Fuel to the Fire

By Karen Asp
Posted On Aug 05, 2014

BY Karen Asp

PHOTOGRAPHS BY Think Stock

It’s 3 p.m., and your energy is flagging. You need a pick-me-up, quick. Your solution? An energy drink. You’re hardly the only one. Between 2006 and 2012, the number of adults in the United States drinking these boosted beverages rose from 12.7 to 17 percent. Although individuals between the ages of 18 and 34 are the biggest users, more and more underage consumers are jumping on the bandwagon.

Of the 73 percent of children (age 22 and under) who ingest caffeine, six percent consume energy drinks, according to a study in The Journal of Pediatrics, which evaluated consumption of these products between 1999 and 2010. This growth has led to big business for manufacturers. In 2012, total US sales for these products totaled more than $12.5 billion—a leap of approximately 60 percent since 2008 (according to Packaged Facts, a consumer market research company). By 2017, sales are expected to hit $21.5 billion.

But wait: Should our kids really have access to these drinks? Should we, ourselves, be putting them in our bodies?

Energy Drinks Vs. Coffee

Such drinks can rightfully claim that they bolster energy. Their main ingredient, caffeine, is everyone’s trustiest nervous system stimulant. According to Kathleen Miller, Ph.D., of the Research Institute on Addictions at the University of Buffalo, most energy drinks contain approximately 10 milligrams per ounce. Meanwhile, a bevy of ingredients set energy drinks apart from coffee and tea. Common components include guarana—a plant that naturally contains caffeine—as well as ginseng extract. Ginseng is promoted to improve cognitive function, although University of Georgia’s Kelly Pritchett, Ph.D.—a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics—challenges the reliability of these claims.

Bitter orange—which contains a stimulant called synephrine, known to increase blood pressure and heart rate—is often used. Another frequent ingredient is taurine, an amino acid that’s been said to improve athletic performance. However, energy drinks containing taurine and caffeine have been connected with deaths of athletes in Europe, according to a study in the Journal of the American Pharmacists Association. And sugar is found in nearly all the top energy beverages. “Some energy drinks contain more sugar than a can of soda,” says Dr. Pritchett.

Vitamins are regularly part of energy drink recipes, although David Hammond, Ph.D.—a professor at the University of Waterloo—points out that they’re often added in excessive amounts. His research shows that some drinks have an average of 450 percent of the daily value (DV) for vitamin B6 and more than 1,200 percent of the recommended daily vitamin B12. Exceeding vitamin intake guidelines is not recommended, insists Dr. Pritchett. When a vitamin like B6 is taken in huge quantities, the consumer risks toxicity, which could cause numbness, fatigue, irritability, depression, and nervous system impairment.

The Energy Drink Impact

The aforementioned ingredients are present in smaller quantities than caffeine, though some are sources of caffeine, themselves, which boosts total caffeine content. Because of these unpredictable caffeine levels, one risks consuming caffeine in excess. Miller points out that up to 400 mg of caffeine (about four cups of coffee) per day appears to be safe for most healthy adults, the daily consumption of 500 mg or more can cause caffeine intoxication, with symptoms including irregular heartbeat, vomiting, and convulsions.

Many countries ban energy drink consumption by children. “Caffeine and other stimulant substances contained in energy drinks have no place in the diets of children and adolescents,” reads the website of the American Academy of Pediatrics (aapcc.org). The organization recommends that children avoid caffeine altogether and adolescents limit caffeine to no more than 100 mg a day, citing effects on children’s developing neurologic and cardiovascular systems and the potential for physical dependence and addiction.

Meanwhile, manufacturers declare these products safe with little to no proof. “These ingredients haven’t been tested in the context of an energy drink where there’s not only caffeine but sugar,” says Michael F. Jacobson, Ph.D. of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). Jacobson notes that the American population consumes sugar in excess, which appears to be driving up rates of obesity and chronic health conditions such as heart disease, metabolic syndrome, and diabetes.

Gone to Market

Expert concern extends beyond the contents of energy drinks, to marketing. “Energy drink manufacturers are encouraging individuals—especially teens and young adults—to live life on the edge by drinking large quantities of these products in short amounts of time,” Miller says. Many people are also mixing these products with alcohol—a potentially lethal combo.

Alcohol, by itself, makes a person slower, less perceptive, and sleepy. If you drink enough, you pass out. “When you add caffeine, you’re not as slow, you’re nowhere near as sleepy but you’re just as stupid,” Miller says. “You don’t realize it though, and because you have the energy you keep drinking.” According to a study in the Journal of Adolescent Health, when college students mixed energy drinks with alcohol, they drank more heavily and became more intoxicated. Risky behaviors like drunk driving and side effects such as dehydration and alcohol poisoning have long been tied to severe intoxication. (Jayde Dinsdale, an 18-year-old from the United Kingdom, suffered three heart attacks after downing ten Jägerbombs—a cocktail that mixes the liquor Jägermeister with energy drinks. The cause? Excessive caffeine consumption.)

Hard-partying young people aren’t the only ones overdoing energy drinks. Fitness buffs and athletes often lump energy drinks together with sports drinks. They are, after all, often promoted at sporting events. Be clear: There are big differences. Sports drinks contain carbohydrates and electrolytes such as potassium and sodium. “Sports drinks can help individuals who are exercising replace water and electrolytes lost through sweat for at least an hour,” Pritchett says. However, when energy drinks are paired with athletics, the mixture can be fatal. “Anything with high doses of caffeine dehydrates the body and constricts blood vessels and blood flow to the heart,” Miller says, adding that consumption of energy drinks close to physical activity has been linked to athletes’ deaths. Reports of young people dropping dead in the middle of dance floors after consuming energy drinks abound. The lawyer for Brooklyn basketball player Cory Terry has filed an $85 million lawsuit against Red Bull. The death of Ross Cooney, another 18-year-old basketball player who also drank Red Bull, has spurred an investigation into the drinks in his native Ireland.

Sip or Skip?

The choice to kick back an energy drink is a personal decision. They are legal, after all. That said, Miller suggests avoiding them altogether if you have heart issue, are pregnant or nursing, or are caffeine sensitive. Meanwhile, there are better ways to increase energy. Sleep more. Stay hydrates. Eat a healthy diet. According to Pritchett, if you feel the need for energy, your body may simply need carbohydrates. Try eating a carbohydrate-rich snack such as string cheese with fruit or some peanut butter on toast. If that doesn’t cut it, go for coffee. “At least you know what you’re getting,” she says.

If you absolutely love your energy drinks and are otherwise healthy, Hammond says that one a day is not necessarily all that bad. “Just educate yourself about what you’re drinking, as not all energy drinks are created equally.”

Read labels to note serving size, ingredients, and—when possible—caffeine content, says Lisa Johnson. She is the general manager of dietary supplements and sport nutrition for NSF International, a public health organization that tests and certifies numerous products, including energy drinks. Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s recommended serving size and don’t consume multiple servings in one sitting. Miller adds that its imperative not to mix these products with alcohol, or take them close to physical exertion. For extra assurance, Johnson suggests checking if the product has been certified by a third-party testing organization.

From that point on, you simply have to pay attention to your body. If you notice symptoms such as irregular or rapid heartbeat, dizziness, or nausea, don’t ignore them. They could be signs of caffeine intoxication. Remember, these are red flags from your body. They don’t appear to deprive you of pleasure; they are guides to help you make healthier choices.

The Caffeine Count

Product: Caffeine content, mg

Coca-Cola (12 oz): 34
Diet Pepsi (12 oz): 35
Pepsi (12 oz): 38
Diet Coke (12 oz): 47
Mountain Dew (12 oz): 54
Black tea, brewed (8 oz): 55
Espresso shot (1 oz): 64
Amp (8 oz): 71
Red Bull Energy Shot: 80
Rockstar (8 oz): 80
Coffee, brewed (8 oz): 95
Monster Energy (16 oz): 160
Full Throttle (16 oz): 200
5-Hour Energy: 200