Is caffeine-free the new alcohol-free?

From alternatives to get a morning jolt of energy, to beverages that eliminate caffeine altogether, the pursuit of wellness is increasingly caffeine-free

18 April 2024 - 13:30
By Norma Young
Two-thirds of the SA population are coffee consumers.
Image: Two-thirds of the SA population are coffee consumers.

Coffee’s ubiquity in society spans from the subject of art such as in A Morning Coffee by Renoir, to the common prop of a takeaway cup that tests the balancing skills of actors racing in or out of a scene, to recent innovative applications in candles, beauty products, chewing gum and even balsamic vinegar. 

Surveys have shown that about two-thirds of the South African population are coffee consumers, while global figures indicate more than 2.25-billion cups of coffee are consumed in the world daily. Increasingly, however, these brews are decaffeinated; and the caffeine-free trend is extending to other beverages.


While many people sip their morning java anticipating a bolt of energy, this same effect can be antagonistic for other physiological functions.

According to the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, caffeine can cause a variety of responses ranging from increased alertness, energy and ability to concentrate to negative outcomes such as anxiety, restlessness, insomnia and an increased heart rate.

Additionally, one of its properties is that caffeine is a psychoactive drug, which can be addictive, notes the school. “People often develop a ‘caffeine tolerance’ when taken regularly, which can reduce its stimulant effects unless a higher amount is consumed. When suddenly stopping all caffeine, withdrawal symptoms often follow such as irritability, headache, agitation, depressed mood and fatigue.” 

The drawbacks of caffeine are so well-known that it is the regular subject of mood-related memes and new lexicon such as the word procaffeinate, which is the tendency to delay a task until a cup of coffee has been consumed; and the words coffee anxiety, which describes the racing heart, breathlessness or headache that sometimes follow a cuppa.

For all the benefits and social appeal of coffee culture, the beverage does have some disadvantages that are causing modern consumers to seek out alternatives. A growing focus on wellness and the personal agency to make health-promoting choices is placing coffee on a similar trajectory to alcohol. The introduction of alcohol-free wines, beers, spirits and ciders has given more choices to teetotalling drinkers; and those wanting to avoid caffeine also have a growing number of options.

There are caffeine-free carbonated soft drinks choices.
Image: There are caffeine-free carbonated soft drinks choices.


Marketing in which the caffeine-free properties of soft drinks are highlighted, indicate the pervasive presence of the stimulant in many beverages. In June 2023, PepsiCo announced the launch of Starry Lemon Lime, a new cold drink that comes in regular and zero sugar versions. But it also has another prominent profile of being caffeine-free, unlike many of the drinks with which it shares a shelf. Often the sugar content of these is highlighted but as increased people eschew caffeine, its absence needs to be noted in advertising material. 

The 2023 SA Carbonated Soft Drinks (CSD) Industry Landscape Report shows that this trend is present locally with “more South African brands introducing low sugar, sugar-free, and caffeine-free CSD products”. 

One of the newest offerings in their portfolio refresh is Coca-Cola No Sugar No Caffeine. In a media release announcing the new product, the brand noted it had been formulated as “part of the company’s commitment to making consumers conscious about their choices and giving them autonomy and variety in their consumption choices”. 

On the other end of the business strategy, naturally caffeine-free products such as rooibos tea have new variants and ranges to appeal to more consumers. BOS, the iced tea brand, has expanded to now offer sports drinks and sparkling iced tea, which all use organic rooibos as the primary ingredient. Another tea brand, Carmien, produces cold brew rooibos tea, rooibos espresso and smoothie blends. Reflecting various preferences and needs, these ever-growing options enable consumers to be caffeine-free at any moment or occasion. 

Spearmint tea is said to boost concentration and support short-term memory.
Image: Spearmint tea is said to boost concentration and support short-term memory.


Consider some of these alternatives to get a caffeine-free lift:

Chicory hot drinks: Beverages made from chicory taste like coffee but have no caffeine. Chicory root tea is made by steeping chicory root that has been ground or chopped, while chicory coffee is made from the roasted and ground root of the chicory plant.

Ashwagandha infusions: Ashwagandha is an important herb in Ayurvedic medicine. Some of its medicinal properties include being able to boost energy, sharpen focus and improve memory. Practitioners often use this herb as a health tonic to increase energy and reduce stress and anxiety. Ashwagandha-containing products span from packaged drinks to powders, jelly beans, chews, strips and lozenges. 

Spearmint tea: This variant of the mint plant can be dried and steeped to make a caffeine-free beverage. It has compounds that boost concentration and support short-term memory, making it a viable option for a morning drink that gives energy. With its distinct scent, spearmint is often incorporated in products like chewing gum, essential oil, mints and perfumes, for its refreshing and energising fragrance.