We hear a lot these days about how caffeine boosts endurance and energy levels. I can’t say for sure if it works that way for me, but I can certainly attest to the fact that mentally, I feel more pumped up for a workout if I’ve consumed caffeine a few minutes prior to exercising.
But are green tea and yerba mate any better than coffee?
So let’s accept the fact that caffeine improves performance on some level, through targeted (as opposed to habitual) use. Then does it matter what type of caffeine we consume? Does it matter whether we get our pre-workout fix from a few cups of coffee or from supposedly “good” caffeine sources like green tea and yerba mate?
From there, it’s not much of a leap to ask the same question about habitual use. If you’re like me and find it extremely difficult to quit drinking caffeine, then does it matter in what form you get that morning caffeine jolt?
Brendan Brazier’s take on it
According to Brendan Brazier in his vegan sports nutrition manual Thrive, green tea’s caffeine (technically theophylline) “slowly and steadily releases energy over the course of several hours,” as opposed to the caffeine in coffee that causes jitters.
He goes on to say that theophylline doesn’t stress the adrenal glands, by far the effect that worries me the most about drinking a lot of coffee. In fact, Brendan writes that theophylline might actually be beneficial to the adrenals, by “restoring hormonal balance.”
As for yerba mate, it’s not entirely clear to me, from either Thrive or Wikipedia, how this South American plant’s caffeine differs from that in coffee. In fact, it seems that the caffeine is mostly the same as that in coffee, though in a smaller dose.
In addition, green tea and yerba mate are “greens,” making them higher in antioxidants and less acid-forming than coffee.
For all the above reasons, Brendan includes green tea and yerba mate in his natural sports drink, Vega Sport Performance Optimizer, which I drink before most of my hard workouts.
Another side of the story
But there are other opinions out there. In Caffeine Blues: Wake Up to the Dangers of America’s #1 Drug, a book by Stephen Cherniske that I read for motivation in a failed attempt to quit coffee once and for all, the author has a less-forgiving take on the herbal alternatives to coffee.
In the introduction to the book, Cherniske writes:
Most, like…yerba mate…turned out to be nothing more than plant sources of caffeine and other stimulant drugs. Their mode of action is exactly the same as coffee: stimulation of the central nervous system resulting in adrenal stress. The fact that these stimulant products are found in health-food stores and claim to be “all-natural” is simply part of the hype that fills the energy market.
Of green tea, he says similar things, mainly that “caffeine is caffiene” and the only real virtue of green tea is that it’s lower in caffeine than coffee. He even downplays the cancer-fighting effects of green tea, calling it a “weak agent” that probably only benefits those whose diets are low in fruits and vegetables (and that’s none of us, right?).
Who is right?
I have no idea. Probably not surprisingly to anyone, I’ll go with Brendan Brazier.
No, it’s not because I worship him—although I do think he’s a cool dude. Instead, it’s because he doesn’t have any apparent agenda. Whereas Caffeine Blues‘s entire reason for existence is to spread the anti-caffeine message, Brendan’s books aim to help people perform in sports and life on a vegan diet. If Brendan believes that caffeine has a place in the athlete’s diet, it’s his job to communicate that, just as he does.
So the take-home message, as far as I’m concerned, is that green tea is the best source of caffeine, followed by yerba mate (whose stimulating effect comes more from actual caffeine than theophylline. And much as I wish it weren’t true, coffee appears to be the worst source.
I’d love to hear what you all think about this, particularly if there are any chemists out there. Is caffeine just caffeine, regardless of the source? Or can we, as athletes, get the performance benefits of caffeine while minimizing the adverse effects if we choose green tea or yerba mate?
And how the hell am I ever going to quit coffee!?