Photo: Rawpixel.com (Shutterstock)
When faced with the prospect of propelling our stupid bodies through another stupid day, most of us appreciate a little jolt of energy to get us going and help us tolerate all of this. There are endless choices for a morning pick-me-up, but America has squarely landed on coffee—three in four Americans report drinking the stuff every day. But is coffee really the best morning drink?
Below are 13 coffee alternatives. Some of these “fake” coffees, like tea, have been around for a long time. Other fake coffees, like “mushroom coffee,” are growing in popularity. Each of these “drink ‘em when you wake up” beverages have different advantages and disadvantages, but I’ve chosen to measure them against coffee because coffee is really the best morning drink.
Tea (black and green)
Photo: P.V.R.M (Shutterstock)
Coffee may rule in the U.S., but worldwide, there are more tea-drinkers. Tea generally contains less caffeine than coffee—an average of 15-70 milligrams per cup compared to coffee’s 80-185 mg—but some kinds of tea also include the amino acid L-theanine. Green tea contains around 6.56 milligrams of L-theanine where black tea contains around 5.13 milligrams, but it’s a trade-off: Green tea usually has less caffeine than black.
Some people believe L-theanine improves mental function, fights anxiety and stress, and provides other hard-to-measure benefits, but people believe all kinds of weird things. There isn’t enough reliable research to really determine whether drinking hot-leaf-water infused with L-theanine provides any health benefits. I’m inclined to believe it doesn’t, but I’m cynical. You do you.
Bottom line: Tea is basically coffee.
Photo: Maryna Osadcha (Shutterstock)
Made by roasting, grinding, and brewing the roots of the chicory plant, chicory coffee tastes like muddy water. It is, and I say this from personal experience, gross. But coffee tastes pretty bad too, so that’s not a reason to discount chicory coffee. Instead, it should be discounted because it does not contain caffeine. It does contains inulin fiber, which might help you stay regular and may help your blood sugar, and it also may help you avoid inflammation. Those are huge “mays” and “mights”—there are a few animal studies, but there isn’t any evidence that proves these benefits in humans. It’s also an allergen. If you’re allergic to ragweed or birch pollen, you might have an allergic reaction after drinking chicory coffee.
Bottom line: Chicory coffee does not work.
Photo: FoodAndPhoto (Shutterstock)
People have been drinking tea brewed from the leaves of the Ilex paraguariensis tree in south and central America for a long time, but it’s only caught on in the U.S. in the last 15 years or so. Proponents report the buzz from yerba is smoother and less jittery than the one you get from coffee, but that buzz is coming from the same place: caffeine. Yerba mate contains about 80 milligrams of caffeine per cup. Does the supposedly smoother Yerba high come from drinking the equivalent of a weak cup of coffee? I’m going with “probably.”
Yerba also contains various antioxidants, but take that with a grain of salt. Despite the claims of supplement manufacturers, there isn’t strong evidence to suggest any benefit from consuming “extra” antioxidants. We need them, particularly Vitamins E and C, but our bodies are good at regulating antioxidants if we eat a healthy diet, so we probably don’t benefit from adding extra.
Bottom line: Yerba mate is basically coffee.
Photo: Kreminska (Shutterstock)
Yaupon tea is exotic! It’s brewed from the leaves of holly plants, and was favored by some Native Americans before the arrival of European colonizers. They called it “black drink” and reportedly drank it until they vomited, for ceremonial reasons. Very goth! Black drink won’t make you puke though, unless you drink a lot of it, but it will wake you up. It contains caffeine—about 60 mg per cup, so more like a cup of tea than a cup of Joe. It also reportedly contains theobromine and various other antioxidants. But come on; it’s the caffeine.
Bottom line: Yaupon tea is basically coffee.
Photo: Elena759 (Shutterstock)
I have heard there are people who begin their day with a refreshing cup of water with lemon squeezed into it. “You mean lemonade?” I hear you asking. Not exactly. First, because lemonade contains sugar, which makes it delicious, and second because lemon water (unlike revenge) is best served warm. According to proponents, serving cold lemon water could cause “an imbalance of yin and yang as it takes energy for your body to process food and drinks that are cold or really hot.” Uh-huh. Sure. Instead of caffeine, lemon water contains about 50 mg of vitamin C, so if you’re worried about scurvy, this is the drink for you.
Bottom line: Lemon water doesn’t work.
Blue algae latte
Photo: Teodor Costachioiu (Shutterstock)
According to website Well and Good, blue algae lattes are becoming “the new matcha” because “wellness influencers are on the hunt for a new, even-better-for-you beverage.” Despite the name, there is no coffee in blue algae latte. It is a mix of coconut milk, agave, lemon, ginger, and, most importantly, blue algae powder. Blue algae powder, or spirulina, is an extract of blue-green algae, a cyanobacteria that grows in salt and fresh water. In other worse, this is literally a pond scum latte.
Bottom line: This is a good drink if you are a tadpole.
Photo: Kaiskynet Studio (Shutterstock)
I hear matcha tea is no longer as cool among wellness influencers as it used to be. It is made from the same plants as green tea, but the preparation differs. To make matcha, dried tea leaves are ground into a fine powder and mixed with water to create, in my opinion, a grosser version of green tea. At the risk of repeating myself: Matcha gives you energy because it contains caffeine. It contains other things (antioxidants, polyphenols, L-theanine) that may have some health effects, but we can’t say for sure because not enough research has been done.
Bottom line: Matcha is basically coffee.
Apple cider vinegar
Photo: denira (Shutterstock)
I occasionally use vinegar to clean my coffee maker, but it never occurred to me to drink the resulting vinegar-water. Some people do, though. They mix apple cider vinegar with hot water and just, drink it. I’m in favor of alternative lifestyles and tolerance, but we have to draw the line somewhere, don’t we? There’s something about vinegar that inspires some people to make grandiose health claims about it, and there actually is some evidence that there might be some health benefits to apple cider vinegar, but it’s not much evidence, and the benefits are modest.
Bottom line: Apple cider vinegar does not work.
Photo: Rimma Bondarenko (Shutterstock)
Golden milk comes straight from India. It is a warmed up combination of turmeric and other spices and either almond milk, coconut milk, or milk-milk, with maybe a little honey or sugar to taste. Proponents say it “promotes the holistic health of the body with its antioxidant, antibacterial, anti-cariogenic properties” and they are 100% right! It’s universal a cure-all that helped me beat cancer, male pattern baldness, and dropsy. OK, that’s a lie. There isn’t enough solid evidence to back up the idea that there are dramatic health benefits to drinking these ingredients, although there are dribs and drabs that may suggest that something might be—you get the idea.
Instead of caffeine, golden milk contains tryptophan if you make it with cow’s milk. Drinking a warm cup of milk is a long-standing “put you to sleep” method, so it’s basically anti-coffee.
Bottom line: Golden milk really does not work.
Photo: GreenArt (Shutterstock)
Called “red tea” or “red bush tea,” rooibos is a hot drink made by infusing boiling water with the rooibos plant, an herb native to South Africa. It is free of caffeine, so it’s often drunk at night. Roobios fans and boosters say it’s rich in antioxidants, and there’s even a little research that suggests it might be good for your bones, and might reduce inflammation (if you’re a rat). But basically, it’s herbal tea with a flavor not dissimilar to hibiscus. Herbal tea is nice, but most of us don’t drink it in the morning.
Bottom line: Roobios tea does not work.
Photo: Gulsina (Shutterstock)
Sold under often annoying brand names like Ryze, Four Sigmatic, and MUD/WTR, mushroom coffees are blends of dry coffee, tea, mushrooms, and other ingredients that are added to hot water to make a not-quite-coffee slurry that some people enjoy. Proportions and ingredients differ from product to product, but, at the risk of over-generalizing, I’m going to say that the mushroom coffees that provide the most morning energy are the ones that contain the most caffeine. I guess dried mushroom dust could provide some health benefits, but if it does, there’s not a lot of hard science to back it up.
Lifehacker’s senior health editor Beth Skwarecki gave a caffeine-lite version of MUD/WTR a try and described it as “the most foul-tasting thing,” but added, “If we lived in an alternate universe where this is what coffee tasted like, I’d deal. But to have to put up with that and get only 35 milligrams of caffeine? Unacceptable.”
Bottom line: Some kinds of mushroom coffees are basically coffee. Others do not work.
Photo: Keith Homan (Shutterstock)
The amounts vary from brand to brand, but most energy drinks don’t hide that they’re basically caffeine and sugar delivery systems. I appreciate the honesty and the lack of “it’s good for you!” claims. Monster, for instance, has 86 mg of caffeine per serving. Red Line Extreme has 316. Some energy drinks, like Red Bull, contain taurine, an amino acid/antioxidant that is sometimes called a “stimulant,” but like other antioxidants, the research on what effect, if any, taurine has on anything is not conclusive. The caffeine though? That stuff works. There are a few energy drinks that do not contain caffeine, but you might as well drink 7-Up or something at that point.
Bottom line: Energy drinks are basically coffee.
Cocaine and amphetamines
Photo: C_KAWI (Shutterstock)
Caffeine is far and away the world’s most popular stimulant, but it’s not the only one. For complicated biological, historical, and sociological reasons, taking caffeine is perfectly acceptable, even expected, among polite society, whereas methamphetamine and/or cocaine use is generally frowned upon. Acceptability aside, I have it on good authority that cocaine, amphetamines, and other kinds of “uppers” are more effective at providing an energy boost than lemon water or green tea. They are, however, illegal, generally unethically sourced, expensive, and addictive.
Bottom line: Don’t do drugs.