What’s the buzz, tell me what’s happening

The New York Times’ Barry Meier looks at the evidence and concludes that “energy drinks” are just a really expensive way of purchasing caffeine.

A 16-ounce energy drink that sells for $2.99 a can contains about the same amount of caffeine as a tablet of NoDoz that costs 30 cents. Even Starbucks coffee is cheap by comparison; a 12-ounce cup that costs $1.85 has even more caffeine.

… Caffeine is called the world’s most widely used drug. A stimulant, it increases alertness, awareness and, if taken at the right time, improves athletic performance, studies show.

… “These are caffeine delivery systems,” said Dr. Roland Griffiths, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University who has studied energy drinks. “They don’t want to say this is equivalent to a NoDoz because that is not a very sexy sales message.”

All that other stuff added to “energy drinks” — taurine, B-vitamins, “glucuronolactone,” etc. — doesn’t really do anything. It’s just, to quote Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory, “A recipe for very expensive urine.”

No sense splurging for the name-brand NoDoz, either. Get the generic kind, then cut ’em in half, and you’re in the range of 5 cents for 100mg, which is probably the cheapest “caffeine delivery system” you’ll find.

The problem isn’t that this is just “not a very sexy sales message,” but that swallowing a tablet is too stark a reminder that caffeine is a drug. Ingesting that drug via coffee masks that somewhat. All those B-vitamin compounds and herbal whatnots in energy drinks do the same thing. They’re just in there so we can pretend we’re doing something nutritional and wholesome rather than just finding another flavor for the delivery system for our preferred stimulant drug.

I’m not judging or condemning, mind you. Just comparing notes, one addict to another.

(P.S. The caffeinated drink mixes — Crystal Light, etc. — aren’t bad either at about 25 cents for 60 mg, if you’re OK with the aspartame. Target’s cheaper store-brand variety, alas, only seems to come in strawberry.)

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  • Jim Roberts

    I find I need the sugar of a cola or Mountain Dew to get any stimulant effect from caffeine, and swallowing a pill along with a spoonful of sugar is, with all apologies to Ms. Poppins, just a little weird.

  • Mkkuhner

    I have a dramatically bad reaction to aspartame–3-4 hours of high fever and being constantly on the verge of throwing up but unable to do so.  I’ve made that mistake three times and hope never to do it again.  (Last time was in a foreign country–didn’t pick out the aspartame in the Portuguese ingredient list.)

    I more or less live on bottled honey-sweetened green tea.  I tell myself that the caffeine is a water delivery device–it helps fend off dehydration.

  • I actually like decaffeinated coffee, though. Not as much as the real thing, but it’s a pleasant substitute when I’ve had enough already, or it’s too late in the day.

  • Halcyon

    I don’t have any problem with admitting it’s my favorite legal drug of choice, I just really hate the taste of coffee and prefer energy drinks.  Although recently I’ve been learning to love hot tea…

  • VorJack

    Supposedly, there are compounds in tea that alter the body’s absorption of caffeine  resulting in a smoother period of alertness without the peak and crash from a dose of pure caffeine.  Anyway, I find tea sipping keeps me awake better that coffee chugging for long periods of time.

  • redsixwing

    Ugh, aspartame. D:

    I find B vitamins (niacin in particular) very effective on my own personal metabolism – the crash is awful, but if I MUST keep going for a couple hours for some reason, I’ll drink one of these B-vitamin-enhanced things. A fruit juice with B, for preference, although those are somewhat difficult to find.

    I get most of my caffeine from hot tea, which has the advantage of being very tasty if not particularly easy. I like the kinds of teas that are very particular about how they are brewed, mostly. *laugh*


  • Dana

    I think the taste/smell of coffee do more for my ability to work than the actual caffeine does, especially with the tolerance I’ve built up!

    I suppose I could come to have the same associations with another flavored drink…but somehow strawberry-flavored aspartame seems unlikely to do it for me.

  • Vermic

    I forget where I saw the discussion — it might have been here at Slacktivist — but the observation was brought up that in ancient/medieval times, before refrigeration and purified water, the default beverage for people was alcohol.  Wine if you could get it; beer or some local brew for the lower classes.

    Somebody pointed out how this fact painted a humorous picture of history: some of the greatest empires of humankind were formed and maintained by a populace that was, by and large, perpetually and mildly buzzed.  To which the response came that our modern empires are no different; we’ve merely substituted the buzz of caffeine for that of alcohol.

  • Sagrav

    They probably weren’t perpetually buzzed since they’d built up a tolerance to alcohol due to their daily alcohol consumption.  They could still achieve a buzz, but it would take an extra heavy dose of booze to get the same kick.

    Similarly, I’m a daily coffee drinker, and caffeine can’t really give me the same buzz that I remember from when I started drinking java back in college.  It kind of makes me feel awake, but the effect is a pale imitation of the original buzz.

  • schnoxl

    The military has a problem with the abuse of energy drinks by service
    members. They find that if someone drinks more than about three energy
    drinks a day, the excess caffeine destroys the effectiveness of their
    sleep and actually them more likely to fall asleep or make serious
    mistakes while on duty. The Air Force in particular is studying how
    using energy drinks affect performance so that service members don’t end up doing more harm than good with caffeine.

    The Army includes “Stay-Alert” caffeinated gum in MREs: http://www.amazon.com/STAY-ALERT-Military-Caffeine-Energy/dp/B002U2IMBA/ They find it effective because some of the caffeine is absorbed through the palate, so it provides a quicker boost of alertness. One piece of gum also has about half the caffeine of a cup of coffee. If you want a pure caffeine boost that has some science backing it up, I’d suggest ordering yourself a case.

  •  > we’ve merely substituted the buzz of caffeine for that of alcohol.

    Not to mention the mind-altering effects of sleep deprivation itself.

  • Launcifer

    Also it was a slightly different thing in the sense that the alcohol brewed for daily consumption was either less potent due to using a slightly different fermentation process or else watered down with the addition of other stuff (hence the phrase “small beer”) precisely in order to prevent people from working half-cut, though there was also an acceptance that letting children drink full-strength alcohol from an early age was probably not the best idea ever*.

    The thing that used to amuse me about energy drinks and their ilk when I was younger was precisely who  they used to use in their advertising campaigns. I remember seeing various sprinters and footballers on tv and idly wondering which ones would fall foul of their sport’s anti-doping teams if they were, in fact, using the stuff as they claimed.

    *I once sat through an entire module’s worth of this sort of thing at university. “The Evolution of the English Public House” indeed.

  • Magic_Cracker

    My nephew, a competitive swimmer, got really upset when he saw one of his rivals chug three Red Bulls right before an event. He felt it cheating. I explained to him him that actually, it takes at least 30 minutes for caffeine to have an effect on the body and he wouldn’t get any rush or buzz until after the race was over, plus in the meanwhile, his rival had a belly sloshed full of fizzing, nasty-ass swill and would probably get a cramp. (My nephew came in first.)

  • Michael Pullmann

    I didn’t know the Times had a “Stuff You Already Know” department.

  • Hexep

    I don’t consume aspartame, as part of my general “eat the real stuff or go entirely without” regime.

  • P J Evans

    I remember seeing a mock-ad for a metered-dose caffeine inhaler once, probably for April Fool. (Either that or the ‘Eureka’ mock-product page.) It actually sounds reasonable.

    If I’m going to go ‘energy drink’, I’d probably go for the 17-century version: egg tea.
    (Beat two tablespoons of sugar with one egg, while the tea is brewing. Pour the hot tea onto the beaten egg while stirring. You get your fat, your sugar, your protein, and your caffeine all at once. Best when  made with chai tea.)

  • AnonymousSam

    My body is completely intolerant of energy drinks of any kind, from the Mountain Dew knockoff sodas to the juicer 5-hour Energy shots. I’ve been trying to isolate which of the chemicals my system reacts to (whatever it is gives me a hideous stomachache), but to no avail. I thought it was caffeine itself, since I get the same reaction from coffee, but then I looked into how much caffeine I get from my frequent tea binges and that can’t be it. For that matter, chocolate-covered espresso beans is one of my favorite snacks.

    Go figure.

  • Lori

    Yes, some of us already knew this. Virtually every new thing you ever learned in your life was something that someone else already knew. There’s probably not much point in being even mildly snotty about stuff you know that other people may not.

  • Andrea

    Indeed, which brings this to mind: http://xkcd.com/1053/

  • Theophylline in tea has a caffeine-like structure, but apparently has less of an effect than caffeine in coffee.

  • I prefer to have coffee in the morning. I find for some reason if I drink it in the afternoon, even if freshly brewed, it tastes quite obnoxious.

  • Jessica_R

    Yeah, I can put back a pot of Tazo Awake black tea all by myself, and I tell myself it’s to keep me hydrated too. 

  • Kiba

    Ah, coffee. My one true love in life. I have only ever had one caffeine buzz and that was in the 90s. I met my brother after school and we went to a coffee shop where we had a cappuccino, double shot espresso (was served in cappuccino cup and was half full) , and a large coffee. I went back for another espresso but the lady wouldn’t serve us any more (never been cut off at a coffee shop before) so we laughed and walked over to the grocery store and bought two Cokes then walked home.

  • JustoneK

    COFFEE IS AN ABSOLUTE GOOD.  unless like yer allergic.  that would suck.

    I drink coffee more than eating.  But I also put copious amounts of sugar (because also all the fake sweeteners I try are just noxious.)  I’m probably consuming more than is generally in the alleged energy boosting drinks.

  • Here in Seattle we slurp down coffee shop made espressos all the time.  Yeah, we know we can get caffeine cheaper in other ways, but this is Seattle and coffee is just a “thing” here.

  • Speaking as a brewer and a drinker, I have to say that the delivery system matters. I’ve sampled a half-dozen absinthes along with tinctitures of thujone and I know which I prefer. I’ve had straight-up moonshine along with whiskey and gin and I know which I prefer. I do not consume/imbibe/etc. exclusively for the physical or chemical effects, but for the enjoyment of the thing. 

    There’s a saying that “a pipe gives a wise man something to think about, and an idiot something to put in his mouth”. One of the nice parts about a cup of coffee is that it gives you something to do that precludes talking or running or typing with both hands. A good cup of coffee or tea is something that you sit, drink, and do very little else while doing so, which has a value all its own.

  • Rafar

    But the delivery system ritual is at least half the fun…I have a German friend who has built his own pressurised espresso machine with all sorts of gauges, wooden blocks and valves. Making an espresso takes about 1/2 an hour but it is soooo good…

    PS. Thanks for meming me with the title. Now I’ve got a purple Herod spinning in my head…

  • Kadh2000

    Yea!! Coffee!!
    Boo!! Aspartame!!

    Coffee addict here.  Can’t take aspartame because it makes me ill for about three hours afterwards.  So I get my caffeine in coffee and get to spend my life finding the perfect coffee: clear #1 for me is Kona.

  • P J Evans

    The place I worked at – contract ran out – has commercial coffee makers on every floor: three burners with carafes, two regular and one decaf. The coffee dispensers hold something like five pounds of ground coffee. Each. (It isn’t the best of coffee, but it’s free, and so is the tea.)

    Now if we could just get people to stop leaving the empty carafe on the hot burner….

  • AnonymousSam

    I keep wondering if this is because of Starbucks or if Starbucks is because of this. Was coffee a thing here before 1971?

  • MikeJ

    Food is just a nutrient delivery system.  Anything other than beans and rice is just a recipe for expensive poop. 

    Some people claim to prefer the taste of the food at a trois étoiles restaurant, but they’re just fooling themselves.

  •  I can’t tell if you’re being sincere or if you’re trying to suggest that people drink caffeinated energy drinks for the flavor.

  • I am guessing a little of both?  Starbucks is not the only major coffee chain based in Seattle, just the most successful (though they did buy-out the next most successful albeit they kept it with its own corporate structure and branding.)  

    I would hazard to speculate that the perpetual grey in the sky here through the fall, winter, and spring might have something to do with the environment being rich for coffee drinking.  It makes it seem like such a comfort in that kind of weather.  

    Surprisingly though it is actually sunny in Seattle today.  Cold, but sunny.  I am in a building right next to the Space Needle, seeing it surrounded by clear blue sky, broken only by thick water vapor coming out a vent near its base.  They must have a boiler in there.  

  • Random_Lurker

    I’m a fan of loose-leaf tea.  I can’t stand the taste of coffee, and a $6 can of tea lasts almost two months.  Plus, it’s encouraged me to develop new and interesting things to sweeten it with, like homemade vanilla syrup.

  • MikeJ

     I hate red bull et al, but I drink one particular caffeinated energy drink for the flavor. I also live in Seattle.

    Yes, I could grind up generic no-doz and snort them cheaper than I can get Mandheling or Irgachefe, but I prefer the taste of good coffee.

  • AnonymousSam

    I’m not far from the same region and enjoying the sun too. I love explaining western Washington weather to outsiders- how we usually have cold dry days or warm wet days, but snow is a rarity, sunny days are chilly and cloudy days are comfortable.

    At least, compared to where else I’ve lived. Michigan winter does only one type of weather: BLAAAAAAARGH.

  • OriginalExtraCrispy

     I love the mouseover text on that one.

    I can’t stand energy drinks or coffee, but I do drink a lot of Coke Zero. More than I should, though now that my body is starting to rebel, I’ve had to cut down drastically. I drank a Red Bull once, and besides having to hold my nose to drink it, the buzz was rather severe. Moreso than if I’d just downed two colas in succession. I didn’t care for it at all.

  • B

    I relied on soda for my caffeine intake all through college because I didn’t like coffee or tea.  When I hit grad school I realized that I needed to find a calorie-free caffeine source.  So, I forced myself to keep drinking tea (no milk, no sweetener) until I started to like it.  Now I’m a full-fledged tea snob (and I *do* like it for the flavor as well as the caffeine) and I usually drink several mugs a day.

    I never did the same thing for coffee, so I still don’t like it.

    I don’t get the same kick from the tea that I get from the combination of caffeine and soda, but the tea is so much better for my waistline and my teeth I persevere.  (Seriously, I knew soda was bad for my teeth, but I was still surprised how much my dental health improved when I stopped drinking a can of Coke with lunch every day.)

  •  K. Thanks for clarifying.

  • ReverendRef

    Coffee — ick.  When I was about 12 or 13 or so, I did the obligatory “steal a cigarette and drink coffee” thing.  I found both of them nasty.  The cigarette burned my throat and lungs, and the coffee stripped off any remaining taste buds.  Never had another of either since.

    And, yes . . . I actually do wake up smiling and happy.

    My biggest challenge is training parishioners not to offer me coffee.

    Hot chocolate, well, that’s a different story.

  • Lliira

     I don’t like caffeine. I have idiosyncratic reactions to it. When I drink coffee in the morning, it wipes me out — the crash is nearly immediate and lasts all day. It works to keep me awake at night if I need to stay awake at night for some reason, but then I’m awake until dawn. The pills I take for my cramps have caffeine in them, which is supposed to give energy, but the pills just wipe me out.

    I like the taste of coffee, though. If someone figures out how to de-caffeinate coffee while making it taste the same, without the strange flat aftertaste, I will be very happy. Maybe they could try leaving just a little caffeine in, like as much as you get with hot chocolate.

  • Lliira

     My nephew, a competitive swimmer, got really upset when he saw one of his rivals chug three Red Bulls right before an event

    I was also a competitive swimmer (though likely on a lower level than your nephew, as I regularly came in third or fourth), and I can’t believe how irresponsible the coach of that young man was. Drinking like that right before getting in the water is dangerous. Plus, caffeine dehydrates you. Appalling.

  • MaryKaye

    I once got an innocent soda (tasted like mild gingerale) from a Brazilian restaurant that turned out to be more or less pure guarana and had the kick of a couple of Red Bulls.  I was up rather late that night!

    My mother bet me I couldn’t get through graduate school without drinking coffee, and I won; never developed a taste for it.  Lots of tea, though.  I am currently scouring Seattle for a new bottle of almond syrup (as used in making Italian sodas) to flavor my Earl Gray–love that combo.  And yes, it is sunny today!  Surprise!

  • I’m not far from the same region and enjoying the sun too. I love explaining western Washington weather to outsiders- how we usually have cold dry days or warm wet days, but snow is a rarity, sunny days are chilly and cloudy days are comfortable.

    I am fond of telling people that the weather in western Washington tends to be always mild, but very chaotic.  Never reaches the extremes of other places, but is never very predictable, and in a single day you can run through any kind of combination of weather you can imagine, it just never sticks around long enough to get uncomfortable.  Hence the common saying, “If you don’t like the weather in Seattle, wait ten minutes.”

    At least, compared to where else I’ve lived. Michigan winter does only one type of weather: BLAAAAAAARGH.

    When Marty O’Donnel moved to Seattle from Chicago, one of the fans at a gathering asked him how he liked living in Seattle now.  He said, “It’s great!  There’s no winter.  There’s no summer… but there’s no winter!

  • I am currently scouring Seattle for a new bottle of almond syrup (as used in making Italian sodas) to flavor my Earl Gray–love that combo.  And yes, it is sunny today!  Surprise!

    Almond syrup with Earl Gray, eh?  I shall have to try that, it sounds good.  I hope we have some at home.  

    While it is cold enough today that one cannot simply sit and enjoy the warmth of the sun, the clarity of the day does lead to some spectacular visuals not offered in more overcast weather.  I love looking to the south from a hill and being able to see all the way to Mount Rainier.  Considering that it is halfway from Seattle to Oregon, it reminds you of just how big that mountain is as it rises above the horizon.  I hope it is a clear day if that thing ever erupts, we ought to get quite a show from this distance (the people living closer might not be in a position to appreciate it though.)

  • I’ve never been able to drink coffee. It just makes me gag, sometimes violently, even when it’s so heavily adulterated with other stuff that it’s barely coffee anymore. And I’ve never gotten a taste for tea, either, so soda is my primary caffeine delivery.

    It’s something I should drop because I know I can function without caffeine (once I’m clear of withdrawal symptoms). But there’s also a certain psychological comfort thing going on with soda in general and the taste/feeling of something sweet and carbonated, so it’s hard to get over.

  • SisterCoyote

     Heh. The East Coast must’ve gotten your weather dose today – it’s been gray, chilly, and drizzling all day.  Good day for a cup of coffee in a quiet nook, actually…

    I think I’ll have to get back to you, the kitchen is calling my name. :P

  • SisterCoyote

    I’m jealous; I did the “steal a cigarette” thing at seventeen, it went down smooth and easy, and I fought the cravings off for a week. After something like seven years, though, I know better than to try and kick the coffee habit – it’s less expensive than tobacco, probably isn’t filling my lungs with tar, and tastes pretty awesome when it’s made right.

    Addiction has to be the invention of a supervillain. Or something. Even the harmless ones can knock you on your back for a week.

  • Launcifer

    Just been rummaging through my wallet and randomly found a receipt from when I was at uni’ back in ’03. The reason I mention this is because it brought to mind a rather strange “special offer” run by the on-campus bookshop back then. My university did this sort of thing a lot, but this one really took the biscuit.

    They’d put a whopping markup on a lot of the more specialised academic texts that were required reading for certain university courses and various university groups had complained about it vociferously. Rather than just drop the prices again, the bookshop decided to offer a six-pack of Red Bull for every £30 spent, which was probably a bit more than the average cost of one of the books in question. No, I don’t know who thought this might be a good idea.

    According to my receipt, I spent £387.85 on books for my various courses. And no, they wouldn’t let me dump the Red Bull. I’ve never touched the stuff since, but I did learn on the walk home that it does not, in fact, give you wings.

  • arcseconds

     I heard some story not long ago from someone who should know what they’re talking about, about a study someone did investigating some kind of educational technique.

    The study was funded by a gum company, who insisted on chewing gum being tested too.

    Embarassingly enough, the educational technique showed no statistical difference, but the gum chewing did.

    So there may be advantages from the action of chewing the gum, too :]