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.
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.
So 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.
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.
While 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.
Your 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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