Costa cappuccinos deliver nearly five times as much caffeine as Starbucks ones

Which? study reveals huge disparity in the amount of caffeine delivered by high street coffee chains

Coffee lovers looking for a strong pick-me-up should avoid Starbucks and head to Costa, after it emerged its cappuccinos deliver almost five times as much caffeine – the same as four cans of Red Bull.

Buyers of a Costa medium cappuccino get three shots of espresso and a table-topping 325mg of caffeine, which is around the same as four cups of tea, and way above the Starbucks equivalent containing just 66mg.

The study by the consumer group Which? has revealed the extraordinary disparity in the amount of caffeine delivered by high street coffee chains. It said 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 junkies, Greggs and Pret a Manger delivered the second- and third-highest cappuccino caffeine levels, at 197mg and 180mg respectively. In comparison, a 250ml can of Red Bull – the drink of choice to sleep-deprived teenagers – contains about 80mg of caffeine.

For those looking to lower their caffeine intake, however, an increasingly common stance, the study found a clear “winner” on the high street – Starbucks. It might not wake you up, but its medium cappuccino contains a relatively low 66mg of caffeine, while its espresso contained half that.

“I think coffee is still functionally about caffeine and I feel like for the world’s most popular psychoactive drug, most people have no idea how much they’re taking,” said James Hoffmann, coffee expert and winner of the World Barista Championship in 2007. “I’m not sure that’s a good thing for any sort of supplement that you might want to use.”

The Which? research found that a single espresso from Pret a Manger offered the biggest hit – 180mg of caffeine. Pret’s filter coffee also contained the most caffeine at 271mg, two-and-a-half times as much as the Starbucks version.

Caffè Nero had the second lowest levels of caffeine after Starbucks in both the cappuccino, (110-115mg) and espresso (45mg) categories. The US Food and Drug Administration considers 400mg a safe amount of caffeine for healthy adults to consume daily.

Levi Tyrell Johnson, 28, with a cappuccino from Pret
Levi Tyrell Johnson, 28, with a cappuccino from Pret Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

Levi Tyrell Johnson, 28, regularly buys cappuccinos from Pret because of how convenient he finds it. “I’ve got a Pret subscription, so it is ease of use for me,” he said. “There’s one everywhere. Because I drink so much coffee on the go, it’s easier to pay a flat monthly fee than grabbing one every day.

“I like strong coffee and this is my closest coffee shop. I probably need more caffeine, I’ve got quite a high energy job so I need to stay alert and active for as long as possible, so I don’t mind the difference.”

Shefalee Loth, Which? nutritionist, said: “Many of us rely on coffee to get us through the dark winter mornings, but our research shows you may be consuming significantly more, or less, caffeine than you bargained for.”

Loth said people who were sensitive to caffeine, or needed to avoid it for health reasons, such as being pregnant, may want to request fewer shots in the drink when ordering.

Zoe Parker and Brett Davies
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 from Costa Coffee. “I’m actually shocked,” she said. “I don’t drink much caffeine in general so now I feel even more surprised because I thought one coffee would be fine.

“I prefer Costa to Starbucks, so I’d probably still go to a Costa over a Starbucks,” Parker added. “Because I drink coffee so rarely, I would still feel fine having a Costa coffee. If I was drinking it all the time, then it might change my mind. I might go for a Starbucks instead occasionally.”

Laurens Dekker, 25, said he would be more thoughtful about where he bought his coffee in the future as he tried to limit his caffeine consumption. “I’ve cut down a lot to just one a day,” he said. “I used to have six to eight cups. It’s just too much.

Laurens Dekker
Laurens Dekker Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

“I had no idea that there was that big a difference. I thought coffee was just coffee, but maybe I’ll start thinking about it now.”

Hoffmann said that, regardless of the caffeine content, people tended to have a favourite and knowing the caffeine content might not change their order.

“If someone really enjoys Starbucks, they probably won’t enjoy Costa and 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 have caffeine in it, but I can’t deny that we all have a kind of caffeine based relationship with it.”

Most of the coffees in the chains Which? looked at feature at least two shots of espresso. Which? 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 drinks was clearly displayed in its stores and on its website, and it would “encourage customers to be aware of the caffeine content”.

“All Costa coffees can be enjoyed with decaf coffee and we offer a wide range of non-caffeinated drinks,” they added.


Miles Brignall and Mabel Banfield-Nwachi

The GuardianTramp

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