Since the 1997 introduction of Red Bull, energy drinks have seen exponential growth, outpacing nearly every other offering in the beverage market. From supermarkets to gas stations to drug stores, Red Bull, Five Hour Energy, Monster, Rockstar and other similar products dominate prime display space on shelves and in coolers. Responding to this placement and extensive advertising, consumers now spend more than $9 billion per year on energy drinks.
But do we really know what we are buying? Are these drinks safe? Do they carry health risks?
Before you reach for that magic bottle that promises enhanced alertness, concentration and physical performance, you need the facts.
What Is In Energy Drinks?
Precise recipes vary, but the common element is caffeine. Caffeine is the key ingredient in energy drinks.
A standard cup of coffee has about 100 mg of caffeine, a cup of tea 50 mg and a can of cola 35-55 mg. Energy drinks usually have more. A single serving of an energy drink can have anywhere from 50 to 500 mg of caffeine. And the addition of guarana (a South American plant extract that contains additional caffeine) ups the caffeine dose even more. Although the FDA regulates the amount of caffeine in soft drinks (maximum of 71 mg per 12–oz serving), there is no such limit for energy drinks.
Caffeine is a stimulant. Scientific studies in adults show that caffeine can increase alertness, improve concentration and enhance mood. Modest caffeine intake (less than 400 mg per day) is safe for most adults. But too much caffeine can cause problems, including restlessness, irritability and difficulty sleeping. Massive caffeine overdoses can cause reduced blood flow to the heart and abnormal heart rhythms.
Many energy drinks also contain sugar. Sugar is “real energy.” Your body can use the sugar as fuel to do work. But don’t forget that extra sugar means excess calories. A steady consumption of sugar-filled energy drinks will lead to weight gain.
Other ingredients, including the amino acid taurine, ginseng and assorted vitamins, probably have little to no impact on a person’s perceived energy level. Although manufacturers tout the importance of these additives, their purported benefits are unproven. One note of caution—ginseng can interact with a variety of prescription medicines.
Energy Drinks vs. Sports Drinks: Know the Difference
Although often displayed in the same section of the store or even right next to each other, energy drinks (e.g. Monster, Five Hour Energy) and sports drinks (e.g. Gatorade, Powerade) are not interchangeable. Containing water, carbohydrates and electrolytes, sports drinks help athletes to rehydrate and replenish electrolytes and carbohydrates lost during strenuous athletic activity; this is a perfectly legitimate use of these products.
Energy drinks are different. Containing stimulants, they do not replenish electrolytes. Furthermore, caffeine can be dangerous for the dehydrated athlete who already has an elevated heart rate and blood pressure from physical exertion. Do not use energy drinks during sports—they do not provide the “energy” you need.
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