Smarter: How Much Coffee Is Too Much?

Woman drinking coffee from large disposable cup at take away counter of cafe Photo: Getty Images

Hi there. I’m taking over for Pang-Chieh Ho this issue while she’s on vacation. This week I’ll answer the pressing question many of us may ask ourselves throughout the day: At what point is my coffee drinking habit bad for me? Plus, replacing coffee with mushroom drinks: what to know before you try them. Also, why a pair of headphones that didn’t score well in Consumer Reports’ ratings may actually be worth buying, and how to quit burning your butt when you can’t find a shady parking spot.


THE BIG STORY:

How Much Coffee Is Too Much?

I started drinking coffee as a teenager to make it through early morning extracurriculars and extra high school courses for college credit. After a stop at 7-Eleven for hazelnut coffee and a roll of Spree candy (don’t judge), I was ready for the day ahead. As a young adult, I made it through tedious tasks like data entry by drinking nearly a pot’s worth of free coffee at work every day.

Now I wake up in the morning hoping that one cup will do the trick to keep me alert until lunchtime, because two quickly becomes three, and there may be no stopping. I’ll drink it any which way if I feel like I need to, but coffee-induced jitters eventually come on. But here’s the thing: Whether you drink your coffee hot even in 100° F weather, you cold brew at home, you opt for instant coffee (it’s come a long way since Nescafé), or prefer yours from McDonald’s, coffee can be good for you.

Get Smarter

The Best Part of Waking Up ☕️
Coffee could actually lower your risk of certain liver diseases, endometrial and oral cancers, and type 2 diabetes—and there’s some evidence that it can lower your risk of heart disease, skin cancer, and respiratory disease.

Coffee drinkers may also live longer than non-coffee drinkers, in part because it’s rich in antioxidants called polyphenols. In a 2017 study published in Annals of Internal Medicine, nearly 200,000 people ages 45 to 75 when the study began were followed for an average of 16 years. Those who drank a cup of regular or decaf coffee a day had a 12 percent lower risk of dying from any cause during the study period.

If, like me, you alternate between coffee and tea during the day, that can be good for you, too. In a study published last year in the journal PLOS Medicine, researchers found that people who drank 2 to 3 cups of coffee plus 2 or 3 cups of tea per day had about a 30 percent lower risk of dementia and stroke compared with people who didn’t drink either, possibly thanks to all the antioxidants.

So this Asian American, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander Heritage Month, consider raising a glass or a few of yuanyang, a surprisingly delicious combination of the two.

So Where to Draw the Line? 🙅🏻
In general, according to the Food and Drug Administration, the average person can safely consume up to 400 mg of caffeine per day, the amount in three to five 8-ounce cups of coffee. 

And drinking more than a cup can be beneficial. A 2009 study published in the journal Circulation, which followed 83,076 women over 24 years, found that women consuming 2 to 3 cups of coffee per day, with an average of 469 mg of caffeine overall, had a nearly 20 percent lower risk of stroke compared with women who drank less than 1 cup per month.

If you have a medical condition or caffeine sensitivity, though, check with your doctor. And listen to your body. If your stomach sounds like an angry washing machine, your heart is thumping much faster than usual, and you feel extra shaky and jittery, it’s probably time to lay off. Too much caffeine can even make you feel unhappy, according to the FDA.

How Do You Take It? 🧈
While, in general, coffee can be good for you, “it becomes less so when you add cream, sugar, sugary syrups, or whipped cream,” says CR health and food editor Trisha Calvo.

Die-hard fans of adding unsalted butter to their coffee instead of milk consume 102 calories and 12 grams of fat for each tablespoon. Meanwhile, adding 2 ounces of whole milk to each cup, maybe even steamed, frothed, and gently spooned into and atop your brew, gives you 38 calories and 2 grams of fat, according to CR nutritionist Amy Keating. The same amount of unsweetened soy milk gives you considerably less of both: about 20 calories and 1 gram of fat. For every teaspoon of sugar, you’re consuming 16 calories, Keating says.

If frozen coffee drinks are more your style, you might (or might not) want to know that a standard tall 12-ounce Caramel Frappuccino made with whole milk from Starbucks serves up 260 calories. That’s more than what you get eating a glazed donut from Dunkin’.  

Can’t Wake Up, Can’t Sleep? 🛌🏻
“Caffeine stays in the body a LONG time,” says University Hospitals sleep specialist Samuel Friedlander, MD, who’s based in Solon, Ohio. Friedlander recommends that people avoid caffeine after 2 p.m., that way the majority of the caffeine you’ve consumed has left your body by bedtime.

That’s a generalization though, and when to stop drinking coffee or other caffeinated beverages can vary based on when you go to sleep and when you work. Plus, how the body processes caffeine can vary from person to person, says Sally Ibrahim, MD, a sleep expert and medical director at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center.


DOUBLING DOWN

Would You Drink Mushroom Coffee?

If you’re cutting caffeine, coffees and coffee-like drinks are all the rage—at least based on health food store shelves with numerous options to choose from and ads that pop up all over Instagram and other social media platforms. Before you try any of these alternatives, know that they may not all taste exactly the same as coffee. You can get coffee beans with mushrooms mixed in, there are coffee-like drinks with mushrooms in them and maybe some chicory for a more coffee-like flavor, then there are coffee alternatives with mushrooms that taste nothing like coffee, so be sure to read labels and look for tasting notes you’ll like. 

As I learned after trying a few, some of the lower-caffeine and even caffeine-free options are actually passable for coffee, or they’re just tasty, thanks to flavors like ginger and other chai spices, turmeric, and cocoa. 

"They often confer a likable robust, often nutty rich flavor that gets better with frequency of use as you become accustomed to it," says mycologist Paul Stamets, who has published multiple books on mushrooms and health.

The worst part of my own experience was their prices. For example, a 15-serving box of Mud Wtr Mud sachets, containing a blend of masala chai, cacao, and several types of mushrooms, costs $30 vs. the $12 or less I’d spend on a pound of regular coffee.

“Mushrooms inherently taste fairly earthy,” says Gordon Walker, PhD, who runs the Fascinated By Fungi social media channels. He says mushrooms can be roasted or toasted to help them caramelize and brown, enhancing that flavor. “I do think that some brands are being disingenuous when marketing the benefits of mushrooms,” Walker says, noting it’s usually best to eat the mushroom itself. But that doesn’t mean he’s against coffee alternatives that contain mushrooms. “It gives consumers more choices when it comes to their morning beverages and could potentially provide some health benefits,” he says.

Lion’s mane mushrooms in particular are a popular ingredient in coffee alternatives, and on their own. Early research suggests they may have positive effects on your gut and your mood. Other research suggests that corydceps, which you can also find in coffee alternatives, may help increase endurance, Walker says. You may also find chaga, turkey tail, and other mushrooms in these drinks. 

Have you tried coffee alternatives? What do you think? Email us to let us know: smarter@consumer.org


IT’S GETTING HOT IN HERE 🍑♨️

When flowers are in bloom, birds are chirping, the sun is shining through your car’s windshield, and your seats are feeling as hot as a smoothtop range, it’s a reminder that heat can take a toll on your vehicle, even when it’s not that hot out.

When you’re parked in a sunny spot and you don’t have the luxury of ventilated or cooled seats, here’s a simple tip to save your rear: Leave a small towel on your seat so that you won’t get so burnt, especially if bare skin will touch the seat, says Jeff Bartlett, who edits much of CR’s car coverage from our 327-acre test track in Colchester, Conn.


THE GOOD STUFF

We don’t actually use cantaloupes to test bike helmets, but it sounds like a fun idea.

@consumerreports Gotta protect your noggin 🚴‍♂️. All the helmets in our ratings our rigorously evaluated by expert testers. See more at cr.org/health #biketok #bicycle #helmet ♬ original sound - Consumer Reports

HOT TAKE

black sport headphones

Photo: Shokz Photo: Shokz

Sometimes products that score poorly in tests for some qualities can actually be great for other reasons. For instance, the Shokz OpenRun Pro headphones, which earned a not-so-great Fair rating in Consumer Reports’ test for sound quality, do actually have their open admirers: runners. 

“Dimming my awareness with noise-obstructing headphones is a dangerous move—especially if I’m hoping to achieve that la la land known as runner’s high,” says Laura Murphy, a CR writer who swears by her Shokz OpenRun headphones.

Unlike the majority of headphones on the market that send sound through the ear canal, these headphones work by bone conduction, where sound travels through the cheekbone to reach the inner ear, instead of traveling through the ear canal. This allows the headphones to not actually go into the ear but rest in front of it. As a result, ambient noise like car horns honking, bike bells ringing, and pedestrians gabbing can actually be heard, making for a safer run. 

When CR tests headphones, we keep discerning music listeners in mind, with an ear for things like accuracy, clarity, and detail. This Shokz model may not be the greatest for that use, but based on a survey of CR members, those who own Shokz wireless portable headphones generally say they’re reliable and are very likely to recommend them to others.

Even if you don’t run, perfection isn’t necessary when all you’re listening to is podcasts.


THE SHORT ANSWER

A photograph of a strawberry next to an illustration of a strawberry

Photo Illustration: Lacey Browne/Consumer Reports, Getty Images Photo Illustration: Lacey Browne/Consumer Reports, Getty Images

Are natural flavorings healthier than artificial ones? Not necessarily.


Smarter Owl Icon

"Now to get to my second cup."


Headshot of CRO Editor Althea Chang-Cook (version 2)

Althea Chang-Cook

As a journalist, I've covered food, health, transportation, technology, personal finance, and more. My work has taken me to specialty food events, medical conferences, CES, and numerous auto shows, ultimately bringing me to Consumer Reports. At CR, I use my experience to shape stories that help consumers make informed decisions and build safer, healthier lives. I live in Brooklyn with my husband, son, and three-legged cat.