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Shepherd professor discusses wintergreen and caffeine research

By Staff | Mar 8, 2019

Shepherd University Assistant Professor of Chemistry Jacquelyn Cole speaks during the Faculty Research Forum in the Robert Byrd Center on Feb. 21. Tabitha Johnston

SHEPHERDSTOWN — Shepherd University offers a variety of learning opportunities for its students, and its chemistry majors are no exception.

On Feb. 20, Shepherd’s Assistant Professor of Chemistry Jacquelyn Cole explained during a faculty research forum, about research she has conducted on two subjects: wintergreen oil and caffeine.

“The two projects I’ve worked on with students, caffeine and wintergreen, seem kind of opposites. But we’re going to talk about quantitative proteins in caffeine and the qualitative analysis of compounds in the essential oil, wintergreen,” Cole said.

In the first portion of “Caffeine and Wintergreen: Small Molecule Analysis,” Cole discussed how she decided to begin her research on the amount of caffeine that can be found in the Potomac River.

“So we all know and love caffeine — pretty much everything that keeps college students going is caffeine, including coffee, some tea and carbonated beverages,” Cole said, mentioning doing the research in a college town was ideal, because of college students’ tendency towards drinking a lot of caffeinated beverages.

The popularity of caffeinated beverages, according to Cole, has resulted in places around the world having an over-abundance of caffeine passing through the sewer system and back into the environment. Cole’s research in the Potomac River has been conducted with undergraduate chemistry summer interns over the past couple of years, and, while the results indicate the Potomac River may have a large amount of caffeine in its water, Cole said further research is required, before she can have definitive results.

According to Cole, caffeine consumption doesn’t always result in the caffeine eventually contaminating the environment. However, the creation of hot caffeinated beverages may result in some of the caffeine being released into the environment.

“One of the key things with caffeine, is that it loses its solubility at a higher temperature. That’s the big difference between coffee and other substances,” Cole said, mentioning she will also need to conduct research in other areas of the environment, to see if caffeine is deposited outside of waterways. The results from this research will help her determine what the effects of caffeine consumption have on the environment.

In the second portion of her faculty research forum, Cole discussed why she chose to do research on wintergreen oil.

“We all know wintergreen as the stereotypical Life Saver flavor. It was first isolated in 1843, and was used for a variety of purposes, including chewing gum. It is not a true mint, it is actually part of the heather family,” Cole said, mentioning the one draw-back of the essential oil. “It is toxic to humans, due to the salicylate compound in it.”

However, only an over-consumption of salicylic acid can result in wintergreen poisoning. The likelihood of poisoning is growing with the popularity of essential oils, but over-consumption is most likely to occur when a person uses multiple wintergreen products at one time — aspirin and hot/cold pads are two other popular products which use wintergreen oil.

“Part of our intent in this project, was to see how essential oil companies were extracting these oils — were they doing it naturally, as they claimed?” Cole said.

In the end, Cole’s research led her to discover that the two most popular essential oil companies, doTerra and Young Living, naturally extracted their oils. Young Living’s sample was more complex than doTerra’s, and therefore, according to Cole, a better quality oil. In Cole’s future experiments, comparing citrus essential oils, she said she will use Young Living, due to that discovery.