Starbucks catches a lot of flak for selling overpriced coffee, but perhaps it shouldn’t. True, a cup of joe there is more expensive than at other chains, but serious coffee addicts are getting their money’s worth. Forget woody aromas, floral notes, and full bodies for a moment, and consider coffee value by the most basic measure: caffeine content.
When you buy a cup filled with water made brown by soaking ground coffee beans, you’re not really paying for the ounces of liquid. Arguably, you’re not even primarily buying a flavorful drink. You’re buying a drug—and a powerful one at that. Caffeine has been shown to elevate your mood, increase your sociability, enhance athletic performance, and make you less forgetful. Some scholars even contend that it was this stimulant that brought about the Enlightenment.
When you shell out for coffee, you’re making an investment in yourself. So we set out to figure out how to invest wisely. Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, 7-Eleven, and McDonald’s all have locations within a block or two of the Quartz office in New York City. In descending order, their prices for a 16oz cup of performance range from $2.65 to $1.19.
McDonald’s coffee is by far the cheapest cup of coffee. But, before you convert to the McCafe, take a look at the varying caffeine levels in each brand. (For reference, the Mayo Clinic advises that individuals should not consume more than 400 milligrams, “roughly the amount of caffeine in four cups of brewed coffee,” in a day. The upper limit is probably good advice, but that estimate per cup clearly doesn’t refer to a 16oz bucket of coffee.)
You get what you pay for. Price and caffeine content correlate closely, but not perfectly. Milligrams of caffeine per dollar is the best way to see which brand is truly the best value.
It’s worth noting that the caffeine content of any given cup of coffee is fairly variable, and also that brands’ listed numbers don’t always line up with their actual coffee. Still, with nearly 130 milligrams of pure performance per dollar, 7-Eleven coffee looks to be the savviest bet for pure caffeine fiends. At just under 125 milligrams of per dollar, Starbucks is the next best bet, with McDonalds at 121 coming close behind. Dunkin’, which barely cracked 100, came in last.