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Coffee vs. Energy Drinks vs. Tea: Caffeine Showdown

  • person Tracy Atieh
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Coffee vs. Energy Drinks vs. Tea: Caffeine Showdown

Caffeine is one of the most consumed substances in the world. Most often found in coffee, tea, energy drinks, and soft drinks, this stimulant is a household name, and many praise it for its variety of benefits. Need to wake up in the morning? Need to stay up late to finish that report? Need a hit of focus in the afternoon? Want that extra surge of energy before a workout? In any of those cases and more, caffeine has you covered.

But what delivery method of caffeine can be named as the undisputed “best”? Ounce for ounce, we’re going to pit three of the most popular sources in a battle to see who comes out on top. 

This isn’t a contest to see which of the three drinks has the most caffeine, but overall which drink is the most well-rounded and best in class when it comes to giving us our much loved caffeinated jolt. 

Ladies and gentlemen gather ‘round. Today we will witness the heavyweights of caffeinated beverages-- coffee, tea, and energy drinks-- square off in a battle royal. We will finally see who is the undisputed champion of caffeine delivery.  Let’s get this caffeine showdown started.

First, Let’s Demystify Caffeine 

Whether you drink coffee, tea, or energy drinks, you’re likely not in it for the flavor alone. We all love a sweet hit of caffeine at certain points in the day (some would joke that caffeine is a vitamin). But speaking of that, what is caffeine, really? We know that it gives us a jolt, but before we go into the showdown of all showdowns between coffee, tea, and energy drinks, let’s take a quick moment to understand what caffeine truly is. 

Caffeine, though naturally occurring, is still considered a chemical. The most common effect caffeine has is mental acuity or alertness. It works its magic by stimulating the heart, the muscles, the centers in your body that control blood pressure, and the central nervous system. It increases activity in those areas, as well as giving you a rush of chemicals such as adrenaline and cortisol. 

If you keep your doses of caffeine to moderate amounts it can make you feel focused, and even refreshed and alert. Be careful though-- whether you’re slugging coffee, tea, energy drinks or any other source of caffeine, if you ingest too much you’ll feel edgy, anxious, and won’t be able to sleep properly. 

Now that we have a better understanding of what caffeine is, it’s time for the showdown. Who does it best: coffee, tea, or energy drinks? Let the battle begin!

  • Contender: Tea

The caffeine content of tea varies widely based on a lot of factors. Some consider tea a milder drink when it comes to caffeine, but as you’ll see later, that is not necessarily the case. So how much caffeine is in tea? How does it stack up as a contender? There are a lot of variables. Here are just some of the details that dictate that answer.

  • How hot is your water? 

We’re asking because it’s a little-known fact that hotter water extracts more caffeine from tea. This is especially the case in certain varieties, which is why white tea and green tea are often made with water that isn’t screaming hot, while black tea is often enjoyed with boiling water.  

  • How long is your teabag steeping?

In addition to the heat of the water, leaving the teabag in the water longer is going to give you a more concentrated dose of caffeine as it seeps from the tea leaves. Another side-effect of steeping longer is a stronger flavor. 

  • What other factors play a part?

A variety of other factors play a part in the caffeine levels of your tea. When was it harvested? If the answer is the spring, the caffeine content is often higher. How was it grown? There’s a method known as “shading” that induces stress in the shade-grown tea, resulting in higher caffeine content. How was it processed? An intact tea leaf is often lower in caffeine, whereas a leaf that is torn, crushed, or cut produces higher caffeine levels. Finally, different varieties of tea have different caffeine content. 

  • Showdown: How Does Tea Measure Up?

Tea is no slouch when it comes to caffeine delivery, and as we mentioned earlier, it’s often misconstrued as “weaker.” That is not the case when you look at some of the heavy hitters such as matcha, yerba mate, and oolong. These teas can contain as much coffee as an energy drink or a cup of coffee no problem. 

It’s also worth mentioning that tea is the most popular in terms of cups drank per day at 3 billion (with a “b”), though it’s less popular than coffee in the United States.

So where does tea land in the caffeine showdown? While it has versatility, and an immense amount of customization in the way it can be prepared, it falls a bit short. It is no slouch in the flavor or caffeine department, but it does have a few flaws that cost it the title. Tea can be a bit time-consuming to prepare, and there are so many variables during the process that it becomes difficult to get consistent results. Each cup tends to vary so much in caffeine content, potency, and flavor, that each cup is a bit of a wild card. 

  • Contender: Energy Drinks

In the world of the caffeine showdown, energy drinks are a first-class contender that punches above its weight. Often though, energy drinks have a bad reputation as being completely unhealthy and borderline dangerous. Let’s take a closer look at energy drinks and see what the truth is behind this popular caffeine juggernaut. (Note: for this entry in the showdown, we’re purposefully excluding energy drink/coffee hybrids, like Java Monster.)

  • Benefits of Energy Drinks

Energy drinks aren’t hot beverages, so they are far more refreshing than hot coffee or tea. They are most often carbonated, and served cold, giving an invigorating sensation when they’re being enjoyed.

Energy drinks are also very convenient. They don’t need to be heated, prepared, or brewed-- they’re ready to go out of the can. They’re also regularly available in gas stations, grocery stores, and rest stops, and the quality typically won’t differ from place to place. 

You’ll know exactly how much caffeine you’re getting in each can since it’s measured, which is not the case with coffee or tea. This makes it easier to control and limit your caffeine intake. Additionally, it’s often possible to drink an energy drink more quickly because it’s not hot. This can lead to finishing the can faster, which means speedier caffeine delivery. 

  • More Ingredients Than Just Caffeine

In addition to caffeine, energy drinks often have other ingredients that can be beneficial in moderation. 

In the various energy drinks available, you can find ingredients like riboflavin (which can help with some blood disorders and muscle cramps), vitamin B (which can help fight heart disease and generally improves mood), B6 (which boosts the immune system and nervous system’s functions), and B12 (which promotes a healthy digestive system, regulates the nervous system and keeps your nerves and red blood cells healthy and well). 

While these ingredients do not occur naturally, it still helps to debunk the “energy drinks are poison” stigma-- most folks wouldn’t expect an energy drink to have that level of additional nutritional contents. 

  • Not All Energy Drinks Are Created Equally

While there are many energy drinks on the market, not all of them have the same ingredients within their shiny metal cans. It’s assumed that energy drinks are loaded with chemicals and sugar, but that just isn’t always the case. 

Let’s take BANG energy drinks for example. Though they have many flavors, the nutritional information for each is essentially the same. In a can of BANG (16-ounces), there are zero calories, zero sugar, zero cholesterol, zero carbs, zero fat (there is also zero protein and zero fiber). On the other hand, it contains only 40mg of sodium, 85 mg of potassium, and up to 25% of the daily recommended values of vitamins like B12, B6, and Niacin (with a little magnesium to boot). 

Compare that to many other energy drinks that can have from 100 to 300+ calories (and are loaded with sugar). This proves that there are some energy drinks are actually good vehicles of vitamins, and can still provide a jolt of energy. One thing to beware of: a 16-ounce can of BANG has 300 grams of caffeine. 

  • Showdown: How Do Energy Drinks Measure Up?

So where do energy drinks land in the caffeine showdown? They take the cake when it comes to convenience combined with flavor selection, and the ability to know exactly how much caffeine you’re taking in is also a major plus. 

Sadly, energy drinks do fall down a bit in a few areas. Firstly, with their high caffeine content per can, they run the risk of dehydrating you more quickly if you have multiple cans. Also, some energy drinks aren’t technically sold as foods, but as “dietary supplements.” This means that they don’t have to adhere to standard food marketing and labeling regulations. You also have to drink an entire can once you open it, which can be inconvenient or cause you to take in more caffeine than you want to in one go. 

  • Contender: Coffee

Right off the bat, coffee is definitely a popular drink on the list in terms of sheer consumption. On the last count, the world drinks around 2 billion cups of coffee a day (yes, billion with a “b”) and many of those are in the US. So why is it so popular?

  • A Smell Like No Other

Coffee is the winner, hands down when it comes to its aroma. Whether you’re smelling the beans, the grounds, or the brewing process itself, it smells like heaven. Coffee shops are more pleasant places because of the deep, rich aroma, and even the minority of folks who don’t drink coffee can appreciate the delicious scent. No one cracks open an energy drink and sniffs the contents, and while some tea can have a lovely smell, it’s often soft and weak. 

So what’s the big deal with the smell of coffee? Well in addition to it being lovely and one-of-a-kind, some studies say that it may actually have other benefits. Researchers at Temple University and Baruch College carried out studies that showed evidence that the smell of coffee alone could give people a mental boost. That’s one powerful scent. 

  • Health Benefits of Coffee

Even though it clocks in at zero calories on its own, coffee is actually one of the most prevalent sources of antioxidants in the diet of North Americans. Not only does it have a decent level of antioxidants per cup, but the sheer volume of cups people in North America consume is a large factor. Studies show that people in North America get more antioxidants from coffee than from vegetables and fruit combined. 

Coffee also has more natural nutrients than one might think. When you drink a cup of coffee, you’re also getting up to 11% of your recommended daily intake of riboflavin, magnesium, niacin, manganese, potassium, and vitamin B5. While some of these can be found in energy drinks, it’s not naturally occurring. Some studies have even shown that coffee may lower the risk of type 2 diabetes. 

  • Showdown: How Does Coffee Measure Up

So where does coffee land in the caffeine showdown? It’s definitely a strong contender due to its popularity and its divine smell that we’ve all come to know and love. Another major bonus is that of the three drinks, coffee is socially available for free at many places of business (not typically the case for energy drinks and only sometimes the case for tea). 

Coffee is extremely popular, affordable, and easy to access. It has incredible health benefits and reduces the risk of various conditions. It’s also got a smell that is so good, just a sniff can boost your mental acuity. There’s a lot to love.

  • Who is the Winner?

Let’s look at health benefits. Coffee has far more benefits than energy drinks (and in fact, there are many reports that point to long-term and negative health issues that arise from drinking energy drinks). 

In terms of going pound for pound with tea, both have their health benefits. The truth is there is no conclusive evidence on whether coffee or tea is a better health choice, so we’ll have to call that a draw. 

Now let’s take a look at convenience. Energy drinks win out on this one because they’re grab-and-go, and tea is in last place because of the time you need to steep. Coffee does need to be brewed, but with the added convenience boost that comes from K-Cups, coffee pulls neck-and-neck with energy drinks. 

Finally, let’s take a look at the popular vote. For energy drinks, 5% of adults drink an energy drink about 6 times a month. Another 2% will drink more than 10 per month. When it comes to tea, it takes the crown in terms of sheer volume. Although coffee does come in second in terms of cups drank, it does have a bit of an x-factor in this category. 

While more tea may be consumed, it can be argued that there are less “diehard” tea fans. Coffee drinkers tend to make their drink a way of life, and it works its way into many parts of their lives. For this reason, coffee ties tea in terms of popularity. Less cups, but a more zealous following.

Overall it was a close call. With so many facets to weigh, it was challenging to crown just one winner. At the end of the day, it varies from person to person and is a matter of preference, but after weighing all of the evidence, our winner of the caffeine showdown is…. coffee

Don’t agree? Well then, the only answer is to conduct a showdown yourself.

 But if you do, be sure to use great coffee in your tests. Get yourself some JOJO Java, and you’ll see why coffee pulled ahead and won the crown. Grab some now.