Energy drinks have quickly become a multi-billion dollar industry with no sign of slowing down. Whereas teens and young adults make up the largest group gulping these caffeine-laden drinks, consumers from all demographics have taken to them for a short-term energy increase. While it’s a fact you don’t need to be a biochemist to concoct one of these energy-boosters, it’s unfortunate that regulations for this industry remain, for the most part, largely unchecked.
In a recent study published by Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the amount of energy drink related emergency room visits has doubled from 10,068 to 20,783 over a four-year period, the highest majority of patients being between 18 and 25, followed by adults aged 26 to 39.
The reason for the sharp increase in ER visits has a lot to do with the ingredients. Dr. Jonas Dörner of the University of Bonn, Germany explains, “usually energy drinks contain taurine and caffeine as their main pharmacological ingredients. The amount of caffeine is up to three times higher than in other caffeinated beverages like coffee or cola. Until now, we haven’t known exactly what effect these energy drinks have on the function of the heart,” but, he adds, doctors now know the side effects can include a rise in blood pressure, palpitations, rapid heart rate and even seizures or death.
Taurine, which is a common ingredient in most energy drinks, is a naturally occurring sulfonic acid that is a major constituent of bile found in the lower intestines and, in smaller amounts, in tissue of animals and humans. It is also found naturally in foods such as meat and seafood. Although it is often referred to as an amino acid, taruine is not an amino acid because it lacks a carboxyl group, however, it is still widely promoted as an amino acid with the ability to enhance athletic performance. However, there is little research to show that taurine enhances sports performance.
Popular energy drinks like Monster, Red Bull and Rock Star contain legal stimulants such as ginseng and guarana — a plant that has one of the highest natural caffeine concentrations of any plant, varying 3.6 percent to 5.8 percent caffeine by weight (coffee has a maximum of 2 percent) — as well as extremely high levels of caffeine (a psychoactive stimulant), which is a bitter, white crystalline xanthine alkaloid found in varying quantities in the leaves, beans and fruit of select plants where the caffeine acts as a natural pesticide to kill insects feeding on the plant.
How much caffeine?
One major difference in these energy drinks, aside from flavor, is the amount of stimulants. While some energy drinks contain 75 milligrams of caffeine per serving, others contain over 200 milligrams per serving. For comparison, Mountain Dew contains 55 milligrams of caffeine and Coke, 34 milligrams. Roland Griffiths, PhD, a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore explains, “many of these drinks do not label the caffeine content and some energy drinks contain as much caffeine as found in 14 cans of soda.”
What about non-caffeine energy drinks?
There are some energy drinks that advertise themselves as non-caffeine. In these cases, the energy comes from guarana, the naturally highly caffeine concentrated plant, which of course, is still the equivalent of caffeine. What about energy drinks that advertise themselves as no-crash? This no-crash effect has nothing to do with caffeine, but instead, is based on a no-sugar-crash due to their use of artificial sweeteners.
Mixing energy drinks with alcohol
Energy drinks are a known stimulant, while alcohol is a known depressant. When combined, the stimulant effects tend to mask your level of intoxication, which prevents you from understanding how intoxicated you may be. Ordinarily, most people start to feel fatigue when they’ve had too much alcohol, but energy drinks prohibit this fatigue phase, leaving you with the impression you’re not impaired.
Regardless of how alert you may feel, your blood alcohol concentration will be the same as if you’d mixed your alcohol without the energy drinks. This level of alertness can leave you with the feeling that you’re fine to cross a busy road or drive an automobile. People who combine energy drinks and alcohol tend to drink more, which results in having a higher level of blood alcohol than those who choose an alternative mix for their alcohol.
What about pre-mixed energy drinks?
Energy drink labels such as Joose and Four Loko, for example, contain extremely high levels of alcohol. A 23.5 ounce can of Joose contains 10 percent alcohol, while the same sized can of Four Loko pre-mixed energy drink contains 12 percent alcohol. That is the equivalent to drinking at least four beers, given that a standard 12-ounce glass of beer contains between 4 and 6 percent alcohol. The Four Loko pre-mixed drink also contains 135 milligrams of caffeine per 23.5-ounce can, while the same sized can of Joose has 54 milligrams of caffeine.
Are energy drinks safe?
Although every person responds to caffeine differently, care should still be taken when using energy drinks as the level of stimulant properties can react unfavorably. It’s important to note that energy drinks should never be consumed while exercising or used in place of water to rehydrate. The diuretic quality of caffeine can have the opposite effect, leaving you severely dehydrated. When used occasionally, energy drinks are not necessarily considered ‘bad’, but they should not be used as ‘natural alternatives’ to improved energy. Mayo Clinic’s Katherine Zeratsky, R.D., L.D. suggests people wanting to occasionally use energy drinks limit themselves to about 16 ounces (500 milliliters) a day.
The effects of energy drinks are generally short-term boosts, however, researchers acknowledge that further studies are needed to evaluate the long-term effects of energy drink consumption and people with heart disease. Until then, it is recommended that children and adults with cardiac arrhythmias not consume energy drinks as the ingredients could instigate arrhythmias (an irregular heartbeat).