Coffee lovers looking for a strong pick-me-up should avoid Starbucks and head to Costa, after it emerged that its cappuccinos offer nearly five times the caffeine, the same as four cans of Red Bull.
Buyers of an average Costa cappuccino get three shots of espresso and 325mg of caffeine, which is about the same as four cups of tea, and well above the Starbucks equivalent that contains just 66mg.
The consumer group study Which? has revealed the extraordinary disparity in the amount of caffeine delivered by high street coffee chains. He said that many of us could be consuming significantly more or less caffeine than we thought.
While the three-shot Costa cappuccino was the clear choice for caffeine addicts, Greggs and Pret a Manger offered the second and third highest levels of cappuccino caffeine, at 197mg and 180mg respectively. By comparison, a 250ml can of Red Bull, the drink of choice for sleep-deprived teenagers, contains around 80mg of caffeine.
However, for those looking to cut down on their caffeine intake, an increasingly common stance, the study found a clear “winner” on the high street: Starbucks. It might not wake you up, but your average cappuccino contains a relatively low 66mg of caffeine, while your espresso contained half that.
“I think coffee is still functionally about caffeine and I feel like for the most popular psychoactive drug in the world, most people have no idea how much they’re drinking,” said James Hoffmann, coffee expert and award winner. World Barista Championship in 2007. “I’m not sure it’s good for any type of supplement you want to use.”
Which? Research found that a single espresso from Pret a Manger delivered the most hit: 180mg of caffeine. Pret’s filter coffee also contained the most caffeine at 271mg, two and a half times more than the Starbucks version.
Caffè Nero had the second lowest caffeine levels after Starbucks in the cappuccino (110-115mg) and espresso (45mg) categories. The US Food and Drug Administration considers 400 mg to be a safe amount of caffeine for healthy adults to consume daily.
Levi Tyrell Johnson, 28, with a Pret cappuccino Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian
Levi Tyrell Johnson, 28, regularly buys cappuccinos from Pret because of how convenient he finds it. “I have a subscription to Pret, so it’s easy for me to use,” he said. “There is one everywhere. Because I drink a lot of coffee on the go, it’s easier to pay a flat monthly fee than to have one every day.
“I like strong coffee and this is my nearest coffee shop. I probably need more caffeine, I have a pretty energetic job so I need to be alert and active as much as possible so I don’t care about the difference.”
Shefalee Loth, which one? nutritionist, said: “Many of us rely on coffee to get us through dark winter mornings, but our research shows that you may be consuming significantly more or less caffeine than you expected.”
Loth said that people who were sensitive to caffeine, or who needed to avoid it for health reasons, such as being pregnant, might want to request fewer shots in the drink when ordering.
Zoe Parker and Brett Davies Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian
Zoe Parker, 27, said she was really surprised by the difference in caffeine levels between the chains. She had ordered a caramel frappe at Costa Coffee. “I’m really surprised,” she said. “I don’t drink a lot of caffeine in general, so now I feel even more surprised because I thought a coffee would be nice.
“I prefer Costa to Starbucks, so I would probably still buy Costa over Starbucks,” Parker added. “Because I drink coffee so rarely, I would still feel good having a Costa coffee. If you were drinking it all the time, then you might change your mind. I could go to a Starbucks once in a while instead.”
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Laurens Dekker, 25, said he would be more careful about where he bought his coffee in future as he tried to limit his caffeine intake. “I’ve cut a lot down to just one a day,” he said. “I used to have six to eight cups. It’s too much.
Laurens Dekker Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian
“I had no idea there was such a difference. I thought coffee was just coffee, but maybe I’ll start thinking about that now.”
Hoffmann said that regardless of the caffeine content, people tended to have a favorite, and knowing the caffeine content might not change their order.
“If someone really enjoys Starbucks, they probably won’t enjoy Costa and they probably won’t enjoy Caffè Nero, for example. You have your preference… I think coffee can be delicious and very enjoyable, even when it doesn’t contain caffeine, but I can’t deny that we all have some sort of caffeine-based relationship with it.”
Most chain coffees Which one? looked at the feature of at least two shots of espresso. Which? He said another factor that could affect caffeine content was the variety of coffee beans, with Arabica beans containing about half the caffeine of Robusta beans.
A Costa Coffee spokesperson said the caffeine content of its beverages was clearly displayed in its stores and on its website, and that it would “encourage customers to be aware of the caffeine content.”
“All Costa coffees can be enjoyed with decaffeinated coffee and we offer a wide range of caffeine-free beverages,” they added.