Many Americans are riding the popular wave of energy drink consumption; the software engineer living fifty hours a week in Cubeville, the extreme sports star doing backflips on a dirt bike, even the college freshman pulling an all-night cram session before his Calculus exam. Calling a mix of ingredients an “energy drink” could be accurate, or it could be clever marketing. What exactly makes up the energy in these energy drinks, and what are the benefits?
Types of Energy Drinks
Energy Drinks fall into two primary classes. The first is canned mixtures with a typical serving size of 8 ounces. The second is shot-style drinks, typically two to four ounces per serving. For this article, we will focus on the first category.
The energy drink phenomenon was spearheaded by Red Bull, an Austrian company that entered the U.S. market in 1997. Many other companies have entered the market in the past decade, answering the call of a multi-billion dollar market. Popular names include Monster, Amp, Fuel, Rev3, Verve, and Rockstar.
Calling an energy drink is accurate…on a sliding scale. Many different ingredients can provide energy, but the length and type of energy varies. Many of these energy drinks contain sugar, or a sugar substitute. A single 8 oz. serving can deliver anywhere from 17 -31 grams of sugar. This sugar is usually combined with a source of caffeine. Caffeine comes from a variety of sources, and ranges from approximately 75 milligrams to 200 milligrams per serving (vs. 35 mg in a can of Coca Cola.)
What’s tricky is that caffeine may be one ingredient, and Guarana, a caffeine substitute may be another. Guarana is a Brazilian tropical plant with high caffeine content. The seeds are used to brew an herbal energy drink with caffeine nearly triple that of coffee. The combination of sugar (or sugar substitute like aspartame), caffeine and Guarana is a strong potential mix of uppers; usually high-glycemic, fast burning carbohydrates that create a significant energy spike in a short amount of time.
Taurine is an amino acid that is popular in many energy drinks. It is believed to assist in regulating the level of water and mineral salts in the blood. Taurine, like any other ingredient is safe in moderation, but nutritionists warn against excessive ingestion. Anything over 3000 mg/day is not recommended, though studies have not proven the extent of damage possible in human subjects through higher ingestion. Tests on rodents resulted in everything from irritability to self-mutilation, and energy drinks have been banned in several countries in Europe.
Two of the largest concerns around energy drinks are the marketing to children, and the consumption of these drinks in combination with alcohol. Excessive amounts of caffeine can impair the absorption of essential minerals in bones, and excessive caffeine can cause hormone fluctuation, leading to fibrocystic breast changes. Spikes in blood sugar in children can also contribute to the progression of Type II Diabetes Mellitus.
Very few studies have been conducted on the long-term benefits or effects of energy drinks, largely due to the relatively short time these drinks have been available. Due to the unknown nature of these ingredient combinations, mixing them with alcohol can be dangerous, as the combination of effects can increase the workload of the kidneys and the liver. Also, the combination of the caffeine and alcohol “buzzes” can lead to a severe crash, impaired judgment, and a lack of awareness while someone may be suffering symptoms including severe allergic reactions or alcohol poisoning.
Energy drinks vary widely, as the term “energy” can be attributed to any combination of ingredients. These drinks are relatively new to the market, and long term studies must be conducted to confirm the results of consumption. Until studies are conducted and confirmed, energy drinks, like any new science, are best consumed in moderation. Consuming energy drinks in combination with alcohol should be treated with even greater diligence. The energy in energy drinks could come from almost anything, and more brands hit the market every year. The intelligent consumer should approach their choice with more than just taste and convenience in mind. After all, energy today means nothing if it leaves you tired, on a hospital bed, or in prison, tomorrow.