Caffeine, Taste & Sleep
March 7, 2005 4:54 PM   Subscribe

Two caffeine-related questions regarding its effect on taste and sleep.

I like the 'sharp' taste of colas like Coke/Pepsi. Is that a function of the caffeine or that of a pressurised carbonated liquid? What I really want to know is are there colas that present the same sort of sharpness without stimulants in them?

Which brings me to the next question: if you're a regular drinker of caffeine(three cans every two days, hardly any coffee) and you consume caffeine, say, 2-3 hrs before sleep, will that affect your ability to sleep? So far I believed it did. But yesterday, I had a Coke 90 mins before bedtime and I don't recall greater difficulty in falling asleep. So, I'm guessing that my tolerance to caffeine took care of that. Is the sleep-interference due to caffeine's effect on the autonomic nervous system or does it depend on psychoactivity?
posted by Gyan to Food & Drink (19 answers total)
Drink flat soda; not so sharp. It's the carbonation.

I drink about 4-6 cups of coffee a day, and I'm still affected by caffeine late at night. But I'm betting doing that regularly would build some tolerance. You'll have to test this several times to get a good sample for a theory.
posted by NickDouglas at 5:11 PM on March 7, 2005

Before quitting caffeine earlier this year, I was having about 4 liters of soda a day. It wouldn't keep me up at all (although it definitely did when i started drinking the stuff), so I assume my tolerance level was at some insanely unheathly level.
posted by null terminated at 5:45 PM on March 7, 2005

The effect of caffeine on my ability to fall asleep is very dependant on other factors. In my early twenties I could drink 3 large cups of coffee in the evening and fall asleep two hours later. Ten years later, I can often get away with drinking a cup of coffee three or four hours before bed, but not always. If anything, I drink more coffee than I did before, so my tolerance should be higher, although perhaps my early morning coffee lingers in my system longer than I assume. Interestingly, now that I've been sleep deprived from fatherhood for the past 9 months, I've had more trouble falling asleep after consuming coffee.
posted by mollweide at 5:47 PM on March 7, 2005

About the sharp flavor: caffeine free coke (regular not diet) tastes almost exactly the same, except that because I drink coke way too often and am too familiar with the subtleties, I notice it is less sharp. Sharp is exactly the right word, too. But it is still pretty darn good.

I can sleep right away after a can. It helps me feel awake in the morning but doesn't do much more. Coffee, on the other hand, makes me jittery as hell.
posted by mai at 5:55 PM on March 7, 2005

Jolt never seemed to be particulary sharp. If caffeine makes much of a difference, it should be apparent, though other ingredients could have a mitigating effect. I'd bet 90% for the carbonation, 5% flavoring, and 5% placebo, Coke is supposed to be crisp. (and refreshing!)

"I drink a lot of coffee before I go to sleep. It helps me dream faster." - Steven Wright "Coffee & Cigarattes"
posted by Jack Karaoke at 6:37 PM on March 7, 2005

I guess it sort of depends on what you mean by "sharp" -- the sharp cola flavor I loved as a kid turns out to be a result of using real sugar, which I discovered when I had the chance to try kosher-for-Passover Coke a while back.

Most pop in the US is made with corn syrup and has less bite than the all-sugar colas. But it has some. Probably the caffeine is part of it too, but I don't know.
posted by litlnemo at 6:42 PM on March 7, 2005

It's definitely the caffiene that makes the taste difference, IMHO. Compare Canadian Mountain Dew (same formula but without caffiene [by law]) and US Mountain Dew and you tell me that the caffiene doesn't make it go from "Eww! I'll take the crab juice!" to "Not so bad".

Since all the caffiene-free Coke I've tried is also diet, it's tough for me to make a good taste comparison in that manner. They both taste relavitely nasty (although I'm developing a taste for Diet Coke...)
posted by shepd at 6:47 PM on March 7, 2005

It's not only caffeine. Caffeine does have a bitter flavor, but it's not very pronounced tiny amounts, and caffeine free beverages can rarely be told from caffeinated beverages in taste testing. In fact, caffeine is only added for its addictive and stimulant qualities.

Two of the most important ingredients in the much-vaunted 'secret' formulas of both Coke and Pepsi are ginger and nutmeg - both highly fragrant, spiky, acidic flavors/scents. Coke and Pepsi also balance the caramel notes with citrus -- more citrus in Coke, which gives it less of the simple sweetness of Pepsi. All three of those notes are detected on the front of the tongue, creating the 'sharpness' you're talking about. Carbonation adds to the bite.

You can still buy real-cane-sugar Coke; look for it in Latin grocery stores.

To find bite without caffeine, you might try some of the natural sodas (not colas) from a health food store. Blue Sky and Dr. Whoever (can't remember) have some sodas with strong, bitter, forward, gingery flavors that you might find satisfying. Then again, if you really love the flavor structure of Coke, nothing else might ever do the trick. Coke, and Pepsi too (though I don't like it), both have really complex, really elaborate flavor profiles that are too difficult and expensive to replicate (That's why other colas, caffeinated or no, still taste like crap). Here's a cool caffeine FAQ, by the way.

I know way too much about Coke. But I've given myself permission to love it excessively - it's my last regularly indulged vice.
posted by Miko at 7:21 PM on March 7, 2005

Second link (about addiction) fixed
posted by Miko at 7:23 PM on March 7, 2005

Best answer: If your idea of "sharpness" is anything like mine, try some spicy ginger ales or root beers. Many people are surprised to learn that these rarely are caffeinated. Jamaican ginger beers can have quite a kick, and Vernor's is great with or without sugar. Also, adding lemon or lime, be it a fresh squeeze or a squirt from a plastic lemon, might give a softer soft drink some of the kick you're after (citrus is another big note in the flavor of cola).

The sleep thing can vary widely due to source (e.g. green tea vs. coffee), as well as many other variables, such as stress, lifestyle and diet. One occurrence does not make a useful pattern, so don't assume the same effect consistently.

If you're interested to learn more about your caffeine tolerance, simply give it up entirely for 3 days and see how bad the withdrawal symptoms are. The faster the headache commences, the higher the likelihood of a high tolerance.
posted by obloquy at 8:02 PM on March 7, 2005

Coffee definitely does affect my ability to fall asleep. I generally avoid drinking cofee 3-4 hours before I attempt to go to bed.

Lately, I've been pulling way too many all nighters that, I think because of fatigue, I can still fall asleep after drinking a cup of coffee.
posted by scalespace at 8:55 PM on March 7, 2005

If you want awesome soda without caffeine, I'd recommend trying Thomas Kemper sodas. They even have a twelve pack sampler you can get. Great stuff.
posted by xmutex at 9:11 PM on March 7, 2005

caffeine has about a 45 minute effect on your neuron's synapses ability to recapture cAMP, which is what makes you alert. After that it should begin to dissipate.

Just don't drink it 45 minutes before bed
posted by slapshot57 at 10:20 PM on March 7, 2005

Caffeine affects my sleep pattern no matter what time of day I drink it, in that I sleep less deeply and even with an alarm clock it takes me forever to wake up. When I quit drinking coffee (usually as a New Year's resolution) I wake up bright and early before my alarm with tons of energy. It's also been noted more than once that I'm extremely grumpy and miserable to be around before I have my coffee, and happy and pleasant afterwards. Ahem. I think some of the tolerance factor is just your own body chemistry, I seem to be extremely sensitive to it.

On a side note, my absolute favorite cola ever is Blue Sky. It's spicier but not as crisp as Coke so it may not appeal to you like it does to me.
posted by cali at 10:38 PM on March 7, 2005

Most pop in the US is made with corn syrup and has less bite than the all-sugar colas. But it has some. Probably the caffeine is part of it too, but I don't know.

I would agree with this. In fact, this is why I prefer Coke when I'm in the US, as opposed to the sickly, sharp stuff we have here in the UK. Corn syrup just seems to present a mellower taste.
posted by wackybrit at 3:56 AM on March 8, 2005

If you want something nice and sharp, try 3/4 Newmans pink Lemonade, and 1/4 Rasperry Seltzer. For years, I drank coke like a crack-whore drinks dick, but with that little combo (and some coffee in the morning) I've managed to kick the coke habit.

(Mind you, I'm still a coke junkie, I'm just on the wagon. And I'll be stuck on the wagon too, until my waistline shinks enough for me to fit over the tailgate.)
posted by jaded at 5:15 AM on March 8, 2005

I often work my way through a whole cafetiere (french press) full of coffee in the hour or so before bedtime and I fall asleep without difficulty, and sleep well.

Although I should add that I work out quite hard every other day. And that the habit of drinking espresso after espresso far into the night with friends while at uni might have something to do with the increased tolerance. Heh.
posted by paperpete at 5:56 AM on March 8, 2005

Best answer: For some reason, my post above seems to have been drastically edited. It's quite possible that I did it myself, by accident, due to the stupid network hiccups I get; but it feels creepy nonetheless.

Here is what it contained.

It'll be very hard to find something that truly approximates Coke's flavor. Coke has one of the most complex, elaborate flavor profiles of any beverage (including many wines). The flavor primarily results from a forward, front-of-the-tongue combination of ginger, nutmeg, and citrus, underlaid with low notes of caramel and vanilla. It's an expensive and difficult balance to create; that's why most other colas taste like crap in comparison. They're too simple. Pepsi is similarly complex, but leans much more heavily on the sweet and citrus and uses much less spice.

As to sweeteners -- you can still find cane-syrup sweetened Coke at Latin grocery stores, where Coke is imported for its Spanish-language packaging. More on the change in sweeteners here, on the Snopes Cokelore page.

Caffeine is added to soda not for its flavor qualities, as soda manufacturers used to claim, but for its addictive qualities, to create consumer demand. The amounts used are too small to create a noticeable flavor, though they are physiologically active.

Because Coke is so carefully constructed, you'll have a very hard time finding another soda that is as satisfying. But because the bite is what you like, I'd recommend trying a variety of natural, ginger-based sodas such as Blue Sky ginger ale and caffeine free cola, Jones ginger ale, or Dr. Brown's ginger ale.
posted by Miko at 7:05 AM on March 8, 2005

Barq's Root Beer is one of the few root beers to contain caffeine. They have claimed that it is added for flavor. I suspect extra carbonation, as well.
posted by kreinsch at 2:33 PM on March 8, 2005

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