional benefits beyond what caffeine offers by itself.

But the effects of caffeine really do vary by individual, so the retailer got that right, too. Genetics, dose and time of day can all play a role. Some people can consume one cup of coffee and feel just fine, but two cups give them the jitters; some are more sensitive to caffeine in the evening than in the morning. Most people generally know how caffeine affects them, but if they are curious, there is now even a genetic test that can show whether they are a high, moderate or non-responder to caffeine.

About the Author(s)

Melaina Juntti

Melaina Juntti is a longtime freelance journalist, copy editor and marketing professional. With nearly two decades of experience in the natural products industry, she is a frequent contributor to Nutrition Business Journal, Natural Foods Merchandiser and NewHope.com. Melaina is based in Madison, Wisconsin, and is passionate about hiking, camping, fishing and live music. 

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