Nutrition & Diet
How Safe are Energy Drinks?
Energy drinks are what the beverage industry call a “functional drink.” These are drinks that are designed to beneficially affect one or more target functions in the body (like increasing energy, for example) beyond what is achieved by a normal diet.
Although there are no regulations actually defining functional drinks, they typically contain the following types of beverages:
- Sports Drinks such as Gatorade, Powerade, or All Sport. Sports drinks are “hydration boosters” designed to prevent dehydration as well as supply the body with electrolytes and carbohydrates that are lost during hard work or exercise. They do not usually contain caffeine since caffeine’s diuretic properties run counter to the sport drinks’ goal of improving hydration.
- Nutraceutical Drinks. These include any beverages that are designed to promote and enhance health through the addition of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, or extracts from teas, herbs, fruits, or vegetables. Examples include evoLv, vitaminwater, and Acai Immune Booster. Nutraceuticals do not normally contain caffeine as an added ingredient although many herb and tea extracts contain various amounts of caffeine naturally.
- Energy Drinks. These are beverages designed to increase “energy” and contain various levels of caffeine in combination with other “energy-enhancing” ingredients such as herbal extracts, taurine, and B vitamins, among others. I’ve placed the word “energy” in quotes to denote the fact that in the context that we’re using it, “energy” is not a single physical attribute but a number of characteristics including alertness, clarity, physical endurance, drive, and so on.
There are other types of functional beverages but these three make up the lion’s share of the category with energy drinks dominating the other two. Globally, energy drinks compose more than 47% of the overall market share for functional beverages. In the US, the percentage is even higher at close to 63%.
Whether you think these potential risks are valid or not, please pay particular attention to the following points:
1. It’s difficult to determine the actual amount of caffeine in a drink. Although manufacturers are required to list ingredients on the label, they are not required to list actual quantities or concentrations. Yes, you can get an idea of relative amounts by the order the ingredients are listed in but this not the same as knowing exactly how much of each ingredient is present. This makes it difficult to determine exactly how much caffeine is actually in the drink. Also, pay attention to the serving size. Many drinks list the amount of caffeine on a “per serving” basis while the can or bottle contains more than one serving.
2. Despite the research, no one knows for sure. Although caffeine is one of the most studied and researched chemicals in the list of energy drink ingredients, the others are not. Very little is known about some of the individual ingredients and even less is known about what, if anything, changes when they’re combined in various proportions.
3. No upper limit on caffeine. In the US, there is no upper limit on how much caffeine can be in an energy drink so you can be getting more caffeine than you think, especially when you take into account the caffeine that’s naturally part of some of the other ingredients (such as guaranine or guaranine seed extract). Interestingly, the FDA does place an upper limit on the amount of caffeine that goes into cola’s. Go figure.
4. Confusion with Sports Drinks. Energy drinks are often sold next to, or in relation with, sports drinks making many consumers think that they are both similar products. They are definitely not the same. As already pointed out, energy drinks should not be taken when exercising or performing physical labor due to their dehydration effects.
5. Effects on the heart. Energy drinks do increase your heart rate and your blood pressure. Yes, so does coffee but coffee doesn’t contain the same ingredients designed to boost and sustain the energy so it’s not a valid comparison. The increase in heart rate and blood pressure is probably not a big deal for healthy individuals (check with your doctor if you have doubts) but it should be obvious that energy drinks should not be consumed by people with hypertension or by women who are pregnant.