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Is Mixing Alcohol and Caffeinated Soda the Same as Mixing with an Energy Drink?

Is Mixing Alcohol and Caffeinated Soda the Same as Mixing with an Energy Drink?
We’ve all heard the warnings of mixing alcohol with beverages high in caffeine, like energy drinks–but do caffeinated sodas pose similar concerns?

Better Homes & Gardens
By Christina Manian, RDN
March 21, 2023

When it comes to alcohol, many of us know to generally steer clear of alcoholic drinks mixed with beverages high in caffeine, like energy drinks. The days of Four Loko and vodka Red Bulls are all but gone … for most. (Of course, coffee-based drinks like the espresso martini and Irish coffee are still around, and very popular.) But what about mixing caffeinated sodas with alcohol?

Alcohol and soda mixes remain a classic go-to order for many. But does the caffeine found in soda produce the same negative effects that, say, an espresso martini might? Let’s find out.

The Impacts of Mixing Soda and Alcohol

Looking at the health impacts of soda and alcohol individually can give us a glimpse into why the Federal Trade Commission released that infamous letter back in 2010 warning consumers to steer clear of caffeinated alcoholic drinks, citing “unusual risks to health and safety.”1

Alcohol, sorry to say, negatively impacts the body in a multitude of ways. It increases inflammation throughout the body, particularly in the gut, altering our precious healthy gut bacteria and compromising our intestinal lining.2 This has impacts as far-reaching as those of the gut microbiome, affecting everything from immune health3 to brain health4 to chronic disease expression.5 Alcohol consumption is also linked to liver disease, pancreatic illness, multiple types of cancer,6 mental health disorders,7cardiovascular disease, and hypertension (or prolonged high blood pressure).8 Outside of those long-term impacts, the short-term impacts of alcohol consumption include increased risk for alcohol poisoning, bodily injury, car accidents, violence, and other risky behaviors.

Meanwhile, caffeine can have both positive and negative impacts on the body, depending on how it’s used and the source. It can boost energy, performance, memory, and cognitive function. Coffee, specifically, has also been tied to decreased risk for Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease, improved liver function, and reduced risk for certain cancers, as it’s high in antioxidants.9 However, caffeine can also lead to insomnia, dehydration, jitteriness, crash, fatigue, and irritation of the lining of the stomach–increasing risk for heartburn and stomach upset.10 Plus, many coffee drinks are laden with super-inflammatory added sugar.

But it’s the interaction between these two substances that we’re really looking for the tea on. Alcohol is a depressant, meaning that it will slow down our central nervous system, impacting our motor-cognitive functioning. Caffeine, on the other hand, is a stimulant, increasing the activity of our brain and nervous system. This combination can effectively mask the effects of alcohol and intoxication, leading people to drink more than they likely would otherwise. Plus, studies have found that this combination is linked to increased risk of injury,11 hazardous levels of alcohol consumption–especially in younger individuals12–and overall risky behavior.13 And, course, all the health risks of alcohol and caffeine are also at play here.

Differences Between Coffee, Soda, and Energy Drinks

But are these impacts generalized across all caffeinated beverages, or are we just talking energy drinks and coffee here?

The caffeine content in a cup of brewed coffee is around 95 milligrams (mg). Compare that to the 64 mg in a one-ounce shot of espresso, 22 mg in a cup of Coca-Cola, and anywhere between 72 and 215 mg in an energy drink or shot.14 From this, we can clearly see why the government stepped in to caution the public away from alcohol mixed with energy drinks. Same idea with poo-pooing espresso martinis. But what about soda?

The caffeine content of a soda, for example, is far lower than that of coffee or energy drinks and thus will have a lesser impact on the effect of alcohol in a mixed drink. But there are other impacts to consider when it comes to the fizzy stuff. Soda tends to be chock-full of sugar or sugar substitutes. Added sugar is not only a well-known inflammatory agent in the body but will also cause a rapid spike in your blood sugars, setting you up for a swift crash. Plus, added sugar is linked to a whole host of chronic diseases, from heart disease to diabetes.15

However, diet soda isn’t much better, with the artificial sweeteners and additives it contains being tied to impaired gut health,16 stroke,17 heart disease, blood sugar regulation,18 type 2 diabetes,19 and even cancer.20Plus, these man-made sweeteners alter our brain’s processing systems for sweet taste, actually causing us to crave more and more sweet foods.21

Finally, circling back to alcohol, one small study found that diet soda mixed drinks actually increased breath alcohol concentration levels when compared to sugar-sweetened mixed drinks without any participant perception.22 This is likely due to the somewhat delayed alcohol absorption related to the sugar content of the sugar-containing drinks. Even though added sugar metabolizes quickly, it’s not nearly as quick as non-nutritive diet soda that requires effectively no digestion.

The Bottom Line

So, alcohol and soda … yay or nay? While it won’t have as many scary impacts as a Four Loko, it certainly isn’t a healthy choice in any sense of the word. In fact, just this year, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a statement saying that all research points to no level of alcohol consumption being “safe” when it comes to our health.23 Plus, the sugar these mixers contain is also a health concern.

With that being said, we all have to live a little, and unwinding with a cocktail every now and again is totally fine–just try to keep it in moderation. While the U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommend no more than one drink per day for women and two for men,24 you’ll be able to notice a real difference in how you feel if you aim for about half that amount over a week’s time.