If you’re looking for a caffeine boost to pull off that next all-nighter, choosing between an energy drink and a cup of coffee may be more difficult than you think.
Coordinator for Health Education and Health Promotion Programs at Health, Counselling and Disability Services (HCDS) Lee Fisher-Goodchild said energy drinks don’t contain a standard amount of caffeine.
“Health Canada has set a safe amount of caffeine per day at 400 mg,” she said. “There’s between 80 and 100 mg per cup of coffee. Energy drinks really vary.”
At Tim Horton’s a small cup of coffee contains 80 mg of caffeine and an extra large cup contains 200 mg. This is comparable to an eight ounce original RockStar energy drink containing 80 mg of caffeine or 240 mg in the 24 ounce can.
According to Toronto Public health, there’s over 250 mg in some energy drinks, which is six times the amount in a can of cola.
“Often the amount of caffeine in a drink is not listed [on the label] because it’s found in herbal supplements added to the drink,” Fisher-Goodchild said.
Listed on the RockStar can label is the ‘energy blend.’ This is 1.35 g per eight ounce serving which includes ingredients like guarana extract, an herbal supplement containing twice the amount of caffeine as coffee beans. This means the drinks contain more caffeine than is actually listed on the label.
Fisher-Goodchild said it’s important to look at the label of an energy drink because of the various ingredients included.
“Take a really good look at what’s in the energy drink. Some of them have no more or even less than a cup of coffee but some of them have a lot more,” she said.
Energy drinks like RockStar also contain an amino acid called taurine.
“Claims are it increases alertness,” Fisher-Goodchild said. “If you go to medical studies … it’s an unknown.”
It’s really the sugar contained in energy drinks that gives people an immediate energy boost as well as potential jittery feelings, Fisher-Goodchild said.
“Sugar tends to make you feel really energetic at first,” she said, adding that later, individuals experience an energy low.
Countries like Norway, Denmark and France have banned energy drinks because the long-term effects of the combined ingredients haven’t been tested.
One popular use for energy drinks is to combine them with alcohol on a night out, however Fisher-Goodchild said combining the two masks the affects of alcohol on the body.
“Alcohol is a depressant and caffeine is a stimulant,” Fisher-Goodchild said. “Caffeine tends to make people more alert and feel the effect of intoxication a little less. You maybe aren’t functioning as well but feel like you are.”
According to Toronto Public Health, one concern with mixing alcohol and energy drinks is that individuals may do things they wouldn’t otherwise, like drink and drive. Another issue is that people can drink too much too quickly and this can result in alcohol poisoning.
Because caffeine is a stimulant, it temporarily improves brain and body function.
Health Canada cites caffeine as a non-addictive substance. However, if consumed for a long period of time, individuals can show signs of dependency and side effects, like headaches if consumption stops abruptly. Because these effects are mild and transient, making the consumption of caffeine easy to stop, the substance isn’t addictive.
“[Caffeine] promotes wakefulness,” Fisher-Goodchild said, adding that the effects vary for each individual. “Some people will have trouble sleeping if they have a cup of coffee after 2 or 3 p.m. And others can have coffee after 11 p.m. without affecting their sleep.”
According to Fisher-Goodchild, possible side effects of drinking too much caffeine include stomach irritation, heartburn, nausea, vomiting and in high doses, an irregular heartbeat.
In terms of being used as a study strategy, Fisher-Goodchild said it can’t replace good sleeping habits.
“Being able to concentrate requires complex brain functions. While caffeine might keep you awake, it probably doesn’t help you,” she said. “It’s not a great long-term strategy to stay up later and later.”
Fisher-Goodchild said although you can cut caffeine out of your diet cold turkey, to prevent caffeine withdrawal, the best strategy is to do so gradually.
“To make [side effects] easier to deal with, cut down gradually. Once you’re down to one cup, even start diluting your coffee with decaf or switch to tea,” she said.
“Tea has generally less caffeine than a cup of coffee, especially a green tea with mint or chamomile as opposed to regular green tea. You’re less likely to experience side effects.”
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