Chocolate is one of life’s simple pleasures. If you’ve done any research into its stimulating properties, you’ve probably heard of theobromine, caffeine’s distant cousin. Theobromine is found primarily in cacao, and like caffeine, is considered to be one of nature’s best stimulants.
Theobromine and caffeine both have a positive effect on our moods and alertness, and are known to have a variety of other health advantages. However theobromine has been found to have fewer of the unwarranted side effects that caffeine brings (i.e. jitters, insomnia, etc.).
Read on to learn more about theobromine vs. caffeine, and how a morning brownie or a protein-rich cocoa beverage may actually be beneficial.
- What is Theobromine?
- What is Caffeine?
- Theobromine vs Caffeine: The Main Differences
- How Do Theobromine and Caffeine Work?
- How Much Theobromine in Chocolate?
- Sources of Theobromine
- Caffeine vs Theobromine FAQ
What is Theobromine?
Theobromine is a naturally-occurring molecule found in a small number of plants, discovered in 1841 by Alekasandr Woskresensky. While it can be found in trace levels in green tea and yerba mate, the cacao plant (Theobroma cacao) is by far the most abundant source of this chemical compound (C7H8N4O2).
The bitter-tasting alkaloid, theobromine, is classified as a methylxanthine. It’s most notable as an important component in chocolate; it’s part of the secret to the flavor, aroma, and health benefits of cocoa, and by extension, chocolate.
Chocolate was traditionally regarded as a beneficial nutrient and even a medicine, in addition to being a pleasant habit. Theobromine is the main compound responsible for this, though its flavor is primarily bitter.
While it’s only found in trace amounts in cacao, the high antioxidant content of theobromine in cacao beans has been linked to the health advantages of cocoa. It’s also a mild stimulant that can cause direct psychoactive effects, quite similar to those of caffeine.
It boasts of nutrients like magnesium, zinc, and selenium that aid in improving cognitive functions, blood flow, reducing inflammation, and protecting against chronic diseases and oxidative stress. So eating chocolate in moderation, especially those with high theobromine content, may be extremely beneficial.
Furthermore, it’s less strong and is active in the body for longer than caffeine. According to studies, theobromine appears to be safe when consumed between 300 - 600 milligrams per day. The 0.5-2.7% theobromine content found in chocolates is low enough to be safe for human consumption in regular doses.
Then again, if you start to eat half a pound of chocolate a day, you probably have bigger problems. While theobromine is typically regarded as safe for human ingestion, large doses might produce nausea, vomiting, tremors, and seizures.
The considered toxic (lethal) amount of theobromine for human consumption is 1000 mg per kilo of body weight. But be aware that animals, especially your beloved fur-babies, metabolize theobromine more slowly and may succumb to theobromine poisoning if they consume chocolate.
What is Caffeine?
Like theobromine, caffeine (C8H10N4O2) is a natural stimulant sourced from a variety of plants, but most notably the coffee plant, Coffea arabica. It’s present in coffee and cocoa, cola, tea, energy drinks, and health supplements.
Caffeine is an alkaloid consumed by millions of people worldwide due to its stimulating properties. Caffeine's effects can be felt as soon as 15 minutes after drinking coffee or eating chocolate. That’s why many people rely on caffeine to wake them up and keep them fueled throughout the day.
Like theobromine, it’s a methylxanthine and a bitter alkaloid that can improve cognitive function and energy levels, and reduce the risk of neurodegenerative diseases. Caffeine enters the bloodstream, travels to the brain and works by influencing the central nervous system.
It inhibits adenosine (a substance which makes you feel tired) and increases the activity of other neurotransmitters such as dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain, and increases the circulation of cortisol and adrenaline in the body.
This explains how many people can stay alert and energized after drinking a cup of joe. The caffeine in coffee, tea and many other caffeinated drinks can be taken in moderation as part of a healthy diet up to 400 mg per day for normal adults.
Theobromine vs Caffeine: The Main Differences
Theobromine and Caffeine, Nature’s Own
Both theobromine and caffeine are naturally occurring in the fruit, leaves, and beans of various plants. Theobromine is most commonly sourced from cacao, but it can also be found in green coffee beans, guarana, kola nuts, and yerba mate.
Caffeine is found in coffee, cacao, kola nuts, tea leaves (black, oolong, and in green tea in smaller quantities), yerba mate, and guarana. It's also used as an additive to sodas and energy drinks, or consumed as powder or tablets as part of treatment for disorders like ADHD.
Crash and Burn Vs. Slow and Steady
Strong and intense, caffeine is fast-acting in the body, though short-lived. Theobromine is gentle, has a delayed onset, and is long-lasting in the body. Although theobromine and caffeine have similar effects on the body, theobromine is about ten times less potent than caffeine.
Caffeine is also highly water soluble. For most people, the level of caffeine in their blood rises approximately 30-40 minutes after intake, and it remains in the body for many hours, decreasing in half after about 2.5-5 hours. Caffeine can then take up to ten hours to completely exit your bloodstream.
Fat soluble theobromine reaches peak blood concentration a few hours (2-3 hours) after intake. Its half-life is reached at an estimated 7-12 hours.
For Energy Boost and Better Mood
Theobromine and caffeine both can improve focus by blocking adenosine receptors and inhibiting phosphodiesterase. Simply, what this does is reduce the chemicals in the brain that cause us to feel sleepy and distracted.
A hot chocolate beverage can be just as stimulating as coffee but in a different way, as it contains another natural stimulant, theobromine. Coffee contains caffeine, while cacao also contains a small amount of caffeine, but contains a higher proportion of theobromine.
What sets theobromine apart from the other stimulants in its class is that it has a longer-lasting and calmer effect on the body. It doesn’t have the common crash that you can feel when your caffeine spike has mellowed down.
According to research, both theobromine and caffeine can improve our moods. These molecules work together to provide the uplifting and pleasurable experiences that people associate with chocolate and tea thanks to their downstream effect on dopamine production.
For example, when eating chocolate as a snack, the plant chemicals in chocolate may interact with a number of neurotransmitter systems (including those of dopamine, serotonin and endorphins) that contribute to appetite, and mood regulation.
Just keep in mind when consumed in order to "feel better," it may provide some transient ‘comforting’ role, but due to the usual sugar content, it's more likely to prolong rather than rid you of the unhappy feeling.
Better Heart or Brain Health?
Theobromine has a more profound effect on our cardiovascular system, with muscle-calming properties, than on the central nervous system.
Its benefits include working as a cardiac stimulant and vasodilator by widening blood vessels, managing blood pressure, increasing oxygen supply, reducing coronary vasospasm, improving blood flow, and supporting healthy circulation.
Whereas coffee constricts blood vessels, causing substantial increases in blood pressure, theobromine dilates blood vessels, resulting in improved cardiovascular outcomes - reduced blood pressure, enhanced blood flow, and improved circulation.
Research has shown that by inhibiting enzymes, theobromine can increase the levels of cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP) and cyclic guanosine monophosphate (cGMP), leading to various physiological effects such as vasodilation, and bronchodilation.
On the other hand, when you consume caffeine through coffee or an energy drink, it enters the bloodstream and stimulates the central nervous system (nerves, brain, and spinal cord). It stimulates the brain by preventing the neurotransmitter adenosine from acting on its receptors.
Dopamine signaling in the brain is also increased, making you feel more focused and alert. Normally, adenosine levels slowly rise throughout the day, relaxing the brain and making you tired and sleepy.
Caffeine keeps you awake by attaching to adenosine receptors in your brain and inhibiting (rather than activating) them. This “activation” is another aspect of what makes us feel more awake, focused, and energized when we drink something like coffee.
Caffeine stimulates the brain and central nervous system, keeping you alert and preventing weariness. It may also boost blood adrenaline levels and the activity of the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain.
Can We Get Addicted to Theobromine?
Some people are more sensitive to caffeine than others. They experience jitters, anxiety or a pounding heart, and some people won’t be able to sleep if they take caffeine in the late afternoon, or certainly at night.
As mentioned above, caffeine is able to cross the blood-brain barrier to tap into the central nervous system, causing jitters and the semblance of dependence. Though caffeine can cause a dependence in the body, it’s not considered an addiction.
It increases dopamine levels, ever-so-slightly fueling cravings for caffeinated food and beverages. It’s also why for some people, coffee drinking is a hard-to-kick habit. Theobromine has a similar structure to caffeine, but has a lower, non-stimulating effect on the body.
The direct psychotropic action of methylxanthines in cocoa, on the other hand, is significant in the way it gives off a “holistic high, a calming and peaceful sensation similar to a good night’s sleep, with improved concentration.
So if a non-disruptive drink is what you seek, you may want to consider switching up your morning habit from coffee to hot chocolate.
How Do Theobromine and Caffeine Work?
Theobromine and caffeine are both natural stimulants that can boost mood, cognitive function, and physical performance. Theobromine is a milder stimulant than caffeine and has extra effects on smooth muscles that caffeine does not.
Both chemicals have different effects depending on the individual and their tolerance to stimulants. However, caffeine is a stronger stimulant than theobromine. Classified as methylxanthines, both theobromine and caffeine are stimulants naturally present in coffee (caffeine), green tea (theophylline) and cacao (theobromine).
These are all three widely consumed across the globe, but the proportion of each stimulant varies by beverage. The alkaloid theobromine boosts the release of nitric oxide in the human body, in turn reducing enzymes in the blood that make the compound work wonders for the heart, lowering blood pressure and improving mood.
Theobromine has a soothing impact on smooth muscles, which can aid in cough reduction and breathing improvement in those with asthma. Back in the 70’s, they showed that nibbling on dark chocolate soothes asthma. This particular study showed that 300 mg of theobromine from dark chocolate allows asthmatics to breathe easier.
Chronic coughing was found to be relieved from a single 1000 mg theobromine dose from sweet dark chocolate. The theobromine in chocolate isn’t considered a cure because the symptoms returned after treatment was over, but it is a pretty sweet way to manage an illness.
In science-speak, only one methyl group separates caffeine and theobromine (a carbon atom with three hydrogen atoms connected to it). The third methyl group allows caffeine to pass the blood-brain barrier and bind to adenosine receptors.
This difference, though minor, is what differentiates caffeine from theobromine in leaps and bounds. It’s what allows coffee to tap into the central nervous system, preventing drowsiness and boosts alertness and adrenaline levels.
This “adrenaline surge” is also what causes jitters in some people. Drinking caffeine habitually may also lead to experiencing withdrawal symptoms if you can't have your caffeine fix or fixes for the day or over several days.
Caffeine is overall more likely to cause jitters, restlessness, and insomnia due to its higher potency, whereas theobromine has fewer negative effects. In terms of the amount required to generate a desired effect, such as alertness or mood improvement, theobromine and caffeine cannot be compared.
Theobromine and caffeine have different effects on the body, and the amount of each required to achieve a certain impact varies based on the individual's weight, metabolism, sensitivity to each chemical, and other factors.
Theobromine is estimated to be one-tenth as powerful as caffeine, thus that 10 times as much theobromine is required to produce the same effect as caffeine. This, however, is merely an estimate, and some people estimate that it's more like 5 times as much.
The darker the chocolate, the more theobromine & caffeine it contains. A 1-ounce serving of dark chocolate typically contains 200-250 milligrams of theobromine and 19-24 milligrams of caffeine, while an 8-ounce cup of coffee has approximately 80-100 mg of caffeine and has practically no theobromine.
Caffeine concentration in coffee can also vary depending on the type of coffee, the brewing procedures, and other factors. Cacao varietal, origin, and processing all play a role.
How Much Theobromine in Chocolate?
As mentioned earlier, theobromine naturally occurs in cacao at a proportion of approximately 2% by weight. The amount of theobromine in cocoa and chocolate will vary depending on the variety of chocolate, percentage of cacao solids, the brand, and other factors.
Generally speaking, the higher the percentage of cacao solids, the more theobromine it contains. Milk chocolate (10-50% cocoa solids) typically contains less theobromine than dark chocolate (55-100% cocoa solids), as it contains less cacao solids.
According to the FDA, different types of chocolate have varying quantities of theobromine:
- Milk Chocolate: roughly 426-634 mg theobromine per 100g milk chocolate
- Semisweet Chocolate Chips: roughly 486 mg theobromine per 100g chocolate chips
- Baking Chocolate: roughly 1,597 mg theobromine per 100g baking chocolate
- Dark Chocolate: roughly 802 mg theobromine per 100g dark chocolate
- White Chocolate: contains little to no theobromine at roughly 10 mg theobromine per 100g white chocolate
- Dry Cocoa Powder (unsweetened and processed with alkali): roughly 2,634 mg theobromine per 100g cocoa powder
- Hot Chocolate: roughly 68 mg theobromine per 5 ounce cup hot chocolate
- Chocolate Milk & Hot Cocoa: roughly 58 and 62 milligrams theobromine respectively per serving
Theobromine concentrations vary widely in dark chocolate, from 0.36-0.63%. According to that same study, a 1-oz bar of dark chocolate contains 130 mg theobromine and a 1-oz bar of milk chocolate contains 44 mg theobromine.
Theobromine content of chocolate baked goods prepared at home from cocoa powder and chocolate is estimated to be anywhere from 24 mg per serving in chocolate brownies to 724 mg in chocolate frostings.
If you’re worried about ingesting too much theobromine from any of these chocolate and cacao products, note that the largest doses can be found in unroasted cacao powder at 2,634 mg for every 100 grams of cocoa powder.
To reach a toxic level of theobromine intake is thought to be roughly 1000 milligrams of theobromine per kilogram of body weight. That’s more than the typical bag full of cocoa powder that you can buy, and that’s assuming a child’s weight.
A brownie recipe typically only calls for 12 tablespoons of cocoa powder, so even just one batch would have about 2000 mg of theobromine. In terms of candy bars, that's about 292 (100g) bars of chocolate in one sitting for an average-sized adult weighing approximately 60 kg.
There's no recommended daily dosage of theobromine, but 300-600 mg of theobromine a day appears to be safe. Always keep in mind that theobromine isn't the only component in chocolate that has potential health advantages.
Chocolate also contains flavonoids, which are natural antioxidants that can help protect against oxidative stress and lower the risk of chronic diseases like cancer and heart disease.
Sources of Theobromine
Chocolate, tea, and whole-bean coffee products contain theobromine. While cacao is the most common natural source of theobromine, it can also be found in matcha green tea, coffee and green coffee beans, guarana, kola nuts, and a few other lesser-known plants.
However the amount in coffee is essentially zero, according to sample studies.
Theobromine is most commonly found and easily accessible in chocolate. According to the data mentioned above, cocoa powder, baking chocolate, and dark chocolate have the highest amounts of theobromine, of all cacao products.
Dark chocolate has more cocoa solids (as well as less sugar and more antioxidants) than milk or white chocolate, while using cacao paste makes for higher-theobromine drinking chocolate.
With approximately 131 mg of theobromine per tablespoon, cacao powder is an excellent source of theobromine. Use this when baking brownies, cakes, making frosting, or your favorite cup of hot chocolate.
Theobromine is also found in trace levels in tea leaves from the Camellia sinensis plant. It is found the most in black tea and the least in oolong tea containing 1.64 and 1.69 mg/g and .65 and .71 mg/g respectively. While green to roughly contains 1.22 to 6.04 mg/g.
According to this publishing from the National Library of Medicine, green coffee beans contain 20 mg/kg, produced tea contains 0.15-0.20%, and dried yerba mate contains 0.3%.
Caffeine vs Theobromine FAQ
The effects of theobromine cannot be directly compared to those of caffeine, but in general, theobromine is thought to be one-fifth to one-tenth as strong as caffeine. This means that it requires roughly 5-10x as much theobromine to generate the same effects as caffeine.
In small doses of 300-600 mg (2-4 chocolate bars), theobromine is generally considered safe for human consumption. While moderate consumption of chocolate and other theobromine-containing foods is generally safe for most people, excessive and habitual consumption can cause a variety of symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and seizures. For humans, the hazardous threshold is roughly 1g per Kg of body weight, but it's nearly impossible to eat enough chocolate to cause theobromine poisoning.
Yes, there is more theobromine in chocolate than there is caffeine. In general, the higher the amount of cocoa solids in chocolate, the more theobromine it contains than caffeine. A 50 grams serving of dark chocolate, for example, has approximately 250 mg of theobromine and 19 mg of caffeine.
While both theobromine and caffeine are stimulants belonging to the methylxanthine chemical family, their chemical structures differ, and they influence the body in distinct ways. C8H10N4O2 is the chemical formula of caffeine, and its molecular weight is 194.19 g/mol. C7H8N4O2 is the chemical formula of theobromine, and its molecular weight is 180.16 g/mol. While similar, caffeine contains one more methyl group, and theobromine has two methyl groups bonded to the nitrogen atoms in its original xanthine skeleton, while caffeine is a trimethylated derivative of xanthine.