Caffeine Pills vs Coffee: Everything You Need to Know

Published May 6, 2020 | Published by Daisy Cabral

Over the last few years, we've seen a lot of people writing about making the switch from a regular coffee habit to caffeine pills. For some, this sounds like a smart decision. Others question the habit of popping pills every morning just to keep going. There's a lot to consider, so let's break it down.

Price

The first and one of the most prevalent arguments between caffeine pills and coffee as a habit is the price. The cost of a regular coffee habit can be quite high, though it depends a lot on whether you drink straight black coffee brewed from crystals out of a tin or you go with civet cat "processed" coffee imported from an exotic locale and roasted, ground, and brewed fresh every morning, or even just getting your daily Starbucks hit.

There are plenty of articles written about the "true cost" of coffee, with compound interest calculations and strange comparisons. The fact is, claiming that the true cost of anything is all the lost interest you would have had from investing that money is nonsense. 

Caffeine pills, of course, cost money as well. They cost a lot less, though. A simple bottle of 100 pills costs somewhere under $10 from Amazon from a variety of different sellers. In order to equal a $20 a day coffee habit, you would need to be downing a near-fatal number of caffeine pills. 

Pretty much no matter what your caffeine habits are, you'd have to try very hard to get the price of coffee under the price of pills. We're going to give caffeine pills the edge on this one - they are a better value. 

Strength of Caffeine

The average cup of coffee has around 95 mg of caffeine in it. This can be more if you're getting triple shots of espresso every cup, or it can be less if you like lower doses every day. It varies by bean, by brew, by roast, and by grind as well. It can be a pretty wide range, all things considered.

Pills have one benefit here: you know how much you're getting. Most pure caffeine pills are 200 mg pills. While you can get a single cup of coffee up to 200, that's the "triple espresso" level of consumption. 

Most people aren't consuming that much caffeine in their coffee with every cup. Some are, of course, but many people are going to be just fine with one single caffeine pill every few hours, compared to coffee that needs to be consumed more regularly. More on that in a moment.

We're going to give the edge to the pills again, here. You get more caffeine (if that's what you want) and more importantly, you regulate your dosage very precisely. You know exactly how much caffeine you're getting with each dose and can tailor it to your needs. Coffee can vary wildly and there's no way to test it yourself.

Effectiveness Over Time

It can be difficult to test the efficacy of caffeine over time, but you can observe yourself and estimate your own energy levels. Our guess is that you're going to end up with a chart that looks something like the one in this article.

Coffee, with its lower dose of caffeine, is readily absorbed into your system and gives you a quick boost of energy. However, at least some of that energy comes from other sources, like the water in the coffee, the psychological stimulation of drinking the beverage, and any sugar in it. More on that later.

Coffee also wears off much more quickly than a pill. This is in part because of the lower amount of caffeine in the beverage compared to the pill. There's less of it, so it works out of your system faster. Thus, in order to keep up your energy levels, you need to drink several cups throughout the day, as often as once an hour.

A caffeine pill is going to give you a lower but more sustained level of energy, without the peaks and valleys of drinking coffee. The "crash" isn't as well defined, as steep, or as low. Generally, a single dose of a caffeine pill will last you 4-6 hours at a time, though you may feel it tapering off before it's time for another dose.

We'll give the edge to the pills again here, simply because a more sustained energy level is less disruptive on your system and allows you to focus more on whatever tasks you have to accomplish each day.

Time Requirements

Another "cost" many people might not think about is the time involved with getting coffee. If you work in an office and your coffee comes from the break room, you still have to spend several minutes getting up and moving there, retrieving your cup, and returning to your desk. Depending on your coworkers or the machinery involved (like a Keurig), you may need to spend additional time brewing. Alternatively, you may have to travel to your nearest coffee shop and, well, shop, and that takes time.

A regular coffee habit can eat up hours of your day. And, sure, some of that time is beneficial. Getting rest breaks to let your brain percolate on various tasks can be hugely beneficial for productivity. Still, though, that's a highly personal variable so it's not something we can readily consider.

Meanwhile, taking a pill is a matter of a couple of seconds. There's no travel time, there's no time spent socializing in the break room, nothing. All you do is pop a pill and get back to work. It's kind of dystopian, but some people like it.

Coffee also encourages bathroom breaks, by being a diuretic and by involving consuming plenty of water. Taking several minutes for bathroom breaks every hour or so can be disruptive, or it can be beneficial, for much the same reasons. You won't be socializing in the restroom, probably, but you still get the ability to do things like check the news on a phone, or just let your mind check out for a few minutes.

We'll give the edge to the pills here, but keep in mind that the breaks can be beneficial and that spending SOME time away from work isn't always a bad thing.

Caffeine Tolerance

While you might think that caffeine tolerance should be the same between caffeine pills and coffee, there are actually some interesting differences.

First of all, caffeine pills have a higher level of caffeine in them than most coffee consumption. This means that you'll build your tolerance to a higher level faster with pills than you will with coffee. Of course, coffee requires you to be drinking caffeine more frequently than pills, so it can average out over time.

Tolerance is also easier to address with pills. Taking pills more frequently (or more pills at a time) can overcome tolerance more easily than drinking 2-3 cups of coffee at a time. Coffee also becomes more and more difficult to drink at a time, so if you want to increase your caffeine intake, you need to add more concentrated coffee like espresso to the mix.

There's also evidence that caffeine tolerance is at least partially psychological. People given coffee exhibited stronger resistance to coffee because their mind prepares for it when they start smelling coffee or going through the motions to obtain coffee. Caffeine pills lack the ritual, scent, and taste to presage the caffeine, and thus end up being stronger.

We're giving the edge to pills again, here.  A lower tolerance level and easier to manage tolerances are great when you're relying on the energy benefits of caffeine. That said, it's important to note that the higher doses of caffeine pills can be harder to overcome than just coffee.

Lifestyle Changes

We've already partially mentioned lifestyle, in terms of the time costs of coffee, but there are beneficial aspects to the lifestyle associated with coffee as well.

Humans need socialization. Getting coffee provides that socialization, in most circumstances. Whether it means having a morning chat with a barista, hanging out with your coworkers in the break room every hour or two, or just passing one another in the halls, this is a lot more than you get just popping a pill.

There's also the romantic implications. A coffee date is exceedingly common; no one goes on a caffeine pill date. Sure, nothing says you can't go out for coffee as part of dating just because you take pills. Decaf coffee exists, and you can always just cut out a pill and ride the highs and lows of the coffee for the sake of love. 

There are simply some social benefits to coffee that you don't get from caffeine pills. We're giving a point to coffee here.

Additional Benefits of Coffee

There is more to coffee than just caffeine and water. Some additional aspects of coffee are beneficial. Coffee has fiber in it, and getting enough dietary fiber throughout the day is always important. Coffee is also full of other nutrients, like tannins, which can have some health benefits. There are also a ton of potential health benefits like those listed in this article, though many of them have only minor research or thin correlation rather than proof behind them.

We have to give the coffee a point for having benefits above and beyond concentrated caffeine pills, here.

Downsides of Coffee

There is, of course, usually a downside that goes with every upside. Coffee is acidic, and when consumed on an empty stomach – such as first thing in the morning before breakfast – it can do damage to your stomach lining. Pills can do this too, though, so this is a wash.

The biggest additional downside to coffee is the additives people put in it. Sugar is the biggest one by far; added sugar makes coffee a much less healthy beverage. Sugar is full of calories. Sugar feeds bad gut bacteria and increases insulin resistance. Sugar also makes the energy highs of caffeine much higher but makes the crash much harder.

Of course, this drawback only exists if you get coffee with cream and sugar in it. If you drink straight black coffee or espresso, it's much better for you. Pills get the edge if you're not capable of or don't enjoy drinking black coffee, but if you do, they break even.

Risks of Caffeine Pills

Caffeine pills have one major drawback; since a single pill is very concentrated, it can be extremely easy to take too much of it. The Mayo Clinic recommends that you avoid consuming more than 400 mg of caffeine every day. With coffee, that's 4-5 cups depending on the amount you drink, the concentration of caffeine in it, and so on.

With caffeine pills, that's a mere four pills. Less, if you're taking larger pills.  If you're pushing for higher energy levels or fighting a higher tolerance, you might even be taking more than one pill at a time, and that makes it even easier.

Drugs have a value called the LD50, or "lethal dose 50%". This is the amount that is typically required to kill 50% of a test population. Some people can survive more, some people die with less, but that's the average. 

The LD50 of caffeine is around 150 mg per 2.2 lbs of weight. Thus a healthy adult of around, say, 220 lbs, would have to consume nearly an entire bottle or more of caffeine pills in a day to reach the LD50.

That said, the LD50 is not a "you're fine under this" threshold. Consuming too much caffeine – above 500mg per day – can lead to a variety of problems. Jitters, heart palpitations, and high blood pressure are all common and can lead to long-term health issues. It's a lot easier to reach this level with pills than it is with coffee. Thus, we're giving the point to coffee here.

Final Verdict

Now let's tally up the analysis.

  • Price: Pills
  • Strength: Pills
  • Efficacy over time: Pills
  • Time costs: Pills
  • Tolerances: Pills
  • Social implications: Coffee
  • Additional nutrients: Coffee
  • Sugar and calories: Pills
  • Risks: Coffee

Coffee only pulls ahead in three areas, though one of them is very important. Pills are, generally, the healthier option and the better choice for long-term energy levels, weight loss assistance, and health. That said, coffee has some powerful benefits, and the socialization aspect shouldn't be ignored.

Really, the choice is yours; do you prefer the breaks, socialization, and experience of coffee, or do you just want the energy without the hassle?

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