Caffeine is a natural stimulant or alkaloid found in over 60 plant species, according to Coffee and Health. It revs up the central nervous system and you immediately experience a feeling of alertness when it hits your brain. The blood vessels in your brain become accustomed to the caffeine, that’s why you get a headache if you suddenly drop your intake. Caffeine also temporarily raises your blood pressure and heart rate. We know that these drinks help keep us awake, but breaking down the science and what’s really going on in your body can help you see the whole picture. 

You can’t get into caffeine without getting into one of America’s favorite pick-me-ups: coffee. There’s piles upon piles of studies and clinical trials linking coffee to a host of health benefits like preventing long term disease, treating asthma, and weight loss. But these studies are focused on the nutritional value of the coffee itself, not the caffeine component. Coffee beans are rich in antioxidants and micronutrients like Vitamin B, Magnesium, and phosphorus. These are the ingredients that give these studies a more positive outlook. When you get into the negative, caffeine is the typical culprit. 

 Next, we’re going to tackle energy drinks. From Monster’s, to Bang’s, Red Bull’s and Reign’s, there is a variation of the same kind of ingredients: B vitamins, guarana, taurine, sugar substitute, ginseng, and of course caffeine. If you see a nutrition label that lists niacin or panthothenic acid, these are B vitamins. Though B vitamins are great for your health, fighting off heart disease and cancers, don’t get too excited. The amount of these vitamins in most energy drinks is so far from the daily recommended intake that they’re completely negligible. The same applies for “fitness” additives like BCAA’s and creatine. Sorry kids, it’s all for looks. 

Guarana is just a fancy word for caffeine. It’s derived from a Brazilian cocoa leaf and one gram is equivalent to about 40 milligrams of caffeine, according to Time Magazine. Guarana isn’t always included in the overall caffeine total so if you see a label that says 200 mg of caffeine plus however much guarana, that’s actually caffeine plus more caffeine.

Taurine is an amino acid produced in the body. It supports brain health, and helps your body regulate essential nutrients and water levels. Most energy drinks have more than the recommended amount, but there doesn't seem to be any side effects to having too much. Taurine also has ties to improved athletic performance so the mindset is usually the more the better.

Ginseng is an herbal root traditionally used for its medicinal properties. It’s been shown to boost your immune system, energy, cognitive function and lower blood sugar, according to Medical News Today. It does have a similar downside to caffeine in that withdrawal from the substance can cause headaches and digestive issues.

The controversial discussion of sugar substitutes could fill a novel, but let’s get down to the facts of it all. While many energy drinks have overwhelming amounts of natural sugar, going the diet route doesn’t guarantee you zero health risks. 

Sucralose is a common additive in the zero calorie cans. Sucralose is the main ingredient in splenda and is made through the chemical reaction of oxygen HO atoms and chlorine, according to Healthline. It also contains two carb sources, glucose and maltodextrin. Sucralose has little to no effect on insulin or blood sugar levels, and has no concrete, proven downsides because there haven’t been enough clinical trial studies in humans. The risk is all theory and was born out of the concern that chlorine is essentially a carcinogen. Animal studies have shown a bit of digestive damage, but the effect on humans isn’t really understood yet.   

Ace-k, or acesulfame potassium, also pops up on some nutrition labels. It tastes sweet because it activates receptors on your tongue and lets you experience the sweet-factor without actually eating sugar. It’s added in combination with artificial sweeteners to get rid of any after taste. Your body doesn’t break it down at all and you just pass it when you pee, so no downsides there. 

Erythritol is a sugar alcohol found in many fruits and vegetables. It also has a sweetness factor because of taste receptors in your mouth, but for only 6% of the calories as sugar. Even in massive doses erythritol doesn’t seem to pose any kind of danger. Like most sugar substitutes, it’s chemical structure makes it harder for your body to digest, but that’s really the worst of it.

The danger really begins with caffeinated drinks like diet soda and their tendency to contain an artificial sweetener called aspartame. Aspartame hides behind the guise of Equal and Nutrasweet, and is made of aspartic acid and phenylanine, according to Healthline. Both are amino acids that naturally occur in either our bodies or food. But when our digestive system starts to break down aspartame, it turns into methanol, which is toxic in pretty much any quantity. Of course hardly anyone is dying after drinking a can of Diet Coke, but that doesn’t mean damage isn’t being done. Aspartame is the most dangerous for people with chronic conditions and weaker immune systems, and has been linked to things like seizures, cancer, and birth defects.

Now that we’ve picked apart all the background ingredients, we can focus on caffeine. Your coworkers may give you a funny look when you start your morning with a Monster instead of the usual cup of coffee, but you’re really on the same playing field. Instead of focusing on the drink itself, you really just need to keep an eye on the caffeine content. An average cup of coffee contains 90-100 mg. A Monster has about 200 mg, while more heavy duty brands like Bang get up to 300 mg. A healthy adult’s maximum should be around 400 mg or you’ll be at risk for not only feeling the uncomfortable “jitters”, but also feeling adrenal fatigue. Caffeine makes neurons in your brain send signals to your pituitary gland to start pumping out adrenaline and cortisol, making you feel more “alert”. But if your chugging massive amounts of coffee or energy drinks all day, your whole nervous system gets worn out and you don’t feel the effects the same way. You could also just start to feel more tired in general without any caffeine because your pituitary gland is down in the dumps.

Whatever your preferences, caffeine and artificial sugars can be the saving grace of a strict diet. Chugging the diet version of your favorite sweet drink can keep your mind and mouth away from the actual treats, and help you slim down. But your daily caffeine intake should always have a limit if you want your body to perform at its best. No use breaking your addiction to junk food if you can’t put down the soda. Making room for a liquid pick-me-up means learning a thing or two about moderation. There’s no reason to cut yourself off from these drinks so long as you read the labels, know your ingredients, and balance out your diet with the nutrition your body demands.

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Take it from me

Diet soda and energy drinks didn’t become a vice for me until I couldn’t have the sugary drinks and snacks I was used to. Finding healthier ways to fill the void meant trying new things. I can’t stomach coffee so energy drinks were my best alternative. I chugged a Bang a day until I realized the 300 mg of caffeine were keeping me up at night. I also felt antsy and a little nauseous with that much extra energy, so I got on the Monster train instead. I felt much more comfortable at that 150-200 mg level and craved the taste more that any diet soda. 

With my graveyard shift work hours, a daily caffeine boost is definitely a must. Sure, it’s not the best habit to get into, but as long as I keep my meals balanced and drink plenty of water, I don’t ever feel by body get out of whack. I’ve gotten plenty of flack for my can-a-day habit, but in the end, I know the nutrition label that’s behind on the health gossip. I know what’s in my drink despite any rumors and ultimately feel in control of my choices.