The caffeine content in chocolate is rarely discussed and often misreported. There are a few reasons for this. For one, caffeine levels vary widely according to where the cacao was grown. It also depends on which type of chocolate you’re talking about. But when it comes to measuring its psychoactive effects, that's only part of the story.
You also have to take into account caffeine’s interaction with chocolate’s other stimulant — theobromine — which significantly alters the way it makes you feel. You still get the boost, but theobromine helps alleviate uncomfortable side effects from caffeine —for example, the jitters, the midday crash, and sleep disruption. The phenomenon responsible for this positive turn of events is something that cannabis experts are already familiar with: the so-called “entourage effect.”
Cacao and its various stimulants
There are three naturally-occurring stimulants in chocolate and the cacao from which it is produced: theobromine, caffeine, and theophylline. Each of these compounds belongs to a class of alkaloids called xanthines. Certain plants —like cacao trees, tea trees, and coffee bushes — use xanthines to protect themselves from attack by insects.
It's an evolutionary adaptation designed to help the plants but also ends up helping people. Xanthines have the capacity to paralyze or kill an insect, but with the right dosage they provides us humans with a nice little ride. They also provide a host of other benefits like improving cognitive function, reducing the risk of Alzheimer's and cardiovascular disease, protecting tooth enamel from decay, among several others.
Comparing caffeine content by country
The single most comprehensive source of information on this exact question is a research report titled “Measurement of theobromine content in cocoa for determining cocoa solids content in chocolate.” Over 200 cacao samples, collected from a total of 26 countries across the world, were tested for theobromine and caffeine.
Before we get into the numbers, here are the main takeaways:
- Caffeine levels in cacao significantly vary between countries.
- In general, cacao from South America and the Caribbean has a lot more caffeine than African cacao.
- The most caffeinated cacao comes from Ecuador, Venezuela, and Peru.
- The least caffeinated cacao comes from West African countries and (strangely) Mexico.
- On average, cacao from Ecuador, Venezuela, and Peru has more than 2x as much caffeine as cacao from West African countries (which produce the majority of the world’s cacao).
- The samples with the most caffeine have more than 5x as much caffeine as the least caffeinated samples.
- There is some (but not as much) variation between theobromine levels between countries.
- The samples with the most theobromine have 1.7x as much theobromine as the samples with the least theobromine.
- The average theobromine-to-caffeine ratio is 9 to 1.
The study measured levels of caffeine in terms of milligrams (mg) per kilogram (kg) of 100% dark chocolate (aka "bakers chocolate"). I took the liberty of converting those numbers into an amount of chocolate that someone would actually consume during a sitting or over the course of a day - for example, a single To'ak chocolate bar. Here's what the numbers look like by country:
Weather matters, but roasting doesn’t
Country of origin is not the only factor that influences xanthine levels in cacao. Studies in Ecuador have found that cacao harvested in the dry season has 15–23% more caffeine and 8–12% more theobromine compared to cacao (from the same exact farms) that was harvested in the rainy season. Also worth noting is that caffeine levels are not altered by the roasting process. This applies to both chocolate and coffee production.
How does this compare to coffee?
As you will see, a 50-gram bar of 75% Ecuadorian dark chocolate has roughly the same amount of caffeine (75 mg) as a single shot of espresso or a Starbucks cappuccino. But…its effect will still be different. This is due to the “entourage effect” between caffeine, theobromine and other psychoactive compounds within cacao. More on that below.
How does it compare to tea, matcha, and Red Bull?
Have a look…
The so-called "Entourage Effect"
The “entourage effect” is most often associated with the synergistic effect that THC, CBD, and terpenes have when consuming cannabis. Promising new research suggests that the influence of all of these compounds (when consumed together) has a greater effect than if they were each consumed alone. In other words, when it comes to feeling the effects of these substances, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
A similar effect has been found to occur in the realm of xanthines like caffeine and theobromine. And it’s believed to be especially pronounced in cacao, which is also loaded with terpenes, a host of other polyphenols, and boasts at least one endogenous cannabinoid.
A recent psychopharmacology publication, titled “More than just caffeine: psychopharmacology of methylxanthine interactions with plant-derived phytochemicals,” found that:
Specific sets of constituent compounds such as polyphenols, theobromine and L-theanine appear to enhance mood and cognition effects of caffeine and alleviate negative psychophysiological effects of caffeines.
If you consume caffeine in the form of dark chocolate, the overall effect it has on your body and your brain is measurably different. This difference is especially important for those of us who are extra-sensitive to caffeine (myself included). You still get the boost of energy and focus, but you probably won’t experience any jitters or midday crash, and you’ll most likely sleep better at night.
This is what the science says, and it’s certainly consistent with what I’ve experienced personally. I’ve been experimenting with cacao versus coffee for over ten years — both as a farmer and as a consumer. In terms of the overall physiological effects, in my opinion cacao is the clear winner. I find it to be more user-friendly.
On the subject of organic Ecuadorian dark chocolate, sourced from heirloom Nacional cacao, check out our full range of offerings, which include chocolate bars, 100% cacao powder, and drinking chocolate.