Caffeine in energy drinks: how much is too much?
April 19, 2023
Ahhh, caffeine. Whether it’s in coffee, tea, your favorite energy drink or soda, a caffeinated beverage is how millions of people across the world start each day. The need for that caffeinated jolt is a shared experience and the source of many an internet meme or silly coffee mug.
But what is caffeine? And should we be concerned that so many of us rely on it to wake up enough to start our days? Are there healthy amounts of caffeine? Let’s take a closer look at this natural substance found in coffee beans, tea leaves, cacao beans (the source for chocolate!), kola nuts, and other leaves, barks and pods.
You may not realize it, but when you start each day with that treasured cup of coffee, tea, etc., you are actually starting your day with a hit of the world’s most popular drug. What? Is caffeine a drug? Yup. It’s a stimulant that affects your central nervous system and your brain. That’s why it wakes us up.
Does it sound silly to call caffeine a drug? Try suddenly eliminating all caffeine from your diet for a few days and see how your body reacts. Any headaches or fatigue? Are you cranky and have trouble focusing? Those would be withdrawal symptoms. Sure, they’re manageable, but they are an example of the power caffeine can have over your body.
The status of caffeine as a drug doesn’t mean we should avoid it altogether. Healthy amounts of caffeine can be beneficial. And some items that naturally include caffeine also have beneficial antioxidants and phytonutrients.
But we should still pay attention to how much of it we consume each day.
So how much caffeine is too much? Health Canada recommends that average, healthy adults have no more than 400mg of caffeine each day. (In general that’s about 3-5 small cups of coffee, but more on that below.)
“Individuals can react differently to the same amounts of caffeine, however, so it’s important to pay attention to your own body,” said Jennifer Chuang, Ph.D., a senior research scientist and clinical investigator for Nutrilite™ and XS™ products. “A person’s age and body weight can also influence the effect, so while 400mg may be just fine for one person, it may be far too much or have no effect at all for others.”
A challenge with trying to monitor your caffeine intake is that many products will list caffeine as an ingredient, but they don’t always identify the actual amount you’re consuming. One study of caffeine in energy drinks found that those that didn’t quantify the caffeine content had more than 100mg with one having as much as 350mg. Even when they do list the amount, some studies have found them to be inaccurate. (Another reason to pay attention to your own body’s reaction to caffeine.)
The caffeine content in brewed coffee can also vary widely based on the type of coffee beans, how finely they are ground, how much was used and how long it took to brew. Teas have similar variables.
Setting aside the fact that some labels are inaccurate, there are several caffeine calculators and databases available online to help give you an idea of how much caffeine you’re consuming. This website is dedicated to all things caffeine and has an extensive database of store-bought coffees and teas, popular coffee chains, soft drinks, energy drinks, energy shots, foods and other items.
When you dive in, you will find that the caffeine in energy drinks varies widely. Some have more than 300mg of caffeine in one can with sizes range from 8 ounces to 16 ounces. The energy shots have even more concentrated levels. Combine that with the amount of caffeine you might consume from food each day and you get to 400mg pretty quickly.
Other energy drinks, including XS Energy Drinks, are more comparable to a basic cup of coffee. Jess Florek, a senior research scientist and formulator working on XS products, said a 12-ounce can of XS has 114mg of caffeine, while a 12-ounce cup of brewed coffee is around 140mg of caffeine.
“That leaves plenty of wiggle room to get caffeine from other sources throughout the day and stay within the recommended limits,” she said.
Why is there a recommended upper limit on caffeine at all? People can develop a caffeine addiction and there have been rare cases of caffeine overdoses. Those who regularly exceed the recommended amount could be putting themselves at risk of serious health problems, increased anxiety, sleep problems or other risks.
If you have more caffeine than your body can tolerate, you may experience anxiousness, increased heart rate, upset stomach, nausea, headache, jitters and insomnia. Consuming extremely high doses of caffeine all at once – like 1,200mg – can lead to toxic effects, including seizures, confusion, hallucinations and breathing troubles.
It’s becoming easier for people to inadvertently consume those large amounts because of highly concentrated caffeine products that are more widely available, like pure caffeine powder, caffeine tablets or caffeine shots. The FDA warns against the danger of over-consuming these products. One teaspoon of caffeine powder can equal the caffeine content of 28 cups of coffee!
For those of us who have a healthy handle on our caffeine habit and want to ensure we’re using it wisely to support our optimal health, it’s a good idea to know about caffeine half-life. That’s the scientific term for how long caffeine stays in your system. It’s the amount of time after you consumed the caffeine for half of it to leave your body.
This, too, can vary by individual based on gender and other factors. A study of healthy adult men showed it ranged from 2.7 hours to 9.9 hours. That means for some of us, the effects of that 3 p.m. energy drink won’t last past your nightly binge watching, but for others it could hinder a good night’s sleep. And sleep is a key part of optimal health.
When we get enough healthy sleep, we’re more likely to feel refreshed the next day and less likely to be relying on that first gulp of caffeine.
“Pay attention to how much caffeine you’re consuming and what time of day you’re doing it to ensure that it is serving you well and not hampering your optimal health goals,” Chuang said. “You are the best judge of how your body reacts.
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