Nerdly Glee: Caffeine Confusion

KTrex :

Why is it that I always get nauseous, sometimes to the point of vomiting, whenever I drink tea while I’m dehydrated and/or unfed, but I can drink energy drinks like Red Bull and NOS whenever I damn well please without a problem? This makes no sense to me.

So, two things. First off, I am not a doctor, so not only should you not take anything I say as medical advice, but most of this is speculation on the part of someone without a full degree in a scientific field. Second, I combed through articles and evidence without finding anything I would consider conclusive.

First I’ll take a moment to explain why coffee can be hard on the stomach. It’s often said that it’s the acidity in coffee that causes problems, but this is probably not the case. Coffee generally has a pH of around 5. Your stomach, on the other hand, can range from a pH of 1-2 soon after eating, to a pH of 4-5 after digestion is complete. So, even at it’s least acidic, coffee in and of itself is not going to cause a drop in pH in your stomach. Also, Red Bull, like other carbonated beverages, tends to be MORE acidic than coffee, so if acid were the culprit, you’d most likely see a different scenario here.

The reason coffee and other caffeine-containing beverages can cause nausea has more to do with how your stomach works. The main enzyme at work in the stomach after eating is Pepsin. Pepsin breaks down proteins. Your stomach is also made, in large part, of protein. This could get bad pretty quickly, so there are mechanisms for protecting the stomach from the harsh chemicals needed to break down and then digest your food.

One of these mechanisms has to do with the interaction of hydrochloric acid and pepsin’s chemical precursor, pepsinogen. Neither of these chemicals are released into the stomach until you eat or drink something (and water will not trigger this mechanism.) When you consume something, your body signals the stomach to release both hydrocholric acid and pepsinogen. In this highly acidic environment, pepsinogen turns into pepsin and begins to digest proteins. Which is great, if there’s protein there to digest. If not, it can cause problems. This is part of the reason people with ulcers are encouraged not to drink coffee.

I looked into several things when researching your question. First, I looked up the nutrition facts for coffee, tea, and Red Bull, and looked for differences. Now, keep in mind that nutrition facts only trace certain things. Carbs, fats, protein, vitamins, some minerals, etc. They account for most of what makes up a food, but not all, so there are necessarily gaps in what I was able to find.

One notable difference is that energy drinks like Red Bull tend to contain B vitamins. There is a lot of hearsay online about B vitamins helping to abate nausea. I did manage to find two reputable articles linking vitamin B6 to the reduction of nausea in pregnant women. They can be found here and here. In the interest of full disclosure, I am going by the abstracts since I do not have a paid registration to PubMed. Both abstracts discuss, briefly, the research methodology and results. In both cases, the experimental groups were given doses of  vitamin B6 ranging from 1.28 mg to 75 mg (3 doses of 25 mg each.) All of the groups that were given vitamin B6 showed a reduction in the severity of symptoms, and the first article indicates that the difference in symptom reduction between doses of 1.28mg and 10mg was likely not significant.

There are lots of reasons why B6 may still not be the culprit. First, the study was conducted on pregnant women, who are nauseous because of their pregnancy. Second, this involved consistent supplementation and plasma B6 concentration. The doses were taken orally, so it’s possible that ingesting B6 could have a quick effect, but it’s also possible that it needs to be fully absorbed into the body to have any affect. Without reading the full articles, it’s hard to tell if the mechanism by which B6 helps with pregnancy-related nausea would also make it useful for alleviating other kinds of nausea. Possible, but possibly a stretch. I was unable to find any concrete information regarding the other B vitamins contained in Red Bull.

So why do you get nauseous from coffee and not Red Bull? I have a couple ideas of why this might be happening for you, though I should note that a lot of people also report nausea when they drink Red Bull and other energy drinks. First, caffeine on it’s own is an acid secretagogue, which is a very jargony way of saying that caffeine is enough to stimulate the release of stomach acid, even though it does not itself have any food value in it. Most things that get your stomach going trigger that release of acid because they actually contain things you need to digest.

And no, there isn’t a lot of protein in Red Bull for that pepsin to act on, but there is twice as much as there is in coffee, while Red Bull also contains almost 20 fewer milligrams of caffeine per cup. It could be that the combination of more protein and less caffeine is enough to lessen the blow to your stomach. Not being a food chemist or a doctor, I don’t know how much protein is enough. For reference, though, coffee has 0.3g of protein, while Red Bull has 0.6g. To give you a basis for comparison, a saltine cracker has 0.3 grams of protein.

Basically, as far as my research was able to discover, there is no smoking gun here. It might pay off to eat something when you drink coffee or tea if you find that it tends to make you feel nauseous. Because some people report nausea with energy drinks as well, I suspect this might be one of those things that is caused by your unique body chemistry, or by some compound in tea and coffee that I was not able to find information on.

Is anyone out there able to offer more insight on this? I’d love to hear from you.




On Starlite and Graphene

I’m finally going to get around to answering D’s question from a few months back:

What is your take on Starlite? Fact or Science fiction pipe dream? Everyone knows Graphene is the 21st century’s wonder material, but this stuff makes it look like a sissy…

I’d never heard of Starlite before, so I turned to my good friend Wikipedia. Now, Wikipedia gets a bad rap, largely because of the unfortunate habit of students to list it as a source on bibliographies and research papers. As an actual source, Wikipedia is terrible. It’s not that you can’t find good information there, it’s that it’s too easily edited and tampered with.

No, Wikipedia’s value isn’t as a source itself, it’s in finding a whole slew of other sources, all in one neat little location. Anyone remember years ago when you had to go to a library to do research? And then you had to not only look it up, but you had to wander around in the library looking for what you’d found? And pray it was actually relevant? Those were dark times, indeed.

So lets look at the entries for Starlite and Graphene. The reason for comparing them is fairly obvious. Both materials have been credited with amazing properties, from Starlite’s purported ability to resist massive amounts of heat, to Graphene’s amazing strength, ability to conduct heat and electricity, light weight, and impermiability.

The difference between the two is pretty stark, however, when it comes to research and evidence. With around 200 sources cited, many of them from actual scientific journals, the information available on Graphene is extensive. Starlite, on the other hand, is mainly represented by an article by The Telegraph, and a blog created by Maurice Ward that features grainy images and videos, and a colorful, multi-fonted summary Ward wrote listing tests he claims have been performed on Starlite. A search of the greater internet doesn’t yield much more: a youtube channel, some message boards debating the merits of Starlite, most of them linking back to the same Telegraph article.

If I were doing research for a dissertation on Starlite, this is about the time I’d start experiencing the strong urge to bang my head against the nearest hard surface.

I’ll admit it, reading the Telegraph article, watching the videos, looking at the pictures, it’s very tempting to buy into the hype surrounding this material. Some of the videos are clearer and easier to believe, even. And note that I am not saying that Starlite can’t really pass these tests, either. This video of the egg test seems pretty solid, and I don’t note any jump in the video from when the burner is pulled away to when the egg is cracked. I’m also not a video analyst.

But none of that really matters, in point of fact. Whether Starlite is complete and total bullshit, or really a material that could save countless lives and make everyone a little safer, the reality is that Maurice Ward has since passed away, and while his family reportedly has the formula to make more Starlite, it doesn’t look like they’re in a big hurry to share it with the world, so it can’t be put to use. And if that formula never gets out, not only will it never get used, but we’ll never be able to study it, learn why it could do such amazing things, develop it into a better product, extrapolate from the things we learn to make other amazing materials, etc. It’s a scientific dead end.

Graphene, on the other hand, may be a bit less impressive, but at least all of the claims made about it can be tested and either substantiated or refuted. It can be put to use, and it can increase our knowledge of chemistry and hopefully help us to create better materials in the future.

And really, that’s how science propels us forward. Not by some person making an accidental discover by throwing ingredients into the mix and then holding on to their discovery, but by scores of people testing and retesting, climbing onto each other shoulders and reaching for greater discovery.

Nerdly Glee: On frogs, and on building a better bullshit detector.

So, I put the word out to my friends on Facebook, asking if they had any good questions for me to answer. I had posted this link the previous day, and my friend Christina asked: “Are those tiny frogs for real? With photoshop, etc, how do you know what’s real?”

I used to teach biology to non-science majors at my university. I was also a teacher’s assistant in my Physical Anthropology classes. What I’m trying to say is that I worked with a lot of students, many of whom were not yet very familiar with operating in a science field. It took some restraint to keep this installment from turning into an epic, twelve-page screed littered with profanity.

What I saw, and what the professors I worked with saw, was that many people have trouble critically evaluating the information they hear and read. One of the biggest thrills for me during that time was seeing students walk in with a real fear of science, and walking out with a more finely tuned bullshit detector, suitable for use when making all manner of life decisions.

So, while I’ve decided to save the serious ranting for the really egregious bullshit out there, this is still a good topic. To keep it on point, I’m going to give you a series of steps or questions to ask yourself when you come across something presented to you as science. I’m focusing mainly on articles for now, but these are good questions to ask yourself whenever someone makes claims that are scientific in nature.

1) First of all, where did you find the information?

This is a great place to start. Look at the URL. Read the “About” section of the site. Find out who it is that’s hosting the article in question. If the title is something like “”, that might tip you off that the information they’re putting out there could be tailored toward a specific agenda. Also, is the website selling something? If so, is the research you’re reading tailored toward making those products more appealing? Can you identify a particular goal in the article itself, or on the website that’s hosting it? What does the website have to gain in making you believe whatever the article is saying?

For the original article I posted, it’s from a website called I am familiar with them, but if you’re not, look at their About page. Their goal is to put science news out there, and they’re affiliated with respected scientific journals, including the American Physical Society. They’re not selling anything, and I can’t see anything that leads me to believe they are publishing biased articles. So far so good.

2) If it’s about science, then follow the research trail. Who published the original journal article and who are the researchers?

Again, you’re looking to see if there is any particular agenda there. Best bet, it’s a publicly funded, peer reviewed journal. Peer review is one of the most important practices in the science world. It means that, before something gets published, it gets looked over by multiple experts in the field. This also means that biased research usually doesn’t get published by academically and scientifically rigorous publications.

The original article was published in the Public Library of Science. PLoS is a non-profit organization dedicated to putting out peer-reviewed research, and making it widely accessible for free. You can poke around their About page if you want more information. If you look through the article, you’ll see the photo from the original article on

Now, just by the journal it was published in, I should say that I’m fairly confident that the article and photo are legit, but what if I wasn’t? In that case, I would keep digging a bit further.

At the very top of the page, you’ll see the list of scientists who worked on the research. In the case of this article, they are all affiliated with major universities or, in one case, a state run natural history museum. Since I have the names of the researchers from the paper, I’ll go ahead and google them to see what I find.

Here’s why: some scientists might have an agenda, but that doesn’t *necessarily* mean that this exact research is biased. There might be a researcher out there who is affiliated with a “creation science” organization. I admit I am severely biased on this issue; I’m not entirely certain I trust the logical prowess of anyone who could pursue scientific enquiry with such a pronounced bias and still consider themselves a scientist. HOWEVER, it’s also possible that someone with an agenda could still pursue valid, unbiased research in another avenue of enquiry. So, while I definitely wouldn’t trust their research on anything related to their bias, if they did research in a completely different avenue, I would be less likely to dismiss it, as long as it was published in a respected, peer reviewed, unbiased journal. That said, tread with caution, especially if there are measurable consequences of judging wrong. For example, I wouldn’t take advice on cancer treatment options from someone who thinks the Earth is only 6,000 years old.

3) Follow the money.

For the sake of argument, lets say I’m still not convinced of the legitimacy of this article. The next step is to find out who paid for the research. For example, if a chemical manufacturer is paying for research on the safety of the materials they manufacture, I’m probably going to assume the research is unreliable.

In the case of this article, funding was provided by a National Science Foundation grant. NSF is an agency of the US government which provides funding for scientific research. Essentially, this research was publicly funded. Getting an NSF grant is a competitive process involving submitting proposals which get reviewed by experts in each field; Only about a quarter of all proposals succeed. This supports my earlier assumption that this article is on the up and up, and that the photo of the tiny frog is almost certainly real.

The website that published the article, the journal that published the research, and the foundation that funded it are all respected in the science world, and I can’t find hide nor hair of a dubious agenda in the mix. This brings me to my last point.

4) So what?

Obviously this process is a bit lengthy to be going about all the time, so you have to pick your battles and apply the “so what” test. Lets say I’m wrong about the article and the frog photo is a hoax. So what? What are the consequences of me accepting it incorrectly?

When it comes to this case, I haven’t lost a whole lot besides looking a bit silly on the internet. If I were researching treatments for cancer, however, the stakes obviously climb significantly higher. The higher the stakes, the more sensitive you have to calibrate your bullshit detector and the more you should question the information you are given. Never be afraid to ask questions, especially when the information sounds too good to be true or the risk of believing in bullshit can put you at risk financially or physically.

Greetings and salutations…

So, I swear I am totally writing a real first post, and it will be published soon, but I figured now would be a great time to post about what kinds of things I want to post about. As I said in my profile description, I’m nerdy, and I love science, and in particular, eviscerating bullshit with the cunning use of critical thinking and science. I’m also kind of a smart ass. So, what I’m looking for are opportunities to help increase the level of real critical thinking on the internet and maybe have a bit of fun doing it. Here are some ideas:

  • Have you found some too-good-to-be-true claim? Send it to me, I’ll do a bit of digging and let you know what I find out.
  • Does something look tantalizingly like science, but has the whiff of bullshit to it? Send it to me.
  • Do you have an obnoxious friend or relative who beats you over the head with bad science and reason trying to support an odious belief? Let me at em.
  • Need relationship advice? I’ve always thought it would be hilarious to write an advice column based on things I learned studying Physical Anthropology and Primatology. Ask away!

This is not meant to be a complete list, just a few ideas I had, so if you think of anything else up my nerd alley, let me know! Let’s have fun, and maybe learn a few things at the same time.