This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
Bad news, coffee fans: turns out those large buckets of hot, sugary beverages you've been drinking in mass quantities every day for most of your professional lives aren't actually very good for you.
The campaign group Action on Sugar recently analyzed over 131 hot drinks available in some of the UK's many coffee chains, and found that over a third contained at least as much sugar as a can of Coke, and in some cases over 20 times more. The group's chairman, Professor Graham MacGregor, said it was yet "another example of scandalous amounts of sugar added to our food and drink."
But why is it scandalous, Graham? I know sugar isn't great for you—Jamie Oliver MBE taught me that years ago—but surely it can't hurt to treat yourself once a day, in the morning, on the way to work, when your brain feels like it's about to deflate like a sad old pool raft without the help of a 16oz cup of caffeine and refined sugar?
Actually, according to nutritionist Carolina Brooks from London's Anthrobotonica, repeated long-term intake of sugar can lead to "chronic health conditions such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, leptin resistance [when your appetite signal stops working], and obesity."
OK. But just the one won't do me any harm, right?
Nope. Carolina says one high sugar blast can result in "diarrhea, bloating, [and] nausea," making me feel happy for a bit, with the resulting crash leaving me "tired and hungry" and at a high risk of experiencing "headaches or weird joint pains."
I think "can" is the most important word there; I've definitely eaten a whole sharing bag of M&Ms in one go before and managed to remain relatively un-nauseous. Still, I wanted to put this health advice to the test by doing the exact opposite of what I'd been advised to do. So I decided to strap a heart rate monitor to my chest and go on a coffee shop crawl of the chains selling the drinks with the highest sugar content, to see both how weird they made me feel and if my heart rate would reflect all the bad stuff I was funneling into my body.
The drinks of choice? Costa's "massimo" chai latte and Starbucks' "venti" white chocolate mocha, and "venti" signature hot chocolate. Two Starbucks drinks actually ranked higher than those three in the official chart, but they were the "hot mulled fruit" drinks only available around Christmas, so thankfully I could forego those and instead just consume the perfectly manageable equivalent of 57 teaspoons of sugar in one sitting.
My resting heart rate, pre-sugar, was 67 BPM, which is apparently "above average" (in a good way) for men of my age. So at least my ticker would be in a good position to put up a fight against the diabetes-inducing amount of sugar and caffeine I was about to consume.
Here's me, Tom, tackling one of Starbucks' venti signature hot chocolates, topped up with whipped cream. Firstly, hats off to them for getting my name right. Secondly, this venti signature hot chocolate with whipped cream was extremely big and extremely delicious. I drank it in about three minutes and loved every second of it. Sugar does a great job of making things taste good.
I waited a bit and took the second reading of my heart rate. It had shot up to an impressive 80 BPM, which may have had as much to do with the excitement as it did with all the sugar.
Moving on, it was time for Costa's massimo chai latte. As you can see, it's bigger than my head, and I have a large head. I started to struggle about half-way through this one, and slowed down a little—after just drinking a large hot chocolate I wasn't feeling quite as enthusiastic about making myself throw up in public.
But I persevered, and after finishing the chai latte and waiting a bit longer I measured my heart rate again. It was now a respectable 92 BPM—surprisingly not that much of a jump, given all the caffeine in this one. The bloating and nausea that the nutritionist had warned me about were definitely incoming, but I was yet to feel the joint pain or headache. Back of the net!
My final drink was the venti white chocolate mocha. If you're wondering why I'm in a lift, it's because the Starbucks I was at had three floors, and I thought I might as well have my heart attack at altitude. (Side note: why does anyone need three floors of coffee shop? Even two seems a bit excessive.)
After consuming my final 73 grams of sugar, I did not feel good. In fact, I felt very, very bad. But also, kind of excited?
At this point my heart rate had shot up to 105 BPM, not far off double my resting heart rate. I felt quite decent and maybe like I should go for a walk, which I did, just kind of around the corner and back again, which was nice. I felt all right. Quite productive. Really productive, in fact.
I finished my walk at the office. As you can see from this photo, I was not looking great. A thick film of sweat had formed on my brow and I was finding it difficult to close my eyes for any meaningful amount of time.
My heart rate had actually come down to a reasonable 84 BPM, but also my heart felt like it was going to implode inside my chest and I was very aware of something dangerous happening in my stomach. Still no sign of the joint pain, but I definitely felt very sick.
My conclusion following this highly controlled scientific experiment? Don't drink the three most sugary drinks available to you in the space of 20 minutes. It will make you ill. And also, I mean, maybe just try to consume less sugar? Scientists say that halving our sugar intake will stop us from becoming obese or dying slowly from heart disease, which sounds like a good enough reason to me.
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