The History of Synthetic Caffeine

[Source of information: ‘Caffeinated: how our daily habit hooks, helps and hurts us’ by Murray Carpenter. - blog article written in 2016)

It sounds dodgy, wrong, futuristic, but you’ve likely consumed synthetic caffeine this week or even today...

A century ago, caffeine added to soft drinks, energy drinks and caffeine tablets used to be derived from extracting the caffeine from tea leaves or coffee beans.

But the desire for caffeine has increased exponentially since then and scientists from Monsanto looked for cheaper ways to produce much greater industrial quantities of pure caffeine.

Back in 1905, Monsanto started producing caffeine for Coca Cola in St Louis, Missouri using tea leaves to extract the precious caffeine and this long term partnership was the backbone of Monsanto before it became an enormous multinational.

By 1945, there were 4 main players manufacturing caffeine in the USA and following Coke’s huge popularity with GIs during the Second World War, they were struggling to cope with demand and foreign companies from Taiwan and Brazil were getting in on the market.

Coke’s strategy during the Second World War was to guarantee that every soldier should be able to get a coke for 5 cents anywhere on the battlefield – and that plan succeeded. It was an important part of the war effort to improve morale. And it left a generation of American men with a thirst for Coke for the rest of their lives. 10 billion bottles were consumed during the war.

Today, the soft drinks market has enormous caffeine needs.

Pepsi and Coke needs over 1.6 million kilograms of synthetic caffeine for the US market alone.

Mountain Dew packs in half a million kg of synthetic caffeine into its soft drinks for the US market.

In short, the estimated total synthetic caffeine imported into the USA annually is 7 million kilograms of caffeine powder.

What is synthetic caffeine?

On with the story…Known as ‘caffeine anhydrous’, synthetic caffeine was first developed by the Nazis in 1942 to keep caffeine supplies available during the embargoes emplaced by the War. By 1953, both Monsanto and Pfizer had synthetic caffeine factories up and running in America.

Synthetic caffeine starts with ammonia. Ammonia is converted to urea. Then you combine urea and chloroacetic acid to produce a compound called uracil. In turn, the uracil is processed and converted to theophylline.

The final touch is to add methyl chloride to produce the final product: methylated theophylline – otherwise known as synthetic caffeine.

However, unfortunately for the caffeine industry, the raw synthetic caffeine often glows - a bluish phosphorence - not a good look.

So, this glowing is removed by rinsing the caffeine with sodium nitrite, acetic acid, sodium carbonate and chloroform.

And the pure stuff is strong. Lethal in fact in small doses. You need to be very careful with it. A sixteenth of a spoonful will give you the same hit as a large coffee, a quarter tea spoon will lead to a racing heart, sweating and acute anxiety, a tablespoon of caffeine will kill you.

Back in 1995, the Pfizer plant in Grocon, Connecticut, had a major accident in which a yellow cloud of lethal nitrogen oxide escaped the plant and the entire factory had to be evacuated.

Where is Synthetic Caffeine Manufactured?

The synthetic caffeine story is no longer about the USA.

Almost no synthetic caffeine is produced in the United States anymore.

The majority of synthetic caffeine is now made in China.

3 Chinese factories together exporting 4 million kg of caffeine alone to the USA every year.  Indeed, the majority of the world’s synthetic caffeine comes from just one Chinese town: Shijiazhung – a heavily polluted industrial city in Hebei province.

The biggest caffeine factory in the world is the CSPC Innovation Pharmaceutical Company. It produces 1.8 million kg of caffeine for the US market alone.

There is very little information or scrutiny in the world of synthetic caffeine. Almost no one even knows that caffeine is not naturally extracted anymore and the energy drinks industry is no rush to make this clear on their packaging.

Even government agencies sometimes finds their inspections requests denied. For example, the European Directorate for the Quality of Medicines and Healthcare attempted to inspect the CSPC factory for health and safety checks on behalf of the European Union. Their attempts were blocked and denied by CSPC and in turn CSPC is no longer allowed to export synthetic caffeine to the EU. By 2013, 4 of the 5 biggest caffeine manufacturers in China had had their license to export to Europe revoked. That's worrying.

At least the EU had tried and failed to inspect these caffeine factories…what about the FDA in America? Nope. They don't seem to be. 

Very few foreign inspections appear to happen and it looks like they rely on self certification, which is a dangerous path and opportunity for cutting costs and corners – particularly in a country like China, which is regularly in the press for food and drink poisonings.

So far, it appears that the FDA have visited just one caffeine plant in China and the report on their visit makes worrying reading. There were multiple serious health and safety dangers including accumulated debris everywhere, rusting throughout, no hygiene standards/hair nets/gloves, spillages, you name it. They appear to be producing caffeine in a filthy factory. This factory was a supplier to Coca Cola and Dr Pepper amongst many others.

In short, the caffeine industry is opaque, with almost no publicly available information, and what information is available makes very worrying reading.

Is Synthetic Caffeine used in Soda and Energy drinks?

Yes, you find synthetic caffeine in most of the caffeinated soda drinks you drink anywhere in the world. This synthetic caffeine is expertly blended with carbonated sugar drinks to produce those famous soft drinks we all know and think we love.

Manufacturers are not obliged to state if the caffeine is natural or synthetic. So, under the ingredients section, it simply states ‘caffeine’.

The only country in the world where you are guaranteed to have natural caffeine in your drinks is Japan. Japan outlaws the use of synthetic caffeine in food and drinks as an additive. So, all caffeine used is natural caffeine extracted from tea or coffee in Japan.

Do soda drink brands have to state how much caffeine is in the can?

No - all that’s required is to state that it has caffeine.

Do soda drink brands have to say whether it’s natural or synthetic caffeine?

That’s a no again.

Sometimes, synthetic caffeine is occasionally mis-blended and the results can be disastrous.

In September 2010, over a hundred thousand bottles of Sunkist were withdrawn after customer reported stomach pains, throwing up and hospitalisation following an error in the blending of caffeine into Sunkist drinks. The caffeine levels found in these Sunkist bottles were off the charts – each 350ml bottle had been dosed with 350mg of caffeine – that’s the equivalent of 3 red bulls.

However, the main issue with synthetic caffeine is that the public don't seem to know it even exists, where or how it’s made.

The lack of scrutiny and transparency, as well as the lack of information on food and drink labels, is an accident waiting to happen and globally legislators need to wake up and smell the coffee that regulators need to review the situation.

Do you want to learn more?

We recommend this book, which was where most of this information came from:

‘Caffeinated: how our daily habit hooks, helps and hurts us’ by Murray Carpenter.

Available at Amazon.


 IMPORTANT: This information is intended to support, not replace, discussion with your doctor or healthcare professionals. Nothing in the content or products should be considered, or used as a substitute for, medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. You should always talk to your health care provider for diagnosis and treatment, including your specific medical needs.

May 03, 2016 — Gary Carruthers


Liz said:

Thanks for the article. I looked this up after drinking a small coke and my heart racing really fast right after which was odd to me since I have a great caffeine tolerance with coffee.. now I know there is a difference between synthetic/natural caffeine and will share this with family and avoid anything with synthetic caffeine.

Wendy said:

I have wanted to report this to the FDA and my family mentioned to me that the big soda companies, like Coca Cola and Pepsi are so powerful that they will do anything to prevent the FDA from looking into this awful, poisoning, and deadly synthetic caffeine made in China. This would destroy their company, including all the shareholders who have invested millions of dollars in their companies. Unfortunately, this could effect our economy, and make our economy even worse than it is from the Covid 19 pandemic. Yikes!

Despite worrying about our economy, I think we should get the message out about synthetic caffeine to as many people as possible. If multiple people will raise the concern about the synthetic caffeine made in China to the FDA, and then hopefully the FDA will do its job to protect the people in the U.S.

Danielle said:

If this is such a concern, rather than relying on the huge corporations (who are getting filthy rich and in no hurry to find problems) to monitor this stuff, hasn’t there been any testing done POST production to check levels of harmful compounds and contaminants?

My biggest concern is the harmful chemicals used in creating the final product. The molecular structure of synthetic caffeine is apparently nearly indistinguishable from natural caffeine chemical compound but is there nothing left of the processing chemicals in that final product? That’s what I’m interested in.

I’m thinking mainly of caffeine pills because, quite frankly, if you’re downing Coke, diet drinks and energy drinks on the regular, you probably don’t care a whole lot what your putting in your body anyway. But if you’re taking the drug caffeine in a pill form rather than the natural drug form of coffee for reasons such as stomach trouble, then you might still care what you’re ingesting.

Are the processing chemicals actually present, or is it more like, “Swallowing knives is really harmful to your health so don’t eat shredded cabbage because it’s made by chopping the cabbage up with knives and you don’t want to swallow knives”

What’s actually left IN the final product? I would think that’s pretty easy to test for.

Julie Quinlan said:

Wow! I had no idea. It’s criminal the FDA is not interested I. Protecting our health. This is not a safe country to. Live in.

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