The Best Coffee Alternatives When You Need an Energy Boost

The Best Coffee Alternatives When You Need an Energy Boost

I bring a cup of coffee with me almost every time I head out the door for an adventure. But if I don’t drink that coffee by the time I’m ready to ski, hike, paddle, or run, it ends up staying in the car—because who wants to try to hike and sip hot coffee at the same time? This inconvenience got me thinking about how the more portable forms of caffeine—canned drinks, tabs, mixes—might stack up to my beloved cup of joe. To find out, I put six of them to the test.

The Test

To get notes on the caffeine buzz, I subbed in one of the six products each morning in lieu of my normal cup of French press or pour-over coffee. I also ate or drank the products during runs and hikes to judge their effectiveness while exercising.

Many of the caffeine delivery systems I sampled have a distinct taste, so I took careful notes about how palatable each was. I also had my friend and coffee lover Colby Elliot try them to get a second opinion.

Finally, I interviewed Laura Juliano, director of the Behavioral Pharmacology and Health Promotion Laboratory at American University in Washington, D.C. She’s studied caffeine for more than 15 years. I asked her to give me some notes on each coffee alternative I was turning to for my morning kick in the pants.


Juliano doesn’t use the term “healthy dose,” but recommends keeping each acute dose (consumed at one time) under 200 milligrams, because more than that can cause jitteriness, anxiety, and discomfort (unless, of course, you’re already used to high amounts of caffeine at once). She also advises keeping your overall daily intake under 400 milligrams. Her final recommendation is to stay away from any pick-me-up that doesn’t list how much caffeine it contains, just to be safe.

Runa Energy Drink ($40 for 24)

Caffeine Content: 105 mg in the 8.4-ounce can

The Taste: I love the bitter, earthy taste of Runa drinks, which get their caffeine from guayusa leaves. I particularly like the flavors that don’t have any sugar (Blood Orange and Lime), because they feel like the antithesis of more saccharine energy drinks. Colby, on the other hand, wasn’t a huge fan. “These taste like green tea that has sat on the kitchen counter for a couple days,” he said.

The Buzz: Runa was the smoothest buzz of anything we tested. The up wasn’t complicated by a bunch of sugar, and that 100 mg amount was just enough to get me moving but not make me feel jumpy.

The Takeaway: Since I love buzz, I thought it had to do with the guayusa leaf, which is harvested from the Amazon. But then Juliano shot me down. “Caffeine is caffeine is caffeine,” she said. “It doesn’t really matter where it came from—tea leaves, coffee leaves, guarana—there is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that different sources of caffeine would lead to different effects.”

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Voke Tabs ($7)

Caffeine Content: 77 mg per tab

The Taste: Some of my colleagues at Outside think these tabs are absolutely disgusting. I, however, am totally fine with the slightly medicinal taste and chalky feel, because I love how well the tabs work. Colby’s take was “the taste doesn’t last long.”

The Buzz: I like the tabs because 77 mg (derived from guarana berries and green tea) is a perfect dose late in the day. It gives me just enough boost to keep going if I’m fading on the skin track or losing concentration at my laptop. At the same time, I don’t get the late-in-the-day jitters, and one tab won’t affect my sleep.

The Takeaway: I used to think Voke tabs gave a more immediate buzz because they’re small and go down quickly, but Juliano said I was wrong. “Your route of administration of any drug will always effect the speed of onset,” she said. “But since all of [what you’re testing] are taken orally, there will be very little difference. They all have to go through the digestive system. It’s not like we are comparing snorting to smoking to injecting to oral administration.” Final note: Voke tabs get more points because they’re so portable. I always carry a tin on the trail or out skiing just in case.

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High Brew Cold Brew Coffee ($27 for 12)

Caffeine Content: 130 to 150 mg per can

The Taste: Both Colby and I agreed that the Mexican Vanilla flavor was perfectly sugary, with 11 grams per can. “It tastes like a milkshake,” Colby said. Coffee snobs, however, will be put off.

The Buzz: It was lovely and pretty much the same as what you’d get from your normal cup of coffee.

The Takeaway: I could never drink these cans as my normal everyday coffee. There’s too much sugar, and I like having a hot drink first thing in the morning, even in summer. I wouldn’t substitute them out camping either, since there are so many ways to make coffee in the woods. However, they make a great treat out on the trail, in the car, or anywhere else you need a buzz. They’re also more palatable than something like the Runa drinks or Voke tabs.

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Mountain Ops Ignite ($50 for 19.2 ounces)

Caffeine Content: 200 mg per scoop

The Taste: “It tastes like Gatorade,” Colby said. “I like it.” I grew to love the Green Apple flavor and found myself craving it during hot days working in my yard or out on a raft. When cold, it’s extra refreshing.

The Buzz: While testing, I would place a scoop in a liter of cold water and sip on that liter for an hour. The stuff has a ton of caffeine, but since I spaced out my consumption, I never felt cracked out or jittery.

The Takeaway: Warning—even though this tastes like a sports drink, it’s the exact opposite, since caffeine is a diuretic. Also, as Juliano warned, 200 mg of caffeine is a lot for most people, so there might be problems if you chug a full liter. On the plus side, people who don’t like the taste of coffee, much less the taste of Voke tabs, should be able to get this down no problem.

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5 Hour Energy Shots ($20 for 12)

Caffeine Content: 200 mg in a two-ounce bottle

The Taste: When I spoke with Juliano, she noted that caffeine by itself is bitter and can affect the taste of a product. Surprisingly, these concentrated shots aren’t as off-putting as you might expect. They’re also pretty quick to chug since they’re so small.

The Buzz: It hit me like a ton of bricks. I drink a lot of caffeine and was jittery almost immediately. I also had trouble sleeping that night, so don’t drink it after noon.

The Takeaway: If you consume huge amounts of caffeine on the regular, you might give these a shot. If you’re a normal coffee drinker, steer clear. Juliano warned that if someone chugged two of these in a row, it could bring on a dose of unwanted anxiety.

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Gu Energy Stroopwaffle ($22.50 for 16)

Caffeine Content: 20 mg per waffle

The Taste: Delicious, like a waffle but thinner, sweeter, and chewier.

The Buzz: I didn’t notice one.

The Takeaway: “Twenty milligrams of caffeine is a very low dose,” Juliano said. “Most people, if you gave them a Stroopwaffle with 20 mg of caffeine versus a Stroopwaffle with no caffeine, they could have a difficult time discriminating which one they got. There’s almost no performance differences and almost no energy differences.” However, if you ate three of these over the course of an hour, you might feel a little perkier.

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via Outside Magazine

June 28, 2017 at 05:27PM


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