Energy Drinks: Not A Good Way to Get the Energy You Seek

Posted in: Nutrition

Energy Drinks: What Are They?

“Energy Drinks” (ED) have seen increasing popularity, particularly among teens and young adults.  It has been noted that caffeine-containing drinks are now consumed regularly by children, with some marketed to attract children as young as 4 years of age.[1]  Sales in the United States now exceed $5 billion annually, and the sales continue to increase.[2]

Top-selling energy drinks

ED should not be confused with common sports beverages, as ED are much more concentrated in both caffeine and sugar.  A typical sports beverage has a carbohydrate (sugar) concentration in the range of 5 to 8% and rarely contains caffeine, but ED often contain 10 to 20% sugar concentrations with caffeine levels that are 3 to 9 times higher (80-500 mg per 8 ounces) than the caffeine found in high caffeine sodas (23-30 mg per 8 ounces).   Current FDA regulations limit the caffeine concentration in cola-type sodas to approximately 48 mg/ 8 ounces, but this rule is not applied to ED, as a similar serving size of one ED may contain 285 mg caffeine. It is important to consider that, for adults with no heart or liver disease, 500 mg of caffeine per day is generally considered the safe upper limit daily dose, but that this amount can easily be exceeded with just two 8-ounce servings of some ED.[3]

The sugar/calorie difference between a typical sports beverage and an ED is substantial. For instance, typical Gatorade® delivers 63 calories per 8 ounces, while the 25 to 50 grams of sugar in energy drinks deliver between 100 to 200 calories per 8 ounces. ED also often contain other substances, including taurine and quercetin, which are advertised as enhancing ‘energy levels’.  Taurine is made from two amino acids, methionine and cysteine, and is derived mainly from animal foods.  It affects heart contraction, antioxidant activity, and insulin.  Quercetin is a polyphenol (flavenol) with antioxidant properties that may function as an anti-inflammatory agent.  However, there is no evidence that, in the amounts provided in ED, there is an acute benefit for either taurine or quercetin on performance or fatigue reduction.

Are Energy Drinks Dangerous?

In a recent review, it has been found that ED consumption is potentially harmful because of increased blood pressure in adolescents, and carries various risks for pregnant women.[4] A recent article in The American Journal of Cardiology found that “…physicians should routinely inquire about ED consumption…, and vulnerable consumers such as youth should be advised that caution is warranted with heavy consumption and/or with concomitant alcohol or drug ingestion.”[5] A recent study of 10-12 year old children found that there were greater physical complaints, including headaches, stomach aches, sleeping problems, and low appetite, among children consuming ED than those consuming cola drinks.[6]

According to Reissig et al. (2009) there are increasing reports of caffeine intoxication from ED, with a likely increase in problems with caffeine dependence and withdrawal.[7] They found that children and adolescents who don’t commonly consume caffeine are vulnerable to caffeine intoxication. Healthy people who drank energy drinks high in caffeine and taurine experienced significantly increased heart contraction rates one hour later, raising concerns that ED may be bad for the heart, particularly for people who already have heart disease.[8] This same report found that, from 2007 to 2011, the number of emergency room visits related to ED nearly doubled in the United States, rising from slightly more than 10,000 to nearly 21,000.  Among college students it was found that ED consumption is closely associated with problem behavior syndrome, and that ED consumption may serve as a useful screening indicator to identify students at risk for substance use or other health-compromising behaviors.[9]

“Energy Drink” Recommendations

“Energy drinks have no therapeutic benefit, and many ingredients are understudied and not regulated.”[10]  It is well established that both carbohydrate (sugar) and caffeine have potentially performance enhancing effects when consumed at the right times and in the right amounts.  The scientifically based recommendations for both carbohydrate and caffeine are, however, far below the amounts provided by most ED.  In addition, many of the substances, including taurine and quercetin, added to ED and advertised as having performance enhancing benefits have not been found in studies to have any benefits, and there are no safety studies indicating that they are safe to consume at the levels typically provided in ED. Recent data on children consuming ED are of particular concern, suggesting that they should not consume them.  If they do, it should only be with parental approval and with careful consideration of the amount of carbohydrate, caffeine, and other substances they will be ingesting to consider potentially negative short-term and long-term side effects, including higher obesity risk.  Even in adults, more than a single daily serving of an ED may have harmful effects, and ED should never be consumed in conjunction with alcohol.  People with diabetes, heart disease, liver disease, or neurological disease may be at even higher health risk if consuming ED, particularly if they are on medications that can be influenced by the high sugar and caffeine content of ED.

As with most “supplements”, ED are intended to fill a gap produced by poor sleeping and eating behaviors.  However, studies suggest that the problems created with ED consumption are sufficiently profound that they should not be consumed for this purpose. Ideally, people should find ways to eat small frequent meals that consist mainly of fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and should sleep 7 to 8 hours each night.  Following this strategy would be better in every measurable way, including improved body composition, enhanced athletic performance, greater fatigue resistance, better behavior, improved attention span, and lower health risks.  “Energy Drinks” are not a good way to get the energy you seek.

[1] Temple, J. Caffeine use in children: What we know, what we have left to learn, and why we should worry. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 2009; 33: 793–806.

[2] Williams, M., Anderson, D., & Rawson, E. “Nutrition for Health, Fitness & Sport”, 10th edition © 2012, Page 582.

[3] Sepkowitz K.A. Energy drinks and caffeine-related adverse effects. Viewpoint: Jounal of the American Medical Association 2012. Published online. Accessed 01/12/14 at 9:45am.

[4] Arria, M., and O’Brien, M. The “high” risk of energy drinks. Journal of the American Medical Association. JAMA Published online January 25, 2011(doi:10.1001/jama.2011.109)

[5] Goldfarb, M., Tellier C., and Thanassoulis G. Review of published cases of adverse cardiovascular events after ingestion of energy drinks. The American Journal of Cardiology 2014; 113(1): 168-172.

[6] Kristiansson A.L., Sigfusdottir, I.D., Mann, M.J., and James J.E. Caffeinated sugar-sweetened beverages and common physical complaints in Icelandic children aged 10-12 years. Preventive Medicine 2014; 58: 40-44.

[7] Reissig C.J., Strain, E.C., and Griffiths R.R. Caffeinated energy drinks – - A growing problem. Drug Alcohol Dependency 2009; 99(1-3): 1-10.

[8] Medline Plus. Energy drinks affect heart, MRI scans show. U.S. National Library of Medicine-NIH National Institutes of Health Accessed 1/12/14: 9:27am.

[9] Miller K.E. Energy drinks, race, and problem behaviors among college students. Journal of Adolescent Health 2008; 43(5): 490-497.

[10] Seifert, S.M., Schaechter, J.L., Hershorin, E.R., and Lipshultz, S.E. Health effects of energy drinks on children, adolescents, and young adults. Pediatrics 2011; 127(3): 511-528.

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