Energy Drinks Demystified

By Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, LD

A few years ago, you could walk into any convenience store and notice a plethora of drinks promising to keep you awake, energized and alert. Today, they are popping up in bars, movie theatres, restaurants, vending machines, and even schools. Their claims may excite a variety of individuals including those that are trying to stay awake (think college students), athletes or individuals just looking for little boost in their day. While widely popular, could these drinks actually do more harm than good? The answer, unfortunately, is yes.

First of all, it’s important to know that energy drinks and supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Because these items are not regulated, the ingredients are uncontrolled and the product manufacturers can make unproven statements about the product’s effectiveness. I looked at 3 of the most popular energy drinks on the market and noticed a few commonalities.

First, caffeine rules as a major ingredient in these drinks and unfortunately, the exact content of caffeine in an energy drink does not have to be indicated on the can. According to the National Institutes of Health, “too much caffeine can make you restless, anxious, and irritable. It may also keep you from sleeping well and cause headaches, abnormal heart rhythms, or other problems. If you stop using caffeine, you could get withdrawal symptoms.” Additionally, sensitivity to caffeine varies from person to person. The caffeine for most energy drinks ranges from 70mg – 280mg. To put this in perspective, a one ounce serving of espresso at a popular coffee store has about 65mg of caffeine. The espresso, by the way, is much cheaper than the average energy drink.

As if too much caffeine was not enough of a problem to begin with, many bars are now mixing energy drinks with alcohol and several energy drink companies are putting alcohol right in their formulas. Although a few are now coming off the market due to increased scrutiny from reported adverse health effects, they may still find its way into the hands of drinkers of all ages. This is where the real problems may arise. When alcohol and caffeine (2 stimulants) are mixed together, the result can be deadly. Abnormal heart rhythms, stroke and even death have been reported. 

A second ingredient commonly found in popular energy drinks is taurine. Taurine is a sulfur containing amino acid found naturally in meat, fish and breast milk. Taurine can also be found in supplements and has often been promoted to enhance athletic performance. While moderate amounts of taurine appear to be safe, excessive levels of the amino acid may be harmful. Some studies suggest that excessive taurine may be problematic for individuals with kidney disease.

Finally, energy drinks often contain herbs as well as large amounts of added sugar. The added simple sugars and syrups will cause dramatic swings in blood sugar leaving you thirsty for more. Herbs should be a concern as they, too, are not regulated by the FDA. Herb dosages are not standardized, and a person can take too much of an herb or herbal supplement. Furthermore, excessive consumption of certain herbs may interfere with medications, making them work stronger or weaker than necessary. 

The main purpose of energy drinks is to energize but you can do this naturally through food and exercise. Caffeinated coffee will help you to wake you up and may also help to reduce your risk for dementia, type 2 diabetes and stroke. Complex carbohydrates provide an energizing steady stream of glucose as they are digested and absorbed at a slow rate. B vitamins, often referred to as the “energy” vitamins, can be found in whole grain products, lean meats, lentils, fruits and vegetables. Finally, regular exercise can provide an energy boost by increasing your endorphin levels and decreasing feelings of anxiety and stress.

If you really want a sustainable boost in energy, look to your diet and exercise levels. Making changes there can result in better health and more energy.

Blog written by Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, LD. Kristin Kirkpatrick is a registered dietitian and Wellness Manager for Cleveland Clinic’s Lifestyle 180 program.

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