By Kate Sweeney, M.S., B.S.
Ever since Red Bull appeared on store shelves in 1997, the popularity of energy drinks has soared. In 2006, the industry made more than $3.2 billion. Sales are expected to reach $20 billion in 2013. Along with this success comes the growing concern that these products may be harmful to consumers.
In November 2012, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a report showing that 13 deaths may be connected to use of Monster Energy and 5-Hour Energy. While the report does not mean these products directly caused the deaths, it does bring attention to their ingredients, safety and regulation.
Caffeine is the most common ingredient in energy drinks. It stimulates the nervous system and can boost energy and alertness. Most adults can tolerate 200 milligrams a day, although it affects people differently. Some can sip coffee all day, while others are jittery after one cup.
Certain groups, like pregnant women, should limit caffeine. Children and people with heart disease or panic disorders should avoid it. More than 200 milligrams of caffeine can cause insomnia, nervousness, headache, heart palpitations and nausea.
Sugar is usually in the form of sucrose or high-fructose corn syrup. A 16-ounce can of Monster has 54 grams of sugar. This is just over 1/4 cup of sugar. Consuming too much sugar over a long period of time is associated with insulin resistance, diabetes and obesity.
L-carnitine and taurine are amino acids. L-carnitine is made in the liver and kidneys and increases metabolism. Taurine occurs naturally in the body and comes from eating meat.
B-vitamins such as B12, B6 and niacin are water-soluble vitamins needed for proper cell functioning.
Guarana and ginseng are plant extracts. Guarana is found in the Amazon. It has more caffeine than any other plant in the world. Ginseng is grown in Asia. A 2010 study showed too much ginseng can cause hypotension (low blood pressure), edema (swelling), headache, vertigo, fever and heart palpitations.
Researchers are studying the potential medical problems associated with caffeine in energy drinks.
Some products have more than 200 milligrams in a serving. Caffeine intake can add up if someone gets more than one serving a day. Below is a comparison of the caffeine in several products.
Sources: Consumer Reports and www.energyfiend.com
It can be difficult to determine how much caffeine is in a product. In their December 2012 issue, Consumer Reports found that 11 of 27 drinks did not list caffeine content. And 5 of the 16 drinks tested for caffeine content had, on average, 20% more caffeine than their labels said. Consumers want the FDA to set a limit to the amount of caffeine allowed and to require manufacturers to list the amount on their labels.
The FDA considers energy drinks "dietary supplements," not food. This means that:
Current regulations leave consumers exposed to potentially harmful products.
Energy drinks have not been proven safe. And they are not recommended as part of a healthful diet. Here are some ways to increase you energy and alertness:
Ballard, S., Wellborn-Kim, J., and Clarkson, K. 2010. Effects of commercial energy drink consumption on athletic performance and body composition. Phys Sportsmed. 38(1):107-117.
Higgins, J., Tuttle, T., and Higgins, C. "Energy beverages: Content and safety." Mayo Clinic Proceedings. 2010; 85(11):1033-1041.
International Food Information Council. "Caffeine & Health: Clarifying the controversy." April 16, 2008. Available at www.foodinsight.org/Content/3147/Caffeine_v8-2.pdf.
Malinauskas, B., Aeby, V., Overton, R., Carpenter-Aeby, T., and Barber-Heidal, K. "A survey of energy drink patterns among college students." Nutrition Journal. 2007; 6:35.
Kate Sweeney received her Masters in Nutrition Communication from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy and her B.S. in biology from Tufts University. She is currently a dietetic intern at Brigham and Women's Hospital.