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The Dope on Energy Drinks

Posted Oct 01 2008 4:10pm

The Name Says it All

It’s impossible to walk through a bar, college campus, city park, gym(!), or even company break room without spying one. You know, those gi-normous cans with the graphics so obnoxious (e.g. lightning bolts, claw marks, neon slashes and splatters) they leave your eyes bloodshot. (Can you tell we’re in the mood for a rant?)

It used to be if you were tired you grabbed a morning/afternoon cup of joe. Nothing fancy. It was simple, “old school” (if you will), and mercifully cheap. (Relatively bland and weak by today’s standards, but did most of us know any different back then?) Then came the Starbucks/Seattle revolution, and suddenly coffee - and all manner of coffee related drinks - were practically an official American accessory. Seemingly more omnipresent (or at least obviously visible). More potent. Decked out. Pricier to be sure. Not only did the cost and flair go up with this new wave, the caffeine and sugar content of our coffee did as well. (Ever wonder what’s in that special syrup that makes a mochachino a mochachino?)

If we weren’t all sufficiently caffeinated before, it now seems that marketers (and a certain portion of the American public) aren’t content until consumers among all generations are madly spinning in clouds of dust and unintelligible snarls like that Tasmanian devil figure. We’re talking the “monster” market (Sorry - we couldn’t resist) of energy drinks: more caffeine, more sugar, more stimulants. The “energy” drink industry is growing at an enormous rate of 55% each year and accounts for $5.6 billion dollars in annual revenue.

And with this skyrocketing popularity comes a new warning. Researchers from Johns Hopkins are calling for more complete labeling of these energy drinks. The scientists, who have studied caffeine’s physiological impact, report that the caffeine content in these drinks range from 50-500 milligrams of caffeine. (For perspective, the typical cup of coffee weighs in at about 100 milligrams.) The more “loaded” drinks in particular, the researchers warn, mean a significant risk for “caffeine intoxication, dependence, and withdrawal.” Consumers of these drinks, many of whom may be genetically sensitive to caffeine, generally don’t have the benefit of knowing much about the products either. The drinks, it turns out, aren’t required to print their caffeine content because of their “dietary supplement” status.

With names like Rockstar, No Fear, Amp, Adrenaline Rush, and Full Throttle, the energy drink marketers clearly equate guzzling their product with living on the edge. (The edge of sanity perhaps? Edge of physical collapse? ) As the researchers note (and the rest of us clearly see), the ads for energy drinks especially target younger men and women. Teenagers are, in fact, an enormous part of their market, and they may be the most “vulnerable” group according the researchers. The scientists, for their part, note the “psychoactive, performance-enhancing and stimulant drug effects of these drugs.” Nearly 30% of energy drink users interviewed say they have “‘weekly jolt and crash episodes’” and nearly 20% said they experienced heart palpitations when drinking these products. Judging by sales, however, it seems they’re drawn to the flame nonetheless. As for parents of minor age consumers, they likely don’t know the potency of these products or the physical impact caffeine intake of this caliber can have on adolescents.

The energy drink promotions aren’t the first, of course, to dare people to prove how poorly they can take care of their bodies. It’s a common and oddly tempting taunt (perhaps especially for the younger set): the challenge to inflict physiological shock in the name of bravado. And many of these companies throw in the ridiculous promise of nutrient “boosts” such as B-vitamins. (Gee, the drink itself will cause so much stress to your body, you’ll definitely need it and then some!) Additionally, the added stimulants in many energy drinks (e.g. ginseng, guarana seed extract) together with the caffeine stimulate both the cardiac and nervous systems, which has resulted in seizures in some consumers of the drinks.

Add to all of this the punch of sugar in many of the drinks - more than 80 milligrams per insidious serving, and we think you’ve set yourself up for a real crash and burn scenario. Sugar shock alone puts the body into rapid response frenzy as we described in the “ What Happens to Your Body When You…Carb Binge? ” post. (We’ve got a raging headache just thinking about it.) Sure, some of the drinks are now offered in “sugar free” versions, but you’re just exchanging sugar for a hefty dose of chemical sugar substitutes - wholly unnecessary and harmful to those with sensitivities.

Our final word on these siren song beverages? Big hype, huge hazard. “Unleash the beast,” one product calls. Sounds primal and all, but no thanks.

Comments, rants, disputes, questions, or stories about energy drinks? We want to hear them!

TIO…, ghostbusterfamous, _Gerardhino_ Flickr Photos (CC)
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