Generally speaking, caffeine content is one of the worst metrics to use when assessing the desirability of a cup of coffee. (In a somewhat contradictory twist though, whenever a brand is hyping their coffee as having the “world’s most caffeine” or some such boast, it’s always bad. Full stop.) Yes, caffeine plays an important functional role for many coffee drinkers, but reducing a cup of coffee to its milligrams of caffeine is really missing the point entirely.
Even still, a recent study by the consumer group Which (stylized Which?) has me rethinking my caffeine-as-metric stance. When comparing caffeine content in coffee drinks at the most popular chains in the UK, they found a Costa cappuccino has over five times the amount of caffeine as its Starbucks counterpart. Like, what?!
As reported by the Guardian, Which examined caffeine count of similar coffee drink at five coffee chains: Costa, Starbucks, Pret a Manger, Greggs, and Caffe Nero. Measurements were taken for cappuccinos, single shots of espresso, and filter coffees for each location. They found that a medium cappuccino (whatever the hell that means) at Costa—made with three shots of espresso—was the most caffeinated drink on offer, coming in at a whopping 325mg. This, per the Guardian, is equivalent to “four cans of Red Bull.” In one capp.
Starbucks, on the other hand, was only showed to have 66mg. Greggs, Pret, and Caffe Nero came in second, third, and fourth with 197mg, 180mg, and 110mg, respectively. Pret a Manger took home the prizes for most caffeinated espresso and filter coffee at 180mg for the espresso and 271mg for the filter.
The Guardian notes that the US Food & Drug Administration advises for healthy adults to consume no more than 400mg of caffeine daily. So you can have two cappuccinos a day, if you’re willing to split them between Costa and Starbucks.
These results are frankly startling. That you could pop in to the nearest coffee chain and be treated to either a paltry amount or near your recommended daily allotment from the same drink is… discomforting. Granted different cafes’ drinks are going to have differing caffeine contents—some use double shots versus single shots, others pull ristrettos, all affecting the overall caffeine level—but this sort of disparity is on a whole nother level. It makes me think that Starbucks is trying to shortchange me and Costa is trying to kill me, but I’m not sure which is worse.
This is just reason 84,297 why I get my coffee from local specialty coffee shops. The standardization of drink names and sizes and the widespread reliance on Arabica (but shout out to robusta for quietly being capable of tasting very good) means, at least as far as caffeine content goes, you can expect a pretty consistent product. If you order a cappuccino, you have a pretty good idea of what you are going to get. You don’t have to microdose your coffee at each new cafe in order to test the potency like you’re about to go on your first shroom trip.
Top image via the Library of Congress