The soft drink industry created energy drinks to provide quick energy replacement for consumers eager to invigorate themselves with a boost for their busy, active lives.
Millions of people reach for energy drinks every day as a pick-me-up to enable their fast paced, sleep deprived lifestyles.
No well-designed scientific research demonstrates benefits to consuming energy drinks. In fact, there are significant warnings regarding their use.
However, some of the individual ingredients have been well studied and determined to be beneficial.
This article contains details about the wide variety of energy drinks available, specific information on common ingredients they contain, and ways to use them for your benefit. It will also highlight potential negative effects to be aware of.
What are energy drinks?
Energy drinks are designed to provide the physical energy you need during strenuous activity and to increase your ability to focus or maintain alertness.
These drinks contain some combination of caffeine, amino acids, vitamins, herbal supplements, and sugar, although diet or sugar-free varieties can be found.
While coffee, tea, and many soft drinks contain caffeine, they are not considered energy drinks because they lack amino acids or herbal components. Sports drinks are different because they are primarily providing electrolytes and energy from carbohydrates.
Bottom Line: Energy drinks are designed to provide physical and mental energy when you need it.
What ingredients do energy drinks contain?
The following is a list of ingredients commonly found in energy drinks. Not every drink contains all of these. Some drinks do not disclose everything they contain. Instead they list a “proprietary blend” of ingredients.
Sugar – sweetener to enhance the flavor of the drink; see below for the drawbacks to consuming sugar
Taurine – an amino acid that promotes muscle activity during exercise, encourages fat burning, and helps maintain proper hydration
Carnitine – an amino acid important for energy production, and healthy muscle, heart, and brain function
Green tea extract – extract from green tea leaves, a good source of antioxidants providing a small amount of caffeine
Green coffee extract – extract from unroasted coffee beans, providing an additional source of caffeine
Inositol – a molecule with beneficial effects on brain function and serum cholesterol that can contribute to weight loss and improve blood sugar
Glucuronolactone – a molecule produced by our body in small amounts that may help eliminate carcinogens, with only limited research available
Ginseng – an herb that improves blood sugar and combats fatigue
Garcinia Cambogia – an unreliable fat burning and weight loss supplement
Yohimbine – an herbal supplement aiding in fat loss, particularly for physically active men
B vitamins – used in our cells mostly for energy production. The B vitamins are as follows:
Caffeine – a stimulant responsible for most of the energy effects from these drinks; safe to consume up to 200 mg per drink and 400 mg per day
Guarana – extract from a South American plant whose active ingredient is caffeine
Bottom Line: Energy drinks contain caffeine, the main ingredient responsible for their energizing effects. Read labels to know what you are consuming and how the ingredient might impact you.
How can energy drink labels be confusing?
Energy drinks can contain one to three servings per can, which can create confusion for the consumer who is trying to drink only one serving at a time.
Caffeine per serving can range from 80 mg to over 200 mg, which also can be confusing. To find the amount of caffeine you are consuming, multiply the number of servings you are drinking by the amount of caffeine in a serving. Remember, it is generally regarded as safe to consume between 200 to 400 mg of caffeine per day.
The American Heart Association recommends daily sugar intake to be less than 37.5 grams for men and 25 grams for women. One serving of most energy drinks contains 27 grams of sugar and a whole can of some varieties contains a whopping 81 grams. Clearly, most energy drinks contain far too much sugar.
Bottom line: Carefully read the label of any energy drink and understand what ingredients you are consuming, especially how much caffeine and sugar.
What are benefits to energy drinks? When is the best time to consume energy drinks?
Some people experience significant effects from caffeine in their bodies. These problems can include rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, anxiety, shaking, irritability, upset stomach, migraines, and insomnia.
People with frail health or preexisting heart or neurologic conditions should not consume large quantities of caffeine. People with known sensitivity to caffeine should not consume energy drinks.
Diabetics and people trying to lose weight should avoid consuming any drinks sweetened with sugar.
There have been reports of deaths related to the overconsumption or misuse of energy drinks.
Bottom Line: Know the safe levels of caffeine you can consume per day. Know your own personal response to caffeine and don’t overdo it.
What are benefits to energy drinks? When is the best time to consume energy drinks?
When you exercise, your muscles use glycogen, a stored form of carbohydrate energy. Caffeine, when ingested with carbs, can help replace glycogen rapidly after exercise.
Many times, strenuous physical exertion can result in soreness for days. Caffeine can reduce muscle pain after a workout.
Strenuous mental and physical activity naturally results in fatigue. Adenosine receptors in our body are responsible for this fatigue. Caffeine binds to these receptors, which helps minimize the feeling of fatigue.
Caffeine can increase your stamina during exercise. It has also been shown to help prevent weight gain.
Taurine and yohimbine both promote fat loss. Combining these with caffeine and regular exercise can result in long-term healthy weight maintenance.
When you experience mental sluggishness, caffeine can help. Just one energy drink can stimulate mental activation and increase your concentration. It can also improve your mood. This can positively influence making good decisions in an important meeting or executing a challenging workout.
Most beneficial effects of energy drinks last for less than an hour. If you are using one to improve your workout ability, drink it 15-20 minutes prior to your workout.
Bottom line: Energy drinks can help you with all aspects of your exercise routine. They also benefit mental concentration and improve mood.
What are the drawbacks to sugar in energy drinks?
Many energy drinks are sweetened with some form of corn syrup. Corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup are at least 50% fructose. Of all the sugars available in our diet, fructose is the one that humans cannot use for energy and is the most damaging to our health.
In fact, our bodies do not need fructose. Our bodies turn it into fat and store it as belly fat, let in reside in our blood as triglycerides, or store it in our liver causing fatty liver and damage to our liver cells. Fructose also causes uric acid to build up in our blood and our cells, leading to a higher risk of gout.
Our muscles run on glycogen, the energy form of glucose, which is stored in our liver and muscles. All carbohydrates that we digest can be use to make glycogen, except fructose; fructose cannot be used for energy. So any food or drink sweetened with sugar is useless to humans for nutrition or energy.
Bottom Line: Avoid energy drinks containing sugar. If fact, bypass any drink or food that contains sugar.
What are alternatives to energy drinks that can produce similar positive effects?
Here are several alternatives to energy drinks. These suggestions assume no sugar is added.
Coffee – wide range of caffeine content depending on the concentration of the drink; excellent source of antioxidants; natural source of some B vitamins
Tea – lower range of caffeine content; excellent source of antioxidants; good source of vitamin C and A; contains theanine, which helps with wakeful relaxation
Water – always an excellent source of hydration
Whey Protein – available in a variety of flavored powders to add to water; usually contain 10-20 grams of protein per scoop, providing additional protein essential for muscle growth and development
Bottom Line: There are several ways to gain the hydration, energy, vitamins and protein essential for your activities.
There are important benefits and uses for energy drinks. They can help fight fatigue, keep you alert, prove profitable in making quick decisions, and energize you for strenuous activity or exercise.
Know your own body’s response to caffeine and never consume too much.
While energy drinks have been shown to be effective aids for exercise and athletic performance, avoid drinks sweetened with sugar. Instead opt for sugar-free energy drinks and get the healthy carbohydrates you need for nutrition from other dietary sources.