Beetrooccino & a certain xanthine alkaloid

Oh, caffeine. Or as its ultra-catchy IUPAC name would have it, 1,3,7-trimethyl-1H-purine-2,6(3H,7H)-dione. It’s the most widely consumed psychoactive substance in the world, and I’m consuming it right now, while I type! Just think of the things that have possibly been written under the influence of caffeine. Probably, like, War & Peace and stuff. And so this blog post pompously insinuates itself into that mighty company.

But how much of our dependence upon (and love affair with) caffeine is the result of its chemical effects on our brains, and how much is just in the mind? (Figuratively.)

It’s more than a little bit in the mind. You should know that by now.

One study had a little look at what happened to people’s ability to pay attention and detect important information after they consumed either a caffeinated or non-caffeinated drink, depending on whether they were told about its correct identity or misled (that’s right, another experiment full of blatant lies — I love it).

So all participants went through four sessions:

  • One in which they were given a caffeinated drink and told it was caffeinated (truth!).
  • One in which they were given a caffeinated drink and told it was non-caffeinated (lie!).
  • One in which they were given a non-caffeinated drink and told it was non-caffeinated (truth!).
  • One in which they were given a non-caffeinated drink and told it was caffeinated (lie!).

Different participants did the different sessions in different orders. They didn’t know that sometimes they were being lied to; they’re just drinking these drinks and then doing a computer task. So in each session, a little while after they consumed the drink, they performed a computer task in which numbers flashed up on the screen and participants had to pay attention and try to spot a target pattern (e.g. when the same number flashes up twice in a row and is an even number). This was a measure of their vigilance.

What would you expect would happen? We consume caffeine usually because we want to be more alert and pay attention, so having caffeine should improve vigilance, right? Well, yes, caffeine did improve vigilance.

But only when participants were told that their drink had caffeine in it.

If they had the caffeinated drink but were told it was decaffeinated, they performed pretty much exactly the same as when there really had been no caffeine in their drink. So their expectation that there was no caffeine to improve their performance meant that their performance wasn’t improved, even when the caffeine was there to act chemically on their brain.

However, this expectation effect wasn’t there for the non-caffeinated conditions: people performed pretty much equally after a non-caffeinated drink regardless of whether they thought it was caffeinated or not.

So what can we take away from this? Subtle relationships, people. Subtle relationships. It seems that there is an interaction between the chemical effects of caffeine and our normal expectations of what caffeine is going to do to us. The caffeine needs to be there, but we also need to expect it to be there and to work for it to actually work.

Or, more concisely, you can take this message away from it:


And with that in mind, fancy some beetroot coffee? Or as I call it… beetrooccino?

Yeah so this is pretty much inspired by Heston Blumenthal’s lobsterccino, but (1) I’m not aiming to emulate the crazy excess of the 1980s like Heston was (I wasn’t there for half that decade), (2) beetroot and coffee share odour compounds that might make them complement each other rather well and (3) I was buying molecular gastronomy supplies online and my order was under the minimum order value by 5 cents, so I bought a $4 packet of beetroot powder and had to figure out something to do with it.

And the beetrooccino is good. It is actually really good. The coffee and beetroot do complement each other very well, although I have to say it is rather a savoury drink. I wouldn’t want to finish a meal with this, but… it might work as a slightly crazy hors d’œuvre prior to food.

Read on for the recipe for beetrooccino…

3/4 tsp beetroot powder (available in Australia from here, or you could substitute the powder with a few tsp of beetroot juice)
3/4 cup milk
1 shot espresso

Blend the beetroot powder into the milk (use a blender or stick blender or whisk). If you have a real, proper, fancy espresso machine (or an Otto like us) froth the beetroot milk to heat and texturise it. If you don’t have facilities for frothing milk, just heat it up in a saucepan (or microwave it) and whisk it vigorously for a little while to get some bubbles going.

Put the espresso in a cappuccino cup and pour over the frothed milk. You have yourself a beetrooccino. Isn’t it just what you’ve always wanted?

Elliman, N.A. et al., 2010. Pre-existent expectancy effects in the relationship between caffeine and performance. Appetite, 55, 355-358.

  11 comments for “Beetrooccino & a certain xanthine alkaloid

  1. October 11, 2010 at 8:18 pm

    I shall now trust inmy soy latte

    • Jess
      October 11, 2010 at 8:22 pm

      I think you mean soy beetroolatte.

  2. October 12, 2010 at 11:29 am

    It really, really is. I love me some beetroot, and have just started reintroducing real caffeinated coffee into my system. Not because of needing the “hit” – for years I’ve been open about the fact that I drink decaf to “pretend” I’m getting caffeine while still being able to sleep, but because decaf generally tastes like sour [expletive term for the bottom].

    As you know, I’m absolutely behind you on this “in the mind” stuff, but I do believe there’s some physical effects there too. I cut out all caffeine in Year 9 because I stopped sleeping (or, you know, very little) and over the years have always been able to tell when someone doesn’t give me decaf, because an hour so later my head would feel all discombobulated and anxious about things like stacked plates and misaligned books.

    • Jess
      October 12, 2010 at 1:39 pm

      Well indeed it is only partly in the mind (well it’s all in the mind eventually, since the brain is ultimately responsible for everything we perceive) and as I said, subtle relationships. Caffeine didn’t prevent or disturb my sleep until I was about 21, I think. Now I avoid it wherever possible after mid-afternoon. But then again, I don’t know how much of that is in the mind, i.e. me just thinking “oh no I’ve had caffeine now I can’t sleep” when maybe I can’t sleep for different reasons. Although the observations seem pretty consistent — “ooh I can’t sleep why am I so awake I don’t get it I should be tired but I’m not oh yeah I had a coffee at like 8pm, I forgot that”. But it ain’t no randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Alas!

    • October 12, 2010 at 1:42 pm

      And you know how I feel about anything that isn’t double blind.

      P.S. So sorry about the email-replying delay. I’m currently surrounded by essays to mark and am only sneaking on the internet for brief moments at a time…

  3. October 12, 2010 at 1:05 pm

    A beetrooccino!!! I would never have comprehended such a thing. You never cease to amaze Jess. By the way, thanks for the link to the Melbourne Food Ingredient Depot. Interesting stuff there!

    • Jess
      October 12, 2010 at 1:41 pm

      Beetroot goes so well with chocolate (at least when it’s grated and put in brownies) so given that chocolate goes so well with coffee, it kind of makes sense that beetroot would go with coffee too. Although I think I’d like all 3 of them together the most.

      That Depot website is fantastic, except half the stuff I want is out of stock. :( I really want passionfruit powder!

  4. October 12, 2010 at 9:42 pm

    Well, to be honest, I can’t start the morning without a healthy dose of caffeine. Or at least I THINK I can’t. Apparently it is probably just the act of thinking I’m drinking coffee that I’m addicted to. Aside from the caffeine headache I would get if I didn’t. That’s real. Very real.

    This beetroccino is so intriguing! I would not have thought that beets and coffee shared anything in common, but I love that you’ve proven otherwise.

  5. October 12, 2010 at 10:57 pm

    What an interesting mix of flavors and the color from the beet powder is so pretty. I actually didn’t realize how much the effect of caffeine had to do with our perception. Maybe I should get the bf to swap out my coffee for decaf heh.

  6. October 12, 2010 at 11:44 pm

    I’d be interested to see if/how the results differed if the amount of caffeine in the drinks was increased significantly (such that it had more of an effect, or maybe even the people could sense when there was caffeine even if they were lied to?).

    Heston’s lobsterccino was brilliant, and I love that you’ve gone beetrooty on it. Well done :)

    Also, have you seen these? So great..

  7. October 14, 2010 at 4:49 am

    That’s an interesting find…that caffeine sort of has a placebo effect on the human mind. I don’t think it makes a difference in my alertness, personally.
    Your beetroocino sounds really delicious…and the color looks lovely.

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