By Candace Chemtob, B.S. and M.S. in Human Nutrition
Energy drinks make claims to “vitalize mind and body”, “increases performance…concentration”, and “make you feel more energetic” (redbull.com). Aggressive marketing has taken energy drinks from obscurity in 1997, when Red Bull was introduced to the US market, to a $37 billion business (Zenith International, 2012). With more than 500 brands to choose from today, what are energy drinks and can they deliver on their promises?
First, let’s examine the ingredients commonly found in energy drinks. The exact ingredients of energy drinks vary from brand to brand, but there is one common element: caffeine and lots of it! Caffeine is a potent central nervous system stimulant and has been added to beverages for decades (e.g., Coca Cola and Mountain Dew) with a FDA limit of 71 mg caffeine per 12 fl oz. Beware, these standards do not apply to energy drinks because they are classified as “nutritional supplements” and often contain “mega” doses of caffeine. An example is the ubiquitous “5 Hour Energy Shot” which contains 17 times the FDA recommended caffeine dose.
With pumped up caffeine content and marketing campaigns, energy drinks seem to promote excessive caffeine intake as the name brand “Jolt” implies. So what is the big deal? In a nation of coffee drinkers, most of us probably view our favorite stimulant as harmless. And caffeine is safe for adults in moderate doses, considered to be 400 mg or less per day (NIH). Excessive intake, however, can lead to caffeine intoxication which is a syndrome marked by high blood pressure, nervousness, anxiety, tremors, insomnia, gastrointestinal upset, and tachycardia (fast heart beat) (American Psychiatric Association). In fact, excessive consumption of energy drinks resulted in 16,035 Emergency Room visits (SAMHSA) in 2008.
Caffeine is not the only ingredient in energy drinks. Other common ingredients are amino acids (taurine), herbs (ginseng), and metabolites (glucuronolactone). These additives are touted as the ”active ingredients” that put the “energy” in energy drinks. Although there has been research on these compounds, most of the studies are not conclusive due to substandard research methods and/or conflicting results (Task Force of American Association of Endocrinologist, Katch and Katch, and NIH). Without proven benefits, scientists warn that little is known about the risks of taking excessive amounts of these compounds. As a rule of thumb, no benefit, and possible risk, usually calls for caution.
Energy drinks are also frequently supplemented with B-vitamins. B-vitamins are a class of water soluble vitamins that are essential to health and are intricately involved in energy metabolism. However, the American diet is rich in B-vitamins and deficiencies are rare. Mega doses of B-vitamins serve no purpose as the excess is excreted in urine.
True to the name, energy drinks do contain a lot of energy! In the form of sugar! Sugar is the only ingredient in energy drinks that truly provides energy. Although caffeine decreases the perception of work because it is a powerful stimulant, it does not contain energy and neither do the other additives. The amount of sugar in energy drinks can be the equivalent of 15 teaspoons of sugar or 3 Crispy Creme glazed doughnuts, as is the case with a 16 oz bottle of Rockstar. Given this amount of sugar, energy drinks can provide a significant number of “empty” calories to your diet.
Energy drink manufacturers target teens and young adults through the use of advertisements and endorsements that feature “Generation X” extreme athletes and race car drivers. And this strategy is working. The Journal of Pediatrics reported that 30 to 50% of teens and young adults consume energy drinks. This concerns many health professionals and organizations. Their concerns range from eroding tooth enamel (energy drinks are acidic) to toxic combinations of energy drinks and alcohol to increasing “risk taking behaviors” (University of Buffalo, 2008). Many youth are not informed as to the potential health risks of drinking excessive amounts of energy drinks and also cannot differentiate between energy drinks and sports drinks.
Energy drinks are not sports drinks. Sports drinks are formulated to replace electrolytes and fluids lost during endurance sports. Sports drinks do not contain caffeine. While caffeine can have a beneficial effect on athletic performance in low to moderate amounts (Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition), the negative side effects (such as nervousness, high blood pressure, and gastrointestinal upset) outweigh these benefits. Additionally, the form of sugar found in most energy drinks could slow gastric emptying. When the stomach empties slowly, this delays the delivery of needed fluids and nutrients, and can cause stomach upset. As for the other ingredients, we do not know their effect on athletic performance and therefore, are not recommended.
How can you feel more energetic on and off the court?
•Eat a healthy, well-balanced diet: Do not skip meals—the energy from food is what fuels your body! Eat a snack an hour or more before training (see my previous articles for details). Have a protein food with every meal, as this form of energy takes longer to “break down” and will fuel you for longer than carbohydrates alone.
•Get plenty of sleep and rest—there is no substitute for this!