Many of us start our days with caffeine in some form. The FDA released guidelines in 2018 that daily caffeine consumption should be limited to 400 milligrams or less (see more information about the health effects of caffeine below). Among the many choices, which is the healthiest for your caffeine fix?
A cup of black coffee has around 95 milligrams of caffeine, which means you could drink four, eight-ounce cups and still be within the daily recommended intake of caffeine. Each cup has only two calories and protective anti-oxidants. Adding a tablespoon of vanilla-flavored creamer increases the calories by 35, total fat by 1.5 grams, and added sugar by 5 grams (10% of the daily value). Coffee has been linked to many health benefits, among them reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, Type II diabetes, Parkinson’s, uterine and liver cancer, cirrhosis of the liver, and gout (Harvard Health Publishing, 2017). While these results have not been linked to any specific aspect of coffee, the research overwhelmingly points to coffee as a reasonable part of your daily routine, in moderation.
If you are a soda fan, you’re probably getting more added sugar and calories along with the caffeine. For example, a 12 ounce can of Coke contains 140 calories and 39 grams of added sugars, all with only 34 milligrams of caffeine. Mountain Dew has more calories (170 per 12 ounce can), more sugar (46 grams), but also more caffeine (54 milligrams). Unfortunately, sugary sodas are linked to more negative health effects than positive ones, including added fat production, insulin resistance, increased heart disease risk, and more that you can read about here. Diet sodas have 0 calories, 0 total sugars, and 46 milligrams of caffeine per 12 ounce can, but that doesn’t mean that they are a healthier alternative. Drinking diet sodas has been linked to many adverse health effects, including an increase in appetite by triggering responses in the hunger pathway that are not satisfied by the drink itself.
Black tea is one of the most popular drinks across the globe, and has a similar nutrition profile to black coffee, with 2 calories per cup and antioxidants, but only 47 milligrams of caffeine. Like coffee, black tea has been linked to many positive health effects, such as containing many antioxidants, boosting heart health, lowering bad cholesterol (LDL), and many more. Green tea is similar, nutritionally, as well, with health benefits that could include lowering cholesterol, preventing certain types of cancer, and reducing risk of diabetes.
Energy drinks are becoming increasingly popular, especially among teens. The most popular is Red Bull, which contains 160 calories, 0 grams of fat, 39 grams of sugar, and 111 milligrams of caffeine in an 8.4 ounce can. Research done in Australia has shown that the most common side effects of drinking energy drinks include heart palpitations, shaking, restlessness, and gastrointestinal upset. While ingredients in energy drinks may be derived from natural sources, they are concentrated in very high amounts and it is unclear what the full scope of the consequences could be.
The Verdict: coffee or tea are the best choices for your daily caffeine fix. Both of these naturally-derived beverages have been linked to more positive health benefits than negative. If you find you need more caffeine, reach for coffee, but tea is a great lower-caffeine alternative. Be careful with prepared drinks, however, because added flavorings, creamers, and toppings can really increase the amount of sugar and calories in your morning pick-me-up. Energy drinks and soda, both regular and diet, have been linked to multiple negative health effects.
A note on the health effects of caffeine:
The FDA guideline specifically cites that 400 milligrams of caffeine is an amount not associated with dangerous, negative effects. However, individuals can react differently to the effects of caffeine based on how fast they metabolize it (break it down).
If you, or someone you know, is trying to reduce your caffeine intake, read more about how to do so safely and effectively here.
People with certain conditions, or who are on certain medications are more sensitive to the effects of caffeine. Additionally, if you are pregnant, trying to become pregnant, or breastfeeding, or are concerned about another condition or medication, it is recommended that you discuss caffeine intake with your health care provider.
The FDA has not set a level for children, but the American Academy of Pediatrics discourages the consumption of caffeine and other stimulants by children and adolescents.