If you're an anti-science hippie obsessed with the notion that 'natural' is always superior to whatever 'inorganic' means to people who know nothing about science or medicine or food or generally what carbon-based life means, I have good news for you; you may soon be able to determine if that caffeine in your Organic, Free-Range Red Bull is really natural.

What? Organic, Free-Range Red Bull doesn't exist?  Well, it should. Farmer's Market shoppers will dutifully line up for that, I can just feel it.

Caffeine drinks are big business. Coffee, tea, sodas, it's all doing brisk sales, even in a recession  But how will health-conscious consumers drinking all-natural carbonated, sugary beverages know if the caffeine in it is really natural?  Evil Big Business is only required by Super Awesome Regulations to list that caffeine is in the stuff, you know, an ingredient - not its country of origin or that the caffeine was stimulated by Fair Trade co-ops. What if the caffeine is synthetic? Your health could be at risk.

Compound-specific isotope analysis (CSIA) can differentiate between natural and synthetic caffeine and a new test described in Analytical Chemistry uses differences in the kinds of carbon isotopes found in caffeine made by plants and that of caffeine made in labs.  Sounds obscure, right? Yes, but you don't want your No Fear Energy Drink made with petroleum-derived molecular building blocks, after all - even if you don't know what that means. Their analysis used 42 natural caffeine samples and 20 synthetic ones. Using high-temperature reversed-phase liquid chromatography coupled to isotope ratio mass spectrometry they found four products that contained synthetic caffeine, despite having a "natural" label.


Though, really, if you are buying 'natural food' all year round, you can be forgiven for being gullible enough to believe your caffeine is all natural too. Is there any difference between synthetic and natural caffeine?  None at all but you are buying labels, not science validity, so you should at least get what you overpay for.

Might I suggest you drink your Naturally Caffeinated Coffee - or beer or caffeinated soap or any caffeinated product you want, really - from one of these? The compound on the mug will make you feel better about your science knowledge.

Citation: Lijun Zhang, Dorothea M. Kujawinski, Eugen Federherr, Torsten C. Schmidt, and Maik A. Jochmann, 'Caffeine in Your Drink: Natural or Synthetic?', Anal. Chem., Publication Date (Web): February 17, 2012 (Article) DOI: 10.1021/ac203197d