Are Energy Drinks More Harmful Than Coffee?
August 22, 2023
Whether as a pick-me-up in the morning or to fight off afternoon sleepiness, approximately 90% of all adults consume some form of caffeine daily. While coffee is still the most widely consumed source of caffeine, caffeinated energy drinks have become increasingly popular.
But many people wonder: Is an energy drink a healthy choice? In attempting to answer this question, it’s important to first consider the common ingredient in both: caffeine.
How Much Caffeine Is Okay?
“For most healthy adults, up to 400 milligrams of caffeine a day is safe,” says registered dietitian Jennifer Kerner, RD, LD. Pregnant women should generally limit their caffeine intake to less than 200 milligrams a day.
This works out to approximately four cups of coffee a day, or two “grande” coffees. Most energy drinks contain anywhere from 100 to 300 milligrams of caffeine in a single can. Regardless of its source, too much caffeine can cause anxiety, digestive upset and irregular heart beat at very high doses.
What’s So Good About Coffee?
Rich in antioxidants, coffee naturally contains niacin (vitamin B3), riboflavin (vitamin B2), potassium, magnesium and various phenolic compounds, among other nutrients. What’s more, coffee is associated with anti-inflammatory properties and certain potential health benefits, including reduced risk of:
- Type 2 diabetes.
- Heart attack and stroke.
- Liver disease, including cancer, alcohol-related cirrhosis, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and hepatitis.
- Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.
A significant body of research also indicates that coffee may enhance athletic performance, help with weight management, lower the risk of depression and even increase longevity. The downside? In addition to any side effects associated with excessive caffeine use, potential negative effects of drinking coffee include heartburn or digestive upset. It’s also important to note that the health benefits of coffee can be outweighed with the addition of large amounts of sugar, flavored syrups and artificial sweeteners.
Energy Drinks: Where’s That Energy Coming From?
Energy drinks are promoted as beverages that provide energy while enhancing mental alertness and physical performance. Most of the energy obtained from these drinks is the result of both caffeine and added sugars.
While energy drinks may be effective in providing a quick jolt of energy and alertness, the excessive added sugar can be a problem. Consuming too much added sugar is linked to diabetes, heart disease, weight gain and a number of other health problems. Beverages and foods high in added sugars tend to rapidly spike blood sugar levels, often resulting in a short burst of energy followed by a steep drop in blood sugar (sugar crash) and fatigue.
In addition, these beverages typically contain supplemental ingredients touted to provide certain health benefits, such as increased energy and enhanced concentration. Guarana, ginseng, ginkgo biloba, taurine, L-carnitine, glucuronolactone, green tea extract and B vitamins are common examples.
“Despite the enticing claims made in the advertising for energy drinks,” says Kerner, “research on the effectiveness and safety of most herbal supplements and other ingredients contained in them is very limited at this time.”
“It’s not to say that enjoying an energy drink every once in a while is a bad thing,” says Kerner. “But because coffee is a natural, plant-derived food that contains vitamins, antioxidants and other nutrients, without added sugar, I’d recommend it as the healthier choice over most energy drinks.”
Another distinct advantage coffee has over energy drinks: Its many health benefits are supported by decades of large observational research studies. The health benefits of most supplemental ingredients in energy drinks are not supported by research.
Luckily, for those who do enjoy energy drinks, a number of sugar-free and low-sugar options are available. “If a patient of mine wants to consume caffeine every day but doesn’t like coffee, I may discuss choosing a low-sugar energy drink with them,” Kerner says.
The Clinical Nutrition Department at University Hospitals provides comprehensive nutrition services to improve health and quality of life for our patients. Learn more.