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Don’t we all have those days – eyelids resisting with all their might to face the day. Even when you somehow manage to break yourself free from the spell of the warm bed, you keep sitting at the edge, hoping for some miracle that would fast forward the day. Unfortunately, such miracles don’t happen. So, you do what is within your power and you hit your nervous system with some good old caffeine forcing it to wake up.

The same same but different cousins

Coffee – a morning essential for many, the backbone of several economies and a major source of caffeine in our diet. However, there are many energy drinks and products that include caffeine. So, there are chances that you may be consuming caffeine from sources other than just coffee. Caffeine is a strong stimulant of the nervous system and we have all experienced it when we force ourselves into the functional mode by downing a shot of espresso or even that cup of frothy cappuccino. But did you know that caffeine has a close cousin that looks and behaves in a somewhat similar fashion? It’s called theobromine! The most dominant compound found in cacao or chocolate and what also lends cacao its scientific name – Theobroma Cacao.

Like close cousins, theobromine and caffeine are quite similar in their chemical composition and belong to the same family. Theirs is called the “Methylxanthine” chemical family. But like all family members, they are not without their differences and have very unique personalities. We feel and think you will agree as you read on, that caffeine is that outgoing, overachieving cousin who hits a chord with everyone in the family. But theobromine – well it’s that one cousin that is probably not the life of the party but you go to them for deep, meaningful conversations and some perspective.

The Chemical composition

Like caffeine, theobromine is also a stimulant of the central nervous system and they both bind with adenosine receptors present in our brain, making our brain alert and keeping it from going into sleep mode. We have covered this function in a more detailed manner in our article on ceremonial cacao which you can read here. But that’s not it. Both these compounds have very unique functions. Maybe the differences outnumber the similarities and to understand them we will have to look at the chemical composition of both the compounds:

Chemical composition of Theobromine and Caffeine

Who’s got what?

The circled portion in the chemical composition of caffeine denotes an extra methyl group, which is absent in theobromine. This extra methyl group present in caffeine makes it a much stronger stimulant as compared to theobromine.  It helps caffeine to pass the blood brain barrier – a semi permeable membrane formed by tightly joined cells that separates blood vessels from brain tissues, protecting the brain by keeping out toxins. However, certain elements could break the blood – brain barrier and caffeine is one of them. This makes caffeine a highly effective stimulant of the brain. This extra methyl group also makes the bind of caffeine with adenosine receptors much tighter as compared to that of theobromine. On the other hand, since theobromine lacks that additional methyl group, it is not able to break the blood brain barrier and binds with lesser adenosine receptors, which makes theobromine a milder stimulant as compared to caffeine.

This might sound like we are making a strong case for caffeine. But there is more. Theobromine apart from being a stimulant is also a vasodilator, which means that it dilates or widens blood vessels, making it easier for the blood to flow. This function has a relaxing effect on the body. So, what you get is, that just right stimulation of the brain and relaxation of the body, as opposed to the over-stimulation caused by coffee which is what makes many people feel jittery, anxious and nervous after consumption.

There is yet another difference between caffeine and theobromine and that is in their respective “half – life”. Half – life refers to the time taken by the body to metabolize a drug and reduce it to half of the original quantity consumed. The half-life of caffeine is about 5 hours. So, for instance, if you have consumed about 100 mg of caffeine at noon, you will still have about 50 mg of caffeine in your body by 5 pm.  As opposed to this, the half-life of theobromine is about 7 hours. Which means that the gentle alerting and relaxing quality of theobromine lasts for a much longer time and that too without the unwanted jitters, nausea and the final crash in energy known as caffeine crash that happens when the effect of caffeine wears off.

In order to draw the benefits of theobromine, it is only natural to turn towards cacao – the food that was considered to be the heart of all existence by and was an intrinsic part of the life for the ancient Mesoamericans. Cacao is the primary source of theobromine and when one consumes cacao, not only are they benefitting from the theobromine in the cacao, but also other minerals, nutrients, phytonutrients, antioxidants and many other compounds like anandamides and hormones like serotonin, dopamine and endorphins which are responsible for an overall sense of wellbeing. Last but not the least, cacao also contains a small amount of caffeine that adds to its overall effect. However, to get the maximum benefit of theobromine and other compounds of cacao, one must make sure to have it with the least amount of processing and additives. For instance, a bar of 70% to 100% dark chocolate made using ethically grown and sourced cacao and without the use of any additives like preservatives, emulsifiers, flavours etc. will be more nutrient dense than a cup of sweetened hot chocolate. We like to get our dose of theobromine and other cacao goodness in different ways – by eating our 70% dark chocolates, by making a drink using our 100% drinking cacao and water or in the form a tea made by steeping some cacao nibs, cacao husk and rose petals.

So, what is better? Caffeine or theobromine? Well, it entirely depends. While coffee can definitely shake things up and give you that instant hit of energy, it comes with its own jitters and crashes. But if you are looking at something that is a mild stimulant but helps concentrate, fights fatigue and is at the same time calming for a longer period of time, then its theobromine that you should be consuming. Having said that, it is important that whatever be your drink of choice, the same should be consumed in moderation and keeping in mind that any food in excess will have its ill effects.

So, while you make your choice between a caffeine or theobromine, we will sit back and sip on our cacao drink.

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