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[Nutrition 911] Part XIV Nutritional Emergency: Energy Drinks – Do They Really Give You Wings?

Posted May 21 2010 10:10am

Energy drinks have taken over the soft drink market in a caffeine-fueled frenzy. By listening to the ad campaigns, you’d be sure that this has everything to do with your health. Now instead of leaving the convenience store with a gut bomb, you can grab a Monster can of Adrenaline that promises to Redline your performance until you’re partying like a Rockstar. But do energy drinks really give you wings? Or are you more likely to experience a fleeting glimpse of euphoria, only to come crashing down like Icarus? This week, we take a deeper look at energy drinks, 911 style.

"Energy" Drink

Since Red Bull entered the U.S. market in 1997, energy drinks have been chipping away at the soft drink and bottled water companies’ stranglehold. According to an article in The New York Times, energy drinks have now surpassed bottled water as the fastest growing category of beverages. This isn’t to say that they’re hurting the soda companies, because pretty much everyone now makes an energy drink, from Hansen’s to Steven Seagal. Despite a slew of drinks with far more provocative names such as Who’s Your Daddy?®, Cocaine™, Jones Whoopass™, and Beaver Buzz™, the industry leader is still Red Bull, with sales over $3 billion last year.

Energy drinks have been around for decades, particularly in Asia and mainly in Japan. They weren’t soft drinks like they are today. Instead, they were small vials of liquid promising to increase performance. These vials were usually filled with caffeine, many herbs containing caffeine, and some vitamins. Their target audience was businessmen, to aid their long work schedules.

Red Bull took its name and certain ingredients from a Thai supplement. It was watered down and sugar was added so that it could be consumed as a soft drink, targeting the under-30 crowd. And voilà, a new market was formed. Pretty much everyone has jumped on the bandwagon. The more consumer-friendly varieties tend to be larger and resemble soft drinks, but there are still some aimed at more “sports-specific” audiences like bodybuilders and ravers. These will often come in a smaller package resembling the vials that you get overseas, which are probably more suitable for those who want to feel as though they’re doing something illegal.

GuaranaSo what’s in the stuff that makes it so special and, even more importantly, is it special? The ingredients vary, but there is one constant: caffeine. No matter what any energy drink professes, its secret ingredient is caffeine. Many contain various forms of caffeine like guarana, yerba maté, and tea, but caffeine is the business they’re in. Everything else is a side dish.

As an example, let’s take a closer look at Red Bull’s active ingredients.

  • Sucrose and glucose. Like most soft drinks, the number one ingredient by far is sugar (check out “6 Foods with Hidden Sugar” in the Related Articles section below). This is where all of the calories in a Red Bull come from. Sugar provides an instant energy rush, but its effects are anything but energizing after only a few minutes. A study conducted at the Sleep Research Centre at Loughborough University in the United Kingdom proved exactly the opposite of this instant energy-rush effect. The study showed that a high-sugar and low-caffeine energy drink would promote sleepiness, not energy.”Energy drinks are a misnomer,” reported Lona Sandon, an assistant professor of clinical nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, to HealthDay News. “Sure, they provide energy in the form of calories, usually from some form of a simple sugar, but simple sugars are digested, absorbed, and metabolized very quickly, so the energy they contain doesn’t last long.”Sugar, however, does speed the other ingredients into your system quicker. That’s the point. Let’s have a look at them to see what they do.

  • Sodium citrate. A food additive or preservative, usually added because of its tart flavor. But it’s also alkaline and inhibits blood clotting. Because it’s an effective buffering agent, it may help you utilize other nutrients better. A British study in 2003 also showed that it improved running times. However, in this study, the amount used was 37 grams. Since a Red Bull’s only measurable ingredient is 27 grams of sugar (not counting the water), it’s unlikely that the amount of sodium citrate will add any noticeable velocity to your wing speed.
  • BullTaurine. Originally came from bull bile, which is where Red Bull got its name. Now it’s synthesized, and of all the ingredients in a Red Bull, it’s the least understood. While it’s associated with many benefits—and some dangers—virtually nothing is proven other than it is essential for your cat’s health. In the energy drink world, some studies showing that it could reduce muscle fatigue are the most promising. But studies have concluded that it is not an energy enhancer.
  • Glucuronolactone. A naturally occurring chemical compound produced by glucose metabolism in the liver. Because it was once rumored (now disproved) to be linked with brain tumors during the Vietnam era, it was not a popular ingredient, until Red Bull used it because of its reputation for improving memory retention and concentration. Years later, there is still no conclusive proof, but it’s become a popular ingredient in energy drinks across the board.
  • Caffeine. Now here’s the business. Caffeine is a plant alkaloid found in over 60 species of plants, including guarana, kola nut, maté, tea, and, of course, coffee. Over 19,000 studies have been done on caffeine and most of them have been positive—the truly dangerous conclusions drawn by some studies have yet to be proven. The upside is so well known that there’s no need to go into it. Caffeine is now arguably more popular than ever, and it’s estimated that 90 percent of American adults consume it in some form. But this is nothing new; it’s been used as a stimulant for as long as we’ve been recording history (and perhaps it’s even the cause of us recording history).InsomniaCaffeine is not without its downside. Too much can make you jittery, anxious, unable to sleep, and even paranoid. It increases the production of stomach acid and can lead to an assortment of ailments. It’s also addicting. And those who drink caffeine daily will suffer withdrawal symptoms if they can’t get it. It has a toxic dosage, but it’s so high that death by caffeine is highly unlikely, if not altogether impossible, unless it’s consumed in its pure form. It is worth noting that over a certain amount (the average being around 400 milligrams, or 3 or 4 cups of coffee), caffeine intoxication may occur, which is an unpleasant condition that may include heart palpitations, irritability, anxiousness, and insomnia. We discussed this back in “Nutrition 911, Part XI: Coffee, Tea, and Caffeine” (see the Related Articles section below).

  • Inositol. I’m only going to go into this ingredient enough to show why many ingredients are added to supplements and drinks—only for show. As a supplement, inositol has some promising science behind it, but you would need to drink approximately 350 Red Bulls—enough to kill you from caffeine intoxication—to get the dosage used in the studies. It merely sounds important. Many “teas” and other convenience-store elixirs also tout important-sounding ingredients on the label, but they only contain trace amounts of those ingredients.

We refer to both the amount of ingredients and the cost of such ingredients. Energy drinks are expensive, and given the amount you get of each ingredient, you’d better really like the way they taste. If not, you’re being ripped off.

Let’s start with sugar. First off, sugar is not performance enhancing, so paying extra for it makes little sense. If you want sugar, buy something that tastes good. Many energy drinks are also made with artificial sweeteners, which are exactly the same low-grade additives that you can get in a can of Big K® diet soda for 25 cents.

Caffeine is cheap, as is coffee, and the average cup of coffee has three times more caffeine than the average energy drink. There are whole Web sites set up to help you do the math on this. One such site, Energyfiend.com, lists the milligrams of caffeine per ounce contained in each energy drink. The more commercial brands like Rockstar and Red Bull have far fewer milligrams than some of the more esoteric brands. But nothing beats a good old cup o’ joe, except the 1-ounce caffeine shots.

CoffeeWhile the above-listed ingredients are the flagship ingredients of promotion, they aren’t added in amounts that are effective. If you like the science behind taurine or inositol, you’re better off buying it in bulk and then drinking plain coffee or tea.

While there is little doubt you will gain a burst of energy from these drinks, it’s unlikely to be sustained energy. Furthermore, the type of rush you get will be followed with a crash that will make you crave more. Because these have very little nutritional value, chances are that consuming more than a couple will leave you feeling edgy or downright irritable.

Energy drinks may have a place in your diet, but with proper fueling and regular exercise, you are unlikely to need them regularly. We tend to be low on energy because we make poor food choices, sleep too little, exercise too little, and stress too much. No drug can offset this behavior except during the short term. Energy drinks should be nothing but an emergency solution.

Energy drinks are popularly used as cocktail mixers. Bars commonly promote such concoctions and energy drink companies often sponsor social gatherings. While mixing stimulants and depressants has been common among the partying sect for a long time, that doesn’t make it safe. A 2006 study found a possible link between energy drinks and seizures, and research shows that combining heavy stimulants with heavy depressants could lead to heart failure. Remember that all rock stars don’t make it through their partying years.

Marathon RunnerYour lifestyle has more to do with your energy level than anything else. Energy drinks should be reserved for the occasional pick-me-up or for sports performance. Consistent and intense exercise keeps your hormones working in balance and your body on an even keel. A proper diet with plenty of fiber , protein, vitamins, and good fatty acids that’s supported by plenty of fresh water will give you long-term, sustained energy. Finally, getting ample sleep helps you recover from the stress and breakdown of everyday life. This is your real Pimp Juice if you want to keep your Diesel engine going Full Throttle all day, even if you’ve got to catch a Red Eye.

Next time, we’ll wrap up the beverage portion of class by looking at everyone’s favorite elixir, alcohol.

by Steve Edwards

Sources: Lovett, R. (24 September 2005). “Coffee: The demon drink?”. New Scientist (2518).; Escohotado, A. and Symington, K. (May 1999). A Brief History of Drugs: From the Stone Age to the Stoned Age. Park Street Press. ISBN 0-89281-826-3.; Warskulat, U., et al. (2004). “Taurine transporter knockout depletes muscle taurine levels and results in severe skeletal muscle impairment but leaves cardiac function uncompromised”. FASEB J.: 03-0496fje. DOI:10.1096/fj.03-0496fje.; Oopik, V., et al. 2003; 37: 485-489.; Caffeine-related disorders. Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders. Retrieved on 2006-08-14.; Kamijo Y., et al. (1999 Dec). “Severe rhabdomyolysis following massive ingestion of oolong tea: caffeine intoxication with coexisting hyponatremia”. Veterinary and Human Toxicology 41 (6): 381-3. PMID 10592946.; Kerrigan S. and Lindsey T. (2005). “Fatal caffeine overdose: two case reports”. Forensic Sci Int 153 (1): 67-9.; Chung S.S. and Iyadurai S.J.P. (2006). “New-onset seizures in adults: Possible association with consumption of popular energy drinks”. Department of Neurology, Barrow Neurological Institute, St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center, Phoenix, AZ; Science Direct. Received 28 December 2006; revised 25 January 2007; accepted 26 January 2007; Available online 8 March 2007.


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