The caffeine paradox: sleep, anxiety and the endless rise in caffeine consumption

Although consumers’ stress and anxiety levels remain high, their desire for caffeine has not waned. In fact, the demand for higher caffeine products is actually rising. By Matthew Barry

The last two years have been stressful. Globally, stress and anxiety now rank as the second most common health concern, according to Euromonitor International’s Voice of the Consumer: Health and Nutrition Survey 2021. Many of the other top reported issues, including sleeping problems and headaches, tend to be closely linked to high stress levels.

Decaffeinated coffee and tea should therefore benefit, right? Actually, the exact opposite is happening. Per capita, consumption of both decaffeinated teas and coffees are projected to fall in the coming years even as consumption of tea and coffee overall is set to rise.

Some of the best-selling coffee products are those with added caffeine. Image: Death Wish Coffee

Many of the best performing coffee and tea products in recent years have been those with added caffeine. Death Wish Coffee in the US is the standout example of this trend. Throughout the world, there are now coffees (and to a lesser extent, teas) embracing the idea of ultra-caffeination. Adjacent categories like bottled water are also launching caffeinated products to take advantage of this continuously rising demand.

But how can these two clear trends coexist? Why are consumers eager to increase their caffeine consumption while also being concerned with their stress levels and sleep quality?

The explanation is found in the caffeine paradox—higher levels of stress and sleep troubles lead, paradoxically, to higher demands for caffeine.

At the core of consumer stress is the desire to accomplish more. And this desire creates more stress, which leads to more caffeine consumption for sufficient energy. Consumers certainly have a great deal to do. In fact,42 per cent of consumers in Euromonitor’s 2021 Lifestyles Survey feel under constant pressure to get things done.

Stress and anxiety rank as top concerns not just for American adults, but globally as well. Image: Euromonitor

Sleep disruptions play a role here too. Consumers who sleep poorly look for more intense caffeine boosts to allow them to focus and be productive throughout the day.

This creates a dual demand. One segment of consumers wants ever-higher levels of caffeine, whereas another wants energy that produces a less anxiety-inducing boost. The first group is the one powering the rapid growth of ultra-caffeinated coffee and energy drinks. The second exists but is much smaller.
More than 40 per cent of global consumers report a desire to reduce their caffeine intake, according to Euromonitor’s 2021 Health and Nutrition Survey. But this sentiment is purely aspirational for many. The need to power through the day often overshadows the goal to cutback on caffeine and relax. But interesting product launches in the low-caffeine space have so far failed to gain more than niche appeal. This desire to reduce caffeine consumption is real but is destined in most cases to go unfulfilled in the short term.

Image: Euromonitor

Is this paradox sustainable? The answer seems to be yes. Even with rising caffeine levels, no major market of the world is approaching consumption of the 400 mg per day threshold where most health authorities fix the upper bound of healthy intake.

High-caffeine product launches do not seem to be slowing, and decaf sales remain sluggish, suggesting that the caffeine paradox will hold true for a significant amount of time still.

That leaves coffee and tea where they have always been—powerful tools in coping with the larger challenges of life. The underlying stressors of the modern world are beyond the power of the industry to solve. But manufacturers can offer a range of products to help alleviate possible burdens, from those who want as much caffeine as they can consume to those prioritising mindfulness and looking to cut back. As for the foreseeable future, the former will be the dominant force.

  • Matthew Barry is senior beverages consultant at London-based Euromonitor International. He is based in the Chicago, Illinois office. He may be reached at: [email protected].

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