Every day, millions of Americans gulp down different energy drinks in the hopes of quenching their thirst and gaining some energy in the process. Since the late ‘90s, when the drinks grew in popularity in mass culture, energy drinks have come to symbolize a certain youthfulness and vitality. The energy drink market is accelerating in growth now, with each drink purportedly offering you increased energy and stamina.
Yet, what is in your drink? Most people do not know what they are drinking and sometimes, even for an experienced and well-read aficionado, reading labels on the side of bottles can be a bit confusing. Let us take a closer look so we can understand what are in the energy drinks we consume on a daily basis. Having a better knowledge of what you drink will keep you and your family healthy and hydrated.
Most energy drinks come in 8 ounce (oz.) serving sizes since that is considered the typical amount required for a beverage. Each drink has a different number of calories, carbohydrates, caffeine, and vitamins.
Caffeine is not a source of energy itself but rather breaks down fats that give energy. Fat breakdown gives faster energy than carbohydrate breakdown. However, when caffeine combined with sugar is consumed, the person can end up being more tired afterwards. As Lona Sandon, dietician at the American Dietetics Association explains, “Energy drinks are not much different than a soda, but with a little bit more caffeine. They're not a healthy drink by any means. Mostly they're just loaded with caffeine to make you feel as though you're energized, but they're not really providing a health benefit.”
Taurine is a naturally occurring amino acid, found in breast milk that is frequently listed as one of the key ingredients in many energy drinks. However, the true nature of what taurine does remains a mystery. Many manufacturers claim that taurine enhances energy.
Glucuronolactone is a naturally occurring chemical compound that helps in building connective tissue. Currently, no side effects have been discovered and with any ingredient, use in moderation is always recommended.
Energy drinks make you feel alert and can improve mental performance and give you more energy temporarily. However, they can also affect the natural rhythm of the heart. The health benefits and risks of taurine are unknown and there has not been enough research regarding the effects of caffeinated taurine drinks. This uncertainty has led to a warning label on certain energy drinks and the banning of certain energy drinks in many countries.
How does the energy drink work? The energy drink works by stimulating the nervous system to cause changes in neurotransmitters, and thus make people feel more energized. However, it is important to look at what ingredients cause this energy change.
The ingredients within the energy drink can vary greatly such as the chemical compounds, herbs, fruit juices, and vitamins that affect taste, nutrition, amount of energy produced, and have certain health effects. Not sure where to start? Well, beginning with ingredients, let us take a look at some of the ingredients to avoid or to minimize.
Sugar: Natural sugar is more preferable than processed sugar, which can come from genetically modified corn sources and have detrimental side effects to the human body. Hence, it is advisable to avoid energy drinks that list high fructose corn syrup as a principal ingredient. Sugar provides a short energetic high that has a laxative effect, causing a crash in energy once the sugar has left the bloodstream. Pay attention to the amount of sugar and fat in the label as well as the source (fruit juices, high fructose corn syrup, etc.) Fruit juices are natural and preferable.
Caffeine: Caffeine in small doses, can accelerate athletic performance and boost energy. However, if caffeine is the principal agent for creating energy in a drink, then it has strong laxative and diuretic effects, leaving you lethargic and dehydrated after your initial buzz.
Minerals: What kinds of minerals are in your drink? Sodium should be in smaller amounts because larger quantities can have serious side effects for many people. If you have any health conditions that require avoiding specific ingredients, it is all the more important that you pay attention to what ingredients are listed on the label. Some energy drinks have vitamin B (B1, B2, B6, B12), vitamin C, and vitamin A supplements added to the drink, which is a positive benefit. Depending upon the fruit juices added as well, you will receive health benefits from those ingredients.
Carbohydrates: High percentages of carbohydrates in energy drinks can make food and nutrient absorption into the bloodstream from the intestines more difficult. As a result, people may develop gastrointestinal problems and distress. Since the rate of fluid absorption decreases, it can become harder to hydrate yourself, which in turn, is detrimental to your health. So pay attention to the amount of carbohydrates.
Other Ingredients: Additional ingredients can also produce their own effects. Echinacea is said to bolster the immune system, while Ginkgo biloba and ginseng are claimed to improve memory. Ephedra, Ciwujia, and hydroxycitrate promote burning of fats.
Energy drinks side effects really vary depending on the brand and the exact combination of ingredients. From our list above, the only drink to contain high fructose corn syrup is Full Throttle. Taurine is present in all of the drinks listed. Some other ingredients listed include echinacea, astralagus root, reisi, and ginseng for Xs energy; Yohimbine HCL, a derivative of the natural aphrodisiac yohimba in Redline; gingseng, biloba, and milk thistle for Rockstar; and caffeine, taurine, ginseng and guarana for Spark. Spark is the only drink to combine both caffeine and alcohol.
Mixing energy drinks with alcohol has become a popular pastime in many bars and dance clubs and even in smaller restaurants and franchises. However, there are risks associated with doing this. While drinking Red Bull can give you a large dose of sugar, vitamins, amino acids, and caffeine, Liz Applegate, a sports nutritionist at the University of California at Davis, says, “These cans of energy drinks have some enticing, very sexy-sounding claims -- that they lift you up, that they give you more energy. Frankly, they're nothing much more than caffeine in a can with a lot of sugar."
Despite the company’s advertisements, Applegate advises not drinking Red Bull or other caffeine-loaded energy drinks during exercise because of their heavy concentration of sugar and caffeine, which decreases the body’s ability to take in water. Many doctors advise against mixing Red Bull or other energy drinks with alcohol despite its popularity in bars where locals may down several concoctions in one evening. “If they were to drink multiple glasses of this mixture or concoction, I think there'd be a potential for significant danger -- danger such as a racing heart beat, elevation of blood pressure and even potentially a heart attack," said Dr. Laurence Sperling, a cardiologist at the Emory University School of Medicine. One of the largest concerns here is that people who drink this may feel alert because of the caffeine and go out and drive, despite having consumed more alcohol than the limit.
Taurine at www.nichd.nih.gov
Coffee at www.starbucks.com
Cohen, Elizabeth. Energy drinks pack a punch, but is it too much? CNN Medical Unit: May 29, 2001.
Cup of Coffee at U.S. Department of Agriculture, USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, 2006
Cup of Coffee at www.mayoclinic.com
Steinert, Brandon. Energy drink ingredients spark health concerns. The Fairfield Mirror: April 3, 2008.