Coffee vs. Energy Drinks: A Caffeine Wake-Up Call
How Much Caffeine Are You Really Drinking?
1. It Doesn't Take a Lot of Caffeine to Have an Effect
A big cup of coffee can have more than 300 milligrams (mg) of caffeine. This will provide a definite kick, even for people who drink coffee regularly and have developed some tolerance to caffeine. But even 40 mg of caffeine — about the amount in a cup of tea or a can of soda — will give most people a subtle boost. In fact, many people can detect the effects of just 15 mg of caffeine, about the amount in a single sip of strong coffee or a large cup of decaf.
2. Caffeine Is the Not-So-Secret Ingredient in Soft Drinks
For more than a century, since they were marketed as tonics for fatigue, the makers of Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and other bottlers have carefully blended caffeine into their soft drinks. In the old days, the drinks were much stronger — a 1911 Coca-Cola had the same caffeine concentration as a modern Red Bull. Unlike the solid jolt in a strong cup of coffee, the caffeine in soft drinks is mellower. It is just enough to make you feel good — and be more likely to buy that soft drink again. In this way, caffeine reinforces the habit of drinking sugar-sweetened soft drinks.
3. Energy Drinks Are Not Hyper-Caffeinated, Compared to Coffee
An 8.4 ounce (oz) can of Red Bull has 80 mg of caffeine. Most cans of Monster and Rockstar are about twice that size, and have twice the caffeine. But a 16-oz cup of coffee from Starbucks, a grandé, typically contains about 320 mg of caffeine. That’s the caffeine equivalent of four cans of Red Bull, or two cans of Monster. And, surprisingly, some soft drinks have about the same amount of caffeine as a Red Bull: a 20-oz bottle of Diet Coke has 76 mg of caffeine, and a 20-oz bottle of Mountain Dew has 91 mg of caffeine.
4. Caffeine Has Some Not-So-Surprising Health Costs
Some people can drink coffee from the second they wake up until the moment they go to bed and still sleep like babies. But most people are not wired that way, and even a late afternoon cup of coffee is enough to keep us from easily falling asleep at night. Caffeine’s effect on sleep can also be more subtle: Even a morning cup of coffee can disrupt the later stages of sleep early the following morning. For anyone with sleep issues, it is worth reducing your caffeine use, or quitting altogether for a few weeks, to see if it will help. Less commonly, caffeine can also trigger anxiety in some people — even full-blown panic attacks. Finally, pregnant women are often advised to limit their daily caffeine consumption to 200 mg or less, due to concerns about the effect it may have on a developing fetus.
5. It Also Has Some Surprising Health Benefits
Coffee and tea have gotten a lot of attention for their abundance of healthful antioxidants, and caffeine also has some lesser-known health benefits. Emerging research suggests that it might play a role in staving off neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Strangely, caffeine may also guard against skin cancer. A 2012 paper found that drinking caffeinated coffee is associated with a lower incidence of basal cell skin cancers. And more recent research found that drinking caffeinated coffee was associated with reduced incidence of melanoma, a rarer but more dangerous form of skin cancer. A new study looked at 5,600 Swedish and U.S. adults and found that those who drink between four to six cups of coffee a day were approximately one-third less likely to develop multiple sclerosis, compared to non-coffee drinkers.
6. Caffeine Is an Athlete's Friend
Endurance athletes now use caffeine strategically to help them improve their times in bike races, marathons, and triathlons. A dose of 3 mg to 6 mg per kilo of body weight — 250 mg or more for a 180-pound athlete — can have a significant effect. For most athletes, it will improve their times by 1 percent to 3 percent in a race that is about an hour long. Companies like Gu and Clif are now making caffeinated gels and energy bars specially formulated for athletes. Couch potatoes can benefit, too. One study showed that sedentary men worked out more vigorously on exercise bikes after taking a caffeine capsule, rather than a placebo.
Murray Carpenterhas reported caffeine-related stories forThe New York Times,NPR, andWired Magazine.His work has also been featured in theBoston Globe,theChristian Science Monitor,and other media outlets. He holds a degree in psychology from the University of Colorado and an M.S. in Environmental Studies from the University of Montana. He lives in Belfast, Maine. Follow him on Twitter
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