Wake up call: Are energy drinks healthier than coffee?

It’s no secret that I find the whole concept of “natural” and “organic” foods a bit baffling and backwards, and effectively a branding effort that exploits a host of cognitive errors. I’ve found it even more fascinating when “natural” foods are competed against each other for which one is more “natural” and, hence, following the cognitive errors, perceived as more healthy.

It’s also no secret to those who know me that I’am not a huge fan of the taste of coffee (even so-called “good” coffee). I never drank the stuff until my mid-thirties after my first child was born, and boy did I need it then, or at least the caffeine it contained. I never really acquired a taste for it (though with enough cream and sweetener it’s as fine as anything with enough cream and sweetener), I mostly switched to sugar-free energy drinks.

I’ve since gotten a few comments that such drinks are unhealthy compared to coffee because of all the “chemicals” in them. (There is no bigger cue to me that somebody holds an ideological position on foods over an educated one than by calling the ingredients of foods as “chemicals”, also typically indicating they don’t understand chemistry, pharmacology, or metabolic biology.) I found these comments interesting because it set up quite a paradox; these energy drinks, at least the ones I drank, were labeled as a “natural health product” and contained things like ginseng, yet the objections were based on them being filled with “chemicals”. While I found that contradiction fascinating, I also knew coffee was a massive brew of both helpful and harmful chemicals so I set out to actually see which one was healthier.

Coffee

If I were to use the rhetorical tactics used by many anti-“chemical” ideologues I’d probably reference a few quotes on coffee’s health and pharmacology:

  • "More than 1,000 chemicals have been reported in roasted coffee; more than half of those tested (19/28) are rodent carcinogens”
  • "Two types of diterpenes are present in coffee: kahweol and cafestol, both of which have been associated with increased risk of coronary heart disease
  • Coffee consumption can lead to iron deficiency anemia in mothers and infants. Coffee also interferes with the absorption of supplemental iron. Interference with iron absorption is due to the polyphenols present in coffee.”
  • "Caffeinated coffee is not recommended for everybody. It may aggravate pre-existing conditions such as gastroesophageal reflux disease, migraines, arrhythmias, and cause sleep disturbances. Very high doses of caffeine may cause problems for some conditions such as anxiety disorders.”
  • "both decaffeinated coffee and coffee with caffeine cause heartburn.”
  • "In many individuals, excessive amounts of coffee can cause very unpleasant, even life-threatening adverse effects.”

Sounds like scary stuff. Of course I’m not telling the full story, but then that’s the point of ideology; you only tell the benefits of the thing you’re trying to sell and the harms of everything else. That’s what I did here, cherry-picking the juiciest negatives.

I also resorted to other common fallacies. I described the presence of harmful things without addressing dosage or comparing it to safe levels, which ultimately is all that matters. On carcinogens, I intentionally left off the rest of that paragraph: “at maximum tolerated dose, but because animal cancer tests build in enormous safety factors, these chemicals should not be considered true risks.” I also didn’t mention, “Coffee consumption has been shown to have minimal or no impact, positive or negative, on cancer development.”

I also generalized the specific. The diterpenes related to coronary heart disease are normally filtered out by paper filters. (Note, however, that they are a “natural” component of coffee which, ahem, must be “fixed” by human intervention.) The bad effects of coffee are mostly minor for normal dosages and recommendations against coffee are specific to each person’s condition. If you have symptoms or conditions made worse by coffee, then alternatives may be recommended. (For example, if you have iron deficiency, GERD, and occasional anxiety you might experiment with skipping coffee for awhile and see if there are improvements.)

Finally, I also failed to address why, if coffee is so dangerous, that there are no public warnings for something so commonly ingested. The answer is that negative effects are not generally serious enough to warrant public warnings or bans.

So, what are the health benefits of coffee? Well, if you read the whole section, coffee may have generally beneficial value for Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, heart disease, diabetes mellitus type 2, cirrhosis of the liver, and gout. Further, it appears that men who have more than six cups of coffee per day show a 20% decrease in risk of prostate cancer. (I don’t think I could drink six cups per day.)

Antioxidants in coffee is another potential benefit in protecting against free radicals in cell death. However, the case for overall benefits of antioxidants in general is still provisional and not yet conclusive, quite often showing negative effects in clinical studies.

So on average it appears coffee has a mix of mildly helpful and mildly harmful effects which tend to aggregate to a net benefit unless you are prone to any of the negative conditions it causes or exacerbates. Not bad, but not a healthy “super food” by any stretch of the imagination.

Energy Drinks

Unlike coffee, energy drinks are fairly easy to analyze by ingredient. Since there are many different kinds of such drinks, I’ll specifically select Monster Absolute Zero that I typically drink. This is a zero-calorie, zero-sugar product. Some may object as most energy drinks are full of sugar, but then so is most coffee when people drink it. Since I looked at coffee without referencing the sugar we put in it, it wouldn’t be fair to pick a high-sugar drink here, unless trying to use tactics to intentionally make one look worse on purpose. More basically, this is the drink I usually have nowadays so I’m curious about it specifically compared to coffee.

To evaluate health effects I’ve gone through each ingredient, linked to a summary of the value of that ingredient (with scientific references), and linked to safety information such as dosages where available.

  • caffeine (136 mg): (also in coffee)
  • Stimulant for alertness, improved physical performance, and beneficial cognitive value
  • Safety: Toxic above about 2000 mg per day. Unclear if there are issues in pregnancy but advised to reduce in first trimester as there is no placental blood-brain barrier to the fetus. Too much caffeine per day associated with heart problems, sleep, anxiety, as with coffee, tea, and other caffeine sources.

taurine(2000 mg):

  • a semi-essential amino acid which acts as a lipid/membrance stablilizer in the body and can aid various anti-oxidant defense systems.
  • Safety: daily dosage of 3000 mg assured no lifetime problem, higher is likely very safe

panax ginseng(400 mg): general “well-being” supplement;

  • increases subjective well-being, erectile function, cognition, perhaps HDL, sleep quality, libido, blood flow, calmness, anti-oxidant profile; 
  • reduces blood glucose, symptoms of menopause, perhaps weight, depression, reaction time, LDL, wrinkles, inflammation, muscle damage, oxidation, cholesterol, DNA damage, cancer risk, and cognitive decline.
  • safety: up to 4500 mg per day tested for 12 weeks with no toxicity. Some low level risk of nausea, vomit, diarrhea or cramps in some people.

vitamin B3/niacinamide(40 mg)

  • likely helpful in reducing cholesterol and vitamin B3 deficiency problems (like pellagra)
  • possibly helpful for osteoarthritis, Alzheimer’s, atherosclerosis, heart attacks, diarrhea, diabetes 1 and 2, and cataracts
  • Safety: Niacin (not niacinamide) at moderate doses associated with flushing, burning, tingling and above 3000 mg per day with gout and ulcers. Niacinamide appears to be much safer with fewer effects.

glucuronolactone(10 mg):

  • prevents blood clotting and may aid in circulation, potentially anti-carcinogenic, protect the blood vessels from oxidation and damage, protects against low-grade harm to the heart
  • No safety data available

guarana(10 mg @12% caffeine)

  • essentially additional source of caffeine; improves memory, alertness, and mood but possibly only above 75 mg; possibly helpful in weight control and weight loss (feeling of fullness)
  • Safety: generally recognized as safe by FDA at much higher doses than 10 mg

inositol(10 mg):

  • probably not much either good or bad
  • high doses possibly helpful for bulimia, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, agoraphobia, and unipolar and bipolar depression
  • Safety: no data but has been tested at much higher doses than 10 mg and found in many fruits, beans, grains, and nuts at higher doses

vitamins B6 (4 mg), B2 (3.4 mg), B12 (12 mcg)

  • I won’t bother looking up, but I’ll assume there’s no question these vitamins are fine

carbonated water

  • erodes tooth enamel, though the effect is negligible

citric acid

  • natural part of the Krebs cycle for extracting energy from food; critical component of bone, helping to regulate the size of calcium crystals

erythritol

  • sugar alcohol for safer sweetening over sugars
  • almost noncaloric, does not affect blood sugar, does not cause tooth decay, and is partially absorbed by the body, excreted in urine and feces. It is less likely to cause gastric side effects than other sugar alcohols due to its unique digestion pathway
  • Safety: over 50 g may cause naseau; erythritol is free of side effects in regular use

natural flavours:

  • I’ll skip. Just added for flavour; no general health benefits or harms associated

(tri)sodium citrate

  • some flavouring and preservative effects
  • anti-coagulant; can relieve urinary tract discomfort; antacid
  • Safety: insufficient data

grape skin extract

  • a common “natural” food extract for colour
  • could help to prevent the development of diseases associated with angiogenesis dysregulation, including cancer and glioblastoma (malignant brain tumors)

sorbic acid

  • a “natural” and “organic” preservative
  • Safety: median lethal dose is about 10 g/kg (= ~80 g for an adult), considered quite high; is environmentally friendly

sucralose

  • non-caloric artificial sweetener; low amount needed (600 times as sweet as sugar); not digested
  • Safety: unanimous lack of associated risk in normal intake (1.1 mg/kg/day); no-adverse-effects-limit tested at 1500 mg/kg/day (more than 1000 times over typical daily intake)

benzoic acid

  • food preservative used to inhibit mold, yeast, and some bacteria
  • Safety: WHO suggests provisional tolerable intake would be 5 mg/kg body weight per day.

acesulfame potassium

  • calorie-free sweetener
  • Safety: insufficient data; needs more research

sodium chloride: table salt maltodextrin

  • common bulking agent with slight sweetening
  • Safety: insufficient data but not at issue

Conclusion

None of the ingredients in the energy drink seem to have any negative health associations in the quantities included and many of them have positive health benefits which is likely why they are added.

Coffee, on the other hand, has a huge mix of both good and bad ingredients and effects. On average it appears to be a net good but is specific to each person’s condition, hence there are caveats attached.

Ultimately neither can be said to be healthy or unhealthy. The tradeoffs are in variance. Energy drinks appear to be conservatively safe and mildly beneficial. Coffee might be a little more beneficial or a little more harmful depending on your circumstances. They are both perfectly fine caffeine delivery systems and nobody should feel bad about choosing one over the other.