Ignite Your Brainpower with the 20 Smartest Foods on Earth

Simply put, your brain likes to eat. And it likes powerful fuel: quality fats, antioxidants, and small, steady amounts of the best carbs.

On a deadline? Need to rally? Avoid the soda, vending machine snacks and tempting Starbucks pastries and go for these powerful brain boosters instead. The path to a bigger, better brain is loaded with Omega-3 fats, antioxidants, and fiber. Give your brain a kick start: eat the following foods on a daily or weekly basis for results you will notice.

20 foods that will supercharge your brain:

1. Avocado

Start each day with a mix of high-quality protein and beneficial fats to build the foundation for an energized day. Avocado with scrambled eggs provides both, and the monounsaturated fat helps blood circulate better, which is essential for optimal brain function – and it’s possible the avocado’s plentiful antioxidants help combat diseases like diabetes and chronically high blood pressure (its oil has been dubbed “the olive oil of the Americas“). Worst alternative: a trans-fat-filled, sugar-laden cream cheese Danish.

Green it: you don’t need to buy an organic avocado – conventional is fine. But make sure your supplementary protein is free range, cage free, or organic.

2. Blueberries

These delicious berries are one of the best foods for you, period, but they’re very good for your brain as well. Since they’re high in fiber and low on the glycemic index, they are safe for diabetics and they do not spike blood sugar. Blueberries are possibly the best brain food on earth: they have been linked to reduced risk for Alzheimer’s, shown to improve both memory and learning ability (and motor skills in rats), and they are one of the most powerful anti-stress foods you can eat. Avoid: dried, sweetened blueberries.

Green it: buy local and organic, and be mindful of seasonality. When blueberries are out of season, opt for cranberries, grapes, goji berries, blackberries or cherries to get your brain boost.

3. Wild Salmon

Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for your brain. These beneficial fats are linked to improved cognition and alertness, reduced risk of degenerative mental disease (such as dementia), improved memory, improved mood, and reduced depression, anxiety, hyperactivity and cardiovascular disfunction. Wild salmon is a premium source, but we’ll highlight a few other sources on this list for vegetarians and people who just don’t like salmon. Avoid farmed (read: sea lice infested) salmon.

Green it: the California salmon stock is threatened, so choose wild Alaskan salmon only, and eat small portions no more than twice a week.

4. Nuts

Nuts contain protein, high amounts of fiber, and they are rich in beneficial fats. For getting an immediate energy boost that won’t turn into a spike later, you can’t do better than nuts. The complex carbs will perk you up while the fat and protein will sustain you. Nuts also contain plenty of vitamin E, which is essential to cognitive function. You don’t have to eat raw, plain, unsalted nuts, but do avoid the ones with a lot of sweetening or seasoning blends. Filberts, hazelnuts, cashews, and walnuts are great choices, with almonds being the king of nuts.

For those avoiding carbs, macadamia nuts are much higher in fat than most nuts. And for those wanting to bolster the body against disease, walnuts have the highest amount of antioxidants, some of which are even more powerful than Vitamin E. By the way, peanuts just aren’t ideal. Aside from the fact that many people are allergic, peanuts have less healthy fat than many other types of nuts…maybe that’s because peanuts are not actually a nut! They’re still much better than a candy bar, however.

Green it: try to choose organic, raw nuts, and if you can’t get those, at least avoid the tins of heavily-seasoned, preservative-laden nuts that may have taken many food miles to get to your mouth.

5. Seeds

Try sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, flax seed, and tahini (a tangy, nutty sesame butter that tastes great in replacement of mayo and salad dressing). Seeds contain a lot of protein, beneficial fat, and vitamin E, as well as stress-fighting antioxidants and important brain-boosting minerals like magnesium. Sesame seeds in particular are a real Swiss Army Knife of health benefits.

Green it: Again, just look for organic and try to avoid the highly-seasoned, processed options. In general, things like fruits, vegetables, seeds and nuts are pretty low-impact, environmentally speaking, in comparison to meats and cheeses.

6. Coffee

Thine eyes do not deceive (even if you are in the midst of a sugar crash). Coffee is good for your brain. Did you know coffee actually contains fiber? That’s going to help your cardiovascular system. Coffee also exerts some noted benefit to your brain in addition to providing you with a detectable energy boost (note: it’s not as simple as boosting your brain-power, but it can make you work more effectively, depending on the work you’re doing). There is also evidence that it may provide an electrical jolt to backwater parts of your brain as well as potentially strengthening synapses associated with learning and special memory.

The trick is not to have more than a few cups. But you can safely enjoy 2-4 cups daily – we are talking about supercharging here. Just please don’t go ruining a good thing by loading it up with sugar! Espresso beans are actually a phenomenally healthy snack, by the way.

Green it: brew yourself some fair-trade organic coffee to benefit both the planet and the workers who grow your beans. Use a thermos instead of a throwaway cup.

7. Oatmeal

Nature’s scrub brush is one of the best foods for cardiovascular health, which translates to brain health. Additionally, oatmeal is packed with fiber (a good – if biased for obvious reasons – summary can be found here), a reasonable amount of protein (comparable to soy), and even a small amount of Omega-3’s. It’s a good grain that will sustain you throughout the morning so you aren’t prone to irritability or an energy crash.

Green it: the healthiest oatmeal is the real, steel-cut deal. Steer clear of those little microwavable packets that are loaded with sugar. All that packaging isn’t very green.

8. Beans

One more for carb-lovers. (The brain uses about 20% of your carbohydrate intake and it likes a consistent supply). Beans are truly an amazing food that is sadly overlooked. They’re humble, but very smart. Not only are they loaded with fiber, vitamins, minerals and protein, they’re ridiculously cheap. An entire bag of beans usually costs only a few dollars and will provide many meals. Beans provide a steady, slow release of glucose to your brain – which means energy all day without the sugar crash. Don’t go eating a whole platter of frijoles, though – just 1/4 of a cup is fine (and the side effects are, um…well-known).

Green it: look for heirloom beans that are raised sustainably, like those from Rancho Gordo.

9. Pomegranate

Opt for the fruit over the juice so you get more fiber. Pomegranates contain blueberry-like levels of antioxidants, which are essential for a healthy brain. Your brain is the first organ to feel the effects of stress, so anything you can do to offset stress is probably a smart choice (although note that the connection between pomegranate juice and stress reduction is currently both contested and unconfirmed).

Green it: pomegranates are seasonal and not generally local for most of us, so enjoy sparingly and rely on other berries like acai, grapes and cherries when you can’t get this fruit.

10. Brown Rice

Brown rice is a low-glycemic complex carbohydrate that is excellent for people sensitive to gluten who still want to maintain cardiovascular health. The better your circulation, the sharper your brain – and as part of a campaign to get the Philippines to switch from white to brown rice, it’s been claimed that brown rice can boost your memory.

Green it: don’t buy the excessively-packaged “boil in a bag” rice packets. Just make up a big batch of brown rice in a rice cooker on Sunday so you have it on hand for easy lunches all week.

11. Tea

You have to brew tea fresh or you won’t get the benefits of all those catechines (antioxidants) that boost your brain. Because tea has caffeine, don’t have more than 2-3 cups daily (and make sure you do it right).

Green it: buy organic, fair trade loose leaf or packets to support sustainable business practices.

12. Chocolate

Things are looking increasingly better for chocolate. It’s got brain-boosting compounds, it’s loaded with antioxidants, and it has just the right amount of caffeine – not to mention a rich history of use for medicinal purposes (PDF). Chocolate sends your serotonin through the roof, so you’ll feel happy in short order. Dark chocolate is also rich in fiber. (Remember, fiber = healthy cardiovascular system = healthy brain.)

Green it: go for super dark, fair-trade, pure organic chocolate, not the sugary, processed milk chocolate candy bars.

13. Oysters

Oysters are rich in selenium, magnesium, protein and several other nutrients vital to brain health. In one study researchers found that men who ate oysters reported significantly improved cognition and mood (particularly certain types of mood). Not all shellfish are good for you but oysters are a sure bet.

Green it: oysters are actually one of the most eco-friendly seafood options, so eat up!

14. Olive Oil

Though we know the brain does need a small, steady supply of glucose, don’t overlook fat. Studies have consistently shown that a low-fat diet is not the health boon we hoped it would be (remember the 90s low-fat craze?). In fact, avoiding fat can increase foggy thinking, mood swings, and insomnia (although glutting yourself on it can have much the same effect). A diet rich in the right amount of healthy fats is essential to clear thinking, good memory, and a balanced mood. Your brain is made of fat, after all!

One study of men found that those who relied on the processed vegetable fats found in salad dressings, snacks and prepared foods had 75% higher rates of mental degradation (dementia, memory loss) than men who ate healthy fats. Most processed foods and fast foods use corn oil, palm oil, soybean oil and other Omega-6 fats. You don’t want Omega 6 fats. Even saturated fat is safer than Omega 6’s.

Choose healthy fats such as those present in olive oil, nut butters, nuts and seeds, flax, oily fish, and avocados – in other words, aim for a more Mediterranean diet (and here’s why). Avoid processed fats found in pastries, chips, candy bars, snacks, junk food, fried foods and prepared foods. Eating the wrong fat can literally alter your brain’s communication pathways.

Green it: look for organic, local, or farmers’ market options when it comes to your food. You should also explore herbal remedies for mood swings and brain health.

15. Tuna

There’s a good chance we’ve been eating tuna for a very long time – and no wonder. In addition to being another rich source of Omega-3’s, tuna, particularly yellowfin, has the highest level of vitamin B6 of any food. Studies have shown that B6 is directly linked to memory, cognition and long term brain health. Generally, the B vitamins are among the most important for balancing your mood. B6 in particular influences dopamine receptors (dopamine is one of your “feel good” hormones along with serotonin).

My personal cocktail: SAMe (nature’s happiness molecule) and a mega-dose of B-complex keeps me humming even when I’ve got a mountain of work to do. Which, like you, is all the time.

Green it: only eat tuna from sustainable fisheries, and if you’re looking for a B6 source that is vegetarian, opt for a banana, which contains a third of your day’s requirement (tuna offers nearly 60%).

16. Garlic

Garlic – the fresher the better – is one of the most potent nutritional weapons in your arsenal. Eat it as much as your significant other can stand. Not only is it fabulous for reducing bad cholesterol and strengthening your cardiovascular system, it exerts a protective antioxidant effect on the brain and can even fight bacteria more effectively than standard antibiotics.

Avoid: I know it makes life easier, but don’t even think about buying the chopped or peeled garlic. Nutritional benefits = zero.

Green it: just choose organic, and go for local if you can get it.

17. Eggs

Eggs contain protein and fat to provide energy to your brain for hours, and the selenium in organic eggs is proven to help your mood. You really needn’t worry about the overblown cholesterol fears. (I have quite a bit to say on this topic but I’ll restrain myself for once.)

Green it: choose organic, free range, vegetarian fed eggs.

18. Green Leafy Vegetables

Spinach, kale, chard, romaine, arugula, lolla rossa – whatever green you like, eat it daily. Green, leafy vegetables are high in iron (slightly less “green” iron sources include beef, pork and lamb) and manganese. Americans tend to be deficient in iron, which is too bad, because the deficiency is linked to restless leg syndrome, fatigue, poor mood, foggy thinking, and other cognition issues.

Green it: choose organic, and shop at your farmers’ market or order from a local CSA. Leave out the red meat a few days a week and rely on a big, well-seasoned green stir fry or salad.

19. Tomatoes

Go figure, but tomatoes don’t usually make the brain-boosting food lists. (Thank goodness I found the one that did so I’m not the only one.) Tomatoes contain lycopene, an antioxidant that is particularly good for your brain – it even helps prevent dementia. You have to cook tomatoes to get the lycopene – take that, raw foodies! Just kidding. But this does mean that ketchup is good for your brain. Although because of the sugar in it, you should look to other sources for most of your lycopene intake, such as fresh tomato sauce.

And while we’re at it – ever wondered why the taste of tomatoes is so variable? Wonder no more.

Green it: try to eat tomatoes that are local and get your lycopene in vitamin form when tomatoes aren’t in season. You’ll know when that is – the tomatoes will be pale, tasteless, and pithy.

20. Cacao nibs

That’s right, I’m putting chocolate on this list twice. My boyfriend knows I need it. I eat chocolate or cacao nibs daily and I think you might want to consider it, too. Cacao nibs are among the top five most powerful brain foods, right next to wild salmon and blueberries. My girlfriends and I like to mix cacao nibs with frozen blueberries and a generous splash of organic heavy cream while we watch really bad television on Sunday nights.

Green it: as long as it’s fair trade and organic, it’s green.

Things that drain your brain:

Alcohol, in excess, can massively inhibit the functioning of your brain, acting as a “pharmacological hand grenade”. Alcohol also interferes with dopamine production. Moderate amounts of alcohol, particularly resveratrol-rich red wine, can help improve your health, but anything beyond a glass or two of wine daily is a recipe for reduced brain function and energy loss.

Corn Syrup and Sugar lead to health problems like diabetes and obesity, and they’re terrible for your brain. Don’t eat sugar except on special occasions or as an infrequent treat. If you can’t cut back that much, try to limit yourself to just two bites of whatever tempts you daily.

Nicotine constricts blood flow to the brain, so while it may “soothe” jittery nerves, smoking will actally reduce your brain function severely – and the effects are cumulative. However (and incredibly), we may be on the verge of a vaccine against nicotine addiction – how cigarette manufacturers feel about that is certainly a matter for speculation…

A high carbohydrate lunch
will make you sleepy and sluggish. Opt for a light meal with some quality protein, such as a salad with grilled chicken breast or vegetables and hummus or wild American shrimp and avocado.


20 Foods to Give You Energy

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20 Foods for Increased Energy and Better Sex Drive

20 Foods To Boost Your Metabolism

20 Foods To Help You Sleep Better

20 Foods To Banish Belly Fat

Vita Search
Public Library of Science

– with additional reporting by Sarah Irani and Mike Sowden

Images: andymangold, Gudlyf, Rob Qld, jules:stone soup & EverJean, Andrea.Pacheco, Rajmahal88888, TheBusyBrain, jvc, puuikibeach, B*2, emrank, marfis75, kevin dooley, janice^chan, Sarah_Ackerman, -Bert23-, theilr, flowercarole, Stewart and Francesco Bartaloni.

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77 thoughts on “Ignite Your Brainpower with the 20 Smartest Foods on Earth

  1. Pingback: 20 foods that will supercharge your brain! | PORTABLE LIFE SKILLS DAILY WISDOM GUIDE

  2. Pingback: Top 20 Best Foods for Your Brain

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  4. I thought this was a very good article, and I was glad that I was eating and drinking the items mentioned on a regular basis. Thanks!

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  8. The  article is very informative and useful

  9. Pingback: Brain Food | Food NA·RC

  10. some of my fren said coffee no good for health 

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  12. Pingback: Top 20 foods to feed the brain | Women of Wisdom®

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  17. But Tuna is rich also in mercury so just once a week. Probable sardins are a better replace. Very nice article!

  18. Nicotine, as a stimulant, causes the release of certain hormones that aid in short term memory recall. It releases key hormones, such as acetyl-choline, nor-epinephrine and even adrenaline, all of which can play a role by sharpening focus.nnEven though it causes a constriction of the blood vessels, it increases the rate at which your heart beats, so it effectively cancels this out. I’m no doctor, but this is probably the result of adrenaline release, which is one of the reasons nicotine is an appetite suppressant. It artificially kicks in the fight or flight instinct and your body doesn’t want you eating if you’re doing either.nnSmoking is bad for you, just say that. Nicotine by itself isn’t necessarily bad for you.

  19. Another note on green tea, If you are older and susceptible to blood clots more than 3 cups of green tea a day greatly increases the risk by thickening the blood, add in green vegetables to every meal and you may have problems. Too much of a good thing can be bad so vary a healthy diet. (I have had a friend with this, he had to inject himself every day for a few weeks to thin his blood. He drank 5cups a day and ate lots of celery thinking it was healthy)

  20. OH wow, Gotta love those smart foods, yummy!

  21. u00a0Yeah I know what they are referencing, but how can the pre-chopped/peeled contain no nutritional value?

  22. u00a0They mean the pre-chopped/peeled stuff you buy in a market

  23. u00a0Thank you thank you thank you!! There are even some health benefits (mainly cardiovascular, which the author highlights several times as also facilitating brain health) to alcohol consumption.u00a0

  24. u00a0Absolutely right. Weight for weight, tea leaves contain more caffeine than coffee beans, but when they are brewed, a cup of coffee has significantly more caffeine than tea.nnA typical 225ml cup of tea contains only about 60mg of caffeine, compared to 125mg in a cup of coffee of the same size.

  25. Pingback: Eat These Foods to Boost Your Brain Power and Energy [Brain Hacks] | That Soviet Guy

  26. Pingback: 4 things that drain your brain |

  27. It is a myth that alcohol kills brain cells. It may do reversible damage to dendrites. That is it.

  28. It is a myth that alcohol kills brain cells. It may do reversible damage to dendrites. That is it.

  29. It is a myth that alcohol kills brain cells. It may do reversible damage to dendrites. That is it.

  30. How can garlic be so awesome, but chopped or peeled isn’t worth anything nutritionally? When I get a head of garlic, I always chop and peel it… Please help!n

  31. @5b36c75ebd4e6d6f439d8f44e31f21cf:disqus A bag of tea does contain more caffeine then a bag of coffee true, but a cup of coffee contains much more caffeine then a cup of tea.

  32. Actually, tea contains more caffeine than coffee.

  33. I think they’re saying to drink no more than 2-4 cups of coffee IN ADDITION TO no more than 2-3 cups of tea. The tea and coffee caffeine content combined would be bad for your health.

  34. Pingback: 15 Weird and Unexpected Uses for Chocolate | EcoSalon | Conscious Culture and Fashion

  35. I just made my Grocery list awsome !!! THX

  36. How can the same article say that 2-4 cups of coffee a day is fine, and then advise no more than 2-3 cups of tea a day “because it contains caffeine”? There’s much more caffeine in coffee than tea, so you should be able to drink more tea than coffee.

  37. so…20 foods that will supercharge your brain is good idea for improvement your brain… will you are doing that… cause i’m will and shall doing that…


  38. Excellent list! I’m a strong believer in healthy eating and excercise to maintain a stong mind and body. However, I was sadened by the information regarding alcohol and brain cell damage. I enjoy and adult beverage or two daily to help releive work-related stress…too bad I’m killing my brain slowly :)

    Great Article! A+

  39. Awesome!! Thanks for that!!! I didn’t know chocolate was good for me!!!

  40. PS The thing about cooked tomatoes…yeah, everyone gets that one wrong. As a raw vegan, I make it a point to know these things…the way the amount of lycopene is extracted is through cooking the tomatoes. If someone had bothered to just puree them, they’d find that the same was true.


  42. Great list, definitely bookmarking for future reference. Thanks for the helpful information :)

  43. Thanks a lot for sharing all of this information. It seems that a lot of people are joining the “let’s get healthy” tendency and I sure want to start any one of these days. Just reading about it makes me feel healthier. This is excellent work. Thanks.

  44. I think this is a very good list, but I have also heard that cinnamon can stimulate the brain, and that apples could prevent alzheimers.

  45. Thanks for this wonderful list. It’s great that avocados are at the top of the list – if we have a full fridge but are out of avocados, I will go to the store just for those. Nice to see coffee here too.

    Just a design comment, the boxes in the center left of the screen get in the way of the text when one is trying to read. Could they be moved down further? I keep having to scroll around them to read your words, and I want to read them all!

    Thanks, I’ll stumble you too.

  46. Pingback: Ignite Your Brain Power with the Smartest Foods « Elizabeth Polking's Blog

  47. Great article. Thanks for sharing the top picks. I’d also include HTP, which I’ve used for my autistic son. It seems to help him sleep. Lowers his self injurious tendencies. As for avocados, my son loves them! They are high in good fats, which are excellent for anyone with epilepsy, which he has…..also high in glutathione sp? a natural detoxifier. Keep up great work….love to see stuff like this…very helpful

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  49. Be surprised what give this some thoughts. It’s awesome stuff and great taste! Yuuummmmm

  50. Hello,
    Thank you for the tips on what to eat to get the most out of your brain power. Sometimes we don’t have the time or access to the foods that we should eat. I found a new healthy energy drink that has a slight carbonation and it has helped me with fatigue as well. I will use your advice and incase you are wondering it is called “Verve”. It also doesn’t have the crash like the others do and has all the daily vitamins and plant source minerals for our bodies with mangosteen and aloe.

  51. Thanks for the food tips and the medical research advice, “I advise you to rely on medical studies for your research, not someone’s blog posts”¦or most of the FDA’s propaganda.”

  52. SAMe is used more widely in Europe, but it’s considered a natural mood lifter and can help when you’re feeling depressed, fatigued, or “drained”. Stress can reduce your “happy” hormone stores (serotonin) and SAMe can help in much the same way as Prozac. You have to take B vitamins with it, and you definitely want to check in with your doctor. It’s a bit pricey if you get the right kind, which is enteric coated. Also, I’m not sure it’s meant for long term use. It’s my lazy shortcut when I’m doing too much, get worn out, and haven’t been exercising like I should to keep those hormones in balance. ;) I usually take it for 3-4 days and then stop. Anyone else try it?

  53. In the early 90s, I went low-fat/vegan and just like that kid who went vegan in the South Park cartoon, the skin on my hands began breaking out in tiny cracks, which I’ve had ever since – even after going back to a normal diet. It may have reduced my cholesterol but without fat, I was soooo sleeeepy.

    “My personal cocktail: SAMe (nature’s happiness molecule)…”

    Tell us more about SAMe.

  54. Pingback: Popular Posts | EcoSalon - The Green Gathering

  55. Wonderful list. Thank you for the information about whether or not to eat or find the food organic or not. I find this extremely useful. For example, I didn’t know that it was alright to buy avocado conventional.


  56. This is great stuff to think about. Yummy food that actually helps you to think better. I always said a colorful plate is a well balanced diet! Sometimes we even grocery shop with our kids making sure we have lots of colors in the basket.

  57. I agree with your recommendations, however telling people to avoid all soda seems unnecessary. Some soda isn’t all that bad for you, and it’s fun (and tastes great)

    example: the company I work for is creating a new soft drink that has no high fructose corn syrup and is half the calories of coke or pepsi, plus it has acai berry and pomegranate in it. it’s called Vivi Smart Soda.

  58. also you really should have put Spirulina in this list, I strongly feel..and instead of “tea” i would have substituted green tea. from what i’ve learned, black teas aren’t that good for you (they give me a headache)…green tea is fresh and still has all the good stuff in it, to put it simply.

    also, yeah MSG and other __sodium___ stuff like that is pretty bad for your brain too, and probably a lot more stuff in the average bag of Doritos or can of highly processed Cambells soup or Ramen or whatever…you should do a followup article on things to AVOID for brain health…that could easily be 20 items long too.

    take care.

  59. i think this was a great article, but i think that on the “drain” side you really should have put aspartame at the #1 spot and also probably mentioned some of the many perscription drugs like Xanax (and other benzos) as well as things like Methamphetamine or Ritalin, etc. Aspartame is in MANY foods these days and destroys your brain and body, very bad stuff.

    thanks for the article. :)

  60. you forget to add msg, for the things that drain your brain, but nice list..but there are some that can’t be found in my country…

  61. awesome list- i eat about half of this list to get other nutritional value. good to know that im getting super antioxidants as well. btw, alcohol attacks the slower brain cells first, so consumering a certain amount of alcohol weekly can be good for you. just make sure not to abuse it, thats all.

  62. Hi Jon, thanks for commenting – how about a link to help us out and support your criticism? Thanks :)

  63. If you took the time to research your assertions, you’d find that alcohol doesn’t kill brain cells outright. Except for extreme cases and long term abuse, any damage that brain cells incur is temporary.

  64. Great list!

    Just one thing about tea, though: Yes, tea does have caffeine, but considerably less than that of coffee. Plus, tea also has l-theanine, which can help with relaxation.

    White and green teas contain even less caffeine than black tea. If someone is really caffeine sensitive, they can “rinse” their loose leaf tea before drinking it, thus considerably reducing the caffeine: Just pour hot/boiling water over the tea, let it sit for a minute, and pour it out. The next pot of tea will have most of the caffeine removed.

  65. Very interesting and beneficial info! Thanks for sharing :)

  66. What about organic dark chocolate covered espresso beans?! Yum…


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