What's the Difference Between Organic v. Synthetic Caffeine?

What's the Difference Between Organic v. Synthetic Caffeine?

We've written about caffeine before ("Caffeine and Athletic Performance: Experiment to Find Out What Works for You"), and sports science writer Alex Hutchinson recently reported on a study published last year in "Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise" by a team from six Brazilian universities working with David Bishop of Australia’s Victoria University that concluded caffeine *does* work as a performance-enhancer.

Cyclists studied by the researchers lasted 14 percent longer when they got real caffeine (5 minutes and 55 seconds) rather than a placebo (5 minutes and 14 seconds). Hutchinson noted that the new study delivered similar results to previous studies, and suggests a roughly 1 percent gain if the format was a race or time trial instead of a time-to-exhaustion ride.

He wrote, "In other words, it looks as though caffeine delays the loss of muscle function—and perhaps, though this remains controversial, the moment the riders give up is dictated by finally reaching that higher level of muscle fatigue."

He noted also, "Caffeine seems to keep oxygen flowing through their arteries, with only a mild decrease at exhaustion compared to the steady decline seen in the placebo trials. It’s not clear why this happens, but it’s not too much of a stretch to suggest that having more oxygen available might be one of the reasons the muscles keep working better during the caffeinated rides."

But does it matter what sort of caffeine you consume?

Tailwind Nutrition Quality Assurance Manager Monika Reck-Glenn says there are two basic types of caffeine, naturally occurring and synthetic.

"Synthetic caffeine starts out with ammonia, which is converted to synthetic caffeine using chemicals. This type of caffeine is quickly absorbed into the body and provides a sudden boost of energy," she says, then continues, "Natural caffeine comes from plants like green coffee beans, cacao, yerba mate, green tea, and different types of berries; often a simple soaking process is all that's required to extract the caffeine. Natural caffeine is absorbed much more slowly than synthetic caffeine, and provides a much gentler boost of energy. Since it is gradually absorbed into your bloodstream, many of the side effects of synthetic caffeine – headaches & migraines, anxiety & nervousness, insomnia & sleep disturbances, dehydration – are nonexistent."

Reck-Glenn notes that the standard athletic performance protocol (which many athletes fail to follow) is three to six milligrams of caffeine per kilogram of body weight, which works out to 200 to 400 milligrams for a 70-kilogram person. She says, "It can take up to 60 minutes for the caffeine to work its magic, mobilizing available fatty acids in your bloodstream, burning them, and sparing your glycogen stores, resulting in greater endurance."

Should you go on a "caffeine fast" prior to a big event? According to Hutchinson, if you’re a regular consumer of caffeine, you probably don’t need to swear off caffeine for a week to get a good boost in your race, though there might be a slight gain if you do.

Many of the nutrition products available at Red Dot Running Company – including Tailwind – are offered in both caffeinated and non-caffeinated versions. As with all nutrition strategies, you should experiment in training, not on race day!
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