Energy Drinks: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

Maybe you are an athlete looking for a competitive edge, or maybe you’re a sleep-deprived student, over-worked professional, or someone looking to be the life of the party. Energy drinks promising things like “hours of energy! Or “Intense focus!” are attractive to many looking to experience an added boost. Energy drinks are a booming market, yet each purported benefit seems to come along with a disturbing potential risk.

So, what’s the verdict? Are energy drinks good or bad? It turns out the answer depends on who you are, how much you drink, and how often you drink them.

What Are Energy Drinks?

Energy drinks are beverages meant to provide consumers with extra mental and physical stimulation. These boosts take the form of increased alertness, cognitive function, and reaction time. The products have come under fire since introduction to the US market in 1997; Despite a long list of potential risks to consumers, the market is predicted to be an impressive $21.5 billion industry by 2017.

Energy drinks are easily confused with coffee, tea, and sports drinks; Note that ‘energy drinks’ are a subset of energy bars and gels, and contain various combinations of stimulants, sugars, herbals, and amino acids.

The desired effects may come with a cost: A study in the British Journal of Nutrition found that enhanced athletic performance was accompanied by insomnia and nervousness hours later. What’s more, consumers with pre-existing health conditions including diabetes and cardiovascular abnormalities may experience exacerbated symptoms after consuming energy drinks. Other individuals including children and pregnant women, are advised to avoid energy drinks altogether.

Summary: An energy drink is a beverage marketed to increase the consumer’s focus and alertness. While companies achieve this desired effect by using various combinations of caffeine, sugars, herbal supplements, and amino acids, benefits may come with undesirable side effects.


What’s in My Energy Drink?

Since caffeine and sugar reliably produce stimulatory effects, it comes as no surprise that these ingredients are star performers in the majority of energy drinks on the market today. In fact, caffeine is the most widely used stimulant, praised for its ergogenic effects and health-boosting benefits. Note that caffeine-free energy drinks do exist, but careful label reading is necessary to distinguish between truly ‘caffeine-free’ versus ‘no caffeine added.’

Other commonly added ingredients are creatine, taurine, B-vitamins, guarana, L-carnitine, and ginseng. A scientific review from UC Davis, a leading research university, explains that limited overall scientific evidence exists that these ingredients live up to their marketing claims for things including muscle growth, thermogenic aids, and attention enhancing properties.

Added vitamins and minerals are often added in such small amounts that are unlikely to benefit our overall health.

Summary: Energy drink companies select various ingredients in varying amounts to provide consumers with enhanced energy. Limited scientific evidence regarding ingredient safety and efficacy, coupled with countless possible combinations of ingredients, makes it difficult for consumers to select the best product for his/her needs.


Energy Drink Labeling is Inconsistent Across Companies

Even the savviest label readers are challenged when decoding energy drink ingredients. The problem lies in labeling regulations, since the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act  does not require caffeine disclosure for beverages or supplements. The labeling nuances are further complicated since companies can choose to market their drinks as “beverages” or “liquid dietary supplements.” (The former requires FDA approved nutrition facts, while the latter requires non-FDA approved “supplement facts.”

The majority of leading manufacturers including ‘Rock Star Energy’ and ‘Monster’ voluntarily disclose caffeine and other stimulant content of their products. This not a requirement across the board, which makes making it incredibly difficult for people to make educated decisions.

Motivated consumers may call individual energy drink companies and request product ingredient disclosure. Just note that values may not account for naturally-occurring caffeine sources, i.e. guarana, a common additive.

Summary: Inconsistent labeling regulations make it difficult for consumers to make educated selections when purchasing energy drinks.


Excessive Energy Drink Consumption: Moderation is Key

Ounce for ounce, 8oz of Monster or Red Bull has nearly the same amount of caffeine as an 8oz cup of coffee. Today’s Dietitian, a subset of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, reports that some drinks deliver up to 300mg of caffeine, which puts consumers close to the generally accept 400mg upper limit for daily caffeine consumption for the average, healthy person. A quick look at FDA reports shows adverse effects including flushing, lethargy, abnormal HR, chest pain, visual disturbances, vomiting, hyperventilation, dizziness, and convulsions.

The average sugar content of top selling energy drinks is 25g per 8oz, but some brands are sold in 32oz bottles, delivering a whopping 108g sugar! This is especially problematic for those with diabetes; What’s more, consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages is associated with obesity, dental problems, diabetes, and other chronic diseases.

Let’s not forget that energy drinks are oftentimes mixed with alcohol. In fact, research from the CDC suggests that caffeine in energy drinks may mask effects of alcohol, making it more likely for that individual to consume excessive amounts of sugar, alcohol, and caffeine in one sitting.

Summary: As with anything, moderation is key. Consuming small amounts of an energy drink is unlikely to produce adverse effects in the average person; However, excessive consumption increases risks, especially for kids and those with pre-existing health conditions.

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