Energy Products: Energy for Sale (cont.)

To determine whether an energy bar, gel, or ice is right for you, consider your body's needs. Are you physically active? Sedentary? Next, compare the nutrient labels of different products. Pay attention to the amount of calories, protein, carbohydrates, fiber, fats, vitamins, and minerals.

Sports, Fortified, and Energy Drinks

The thirst for energy has opened up an extensive market for various potions. Sports drinks, energy cocktails, and fortified liquids are among the plethora of choices available for the drained and dehydrated.

Sports drinks such as Gatorade and Powerade are often no better than water, say experts, but they may make it easier for some people to get enough fluids in their system. They come in a variety of flavors and colors.

"If a sports drink will get someone to drink a little bit more than they would have if they were just going to drink water, then it's probably a good choice for them," says Moore, noting the importance of keeping hydrated. Sports drinks usually contain water, which is essential for energy production and proper functioning of the body. Hydration needs vary, depending on the individual, activity level, and the environment.

The caveat with sports drinks and flavored waters is that they contain calories, whereas water has none. This may be an important consideration for the weight conscious.

Many sports and fortified liquids also contain sodium, potassium, and other electrolytes to replace minerals lost in sweat. Electrolyte replacement is important for the physically active and for those who may be working in hot and humid environments.

"For most people who are not physically active, they don't need electrolyte replacement at all," says Moore. Most people just need to be properly hydrated, and that can be achieved with water or juice.

Some sports, fortified, and energy drinks also contain substances such as caffeine, chromium, amino acids, and proprietary blends.

Caffeine has been shown to improve athletes' reaction time, but it can also have undesired effects such as addiction, anxiety, and a fast heart rate.

Chromium is an essential mineral that may help control blood sugar levels by enhancing insulin sensitivity. Controlling blood sugar levels may regulate energy, says Mary Ellen Camire, PhD, professor of food science and human nutrition at the University of Maine. The mineral can be found in beef, broccoli, processed ham, grape juice, and bananas.

Amino acids are the building blocks of protein and can be found in meat, cheese, soy, nuts, and fish. Makers of the sports drink Cytomax combined amino acids with a non-acid form of lactic acid. The resulting product, alpha L-polylactate, an ingredient in the drink, is supposed to provide sustained energy and reduce fatigue under endurance exercise.

For this reason, Camire says such drinks are more appropriate for athletes and not for people with regular, everyday activities. She also points to a recent study that shows the concoctions could cause gastrointestinal problems.

Some fortified and energy drinks have so-called propriety blends that sound mysterious. Moore says marketers play on the aura of secrecy to sell products. "There really isn't any magical formulation," she says.

If you look at the labels of energy drinks such as Red Bull, Red Stallion, and Sobe Adrenaline Rush, you will see that common ingredients include inositol and taurine. They don't have any special energy-boosting powers, says Moore, noting that our bodies already make inositol and taurine from the foods we eat. Inositol is a chemical found in foods including beans, brown rice, and corn. Taurine is an amino acid found in foods from animal sources.

Herbs and Supplements

Many energy products are infused with herbs that are supposed to give people an extra charge. Popular herbs include ginseng, guarana, yerba mate, Rhodiola rosea, and cordyceps mushroom. They also come in supplement form.

How well do they work in increasing energy? Overall, it's uncertain, says Carol Haggans, MSRD, a consultant with the Office of Dietary Supplements, a branch of the National Institutes of Health. She says the evidence ranges from suggestive (some small studies say it might help), to contradictory (results of various studies differ), to nonexistent (no scientific studies have been done).

Of the herbs used for energy, ginseng probably has the most research, but the studies are contradictory, says Haggans. Plus, she says there are different types of ginseng, and the investigators don't always make it clear what kind was used in studies.

Asian ginseng, also known as Panax ginseng, is generally known as a stimulant and has been used by older people seeking more energy, says Andrew Weil, author of 8 Weeks to Optimum Health. The Asian variety also has a reputation as a sexual enhancer for men and has been used to improve athletic performance.

American ginseng, on the other hand, is used more as a tonic and is known to increase immunity over time, says Weil.

The herbs guarana and yerba mate are rich sources of caffeine. They stimulate the central nervous system, much like coffee does. The caffeine "may be helpful for mental alertness and possibly for weight loss," says Haggans. But there have not been many studies on the herbs, separate from the effects of caffeine.

Rhodiola rosea has been used in Sweden and Denmark as an anti-fatigue supplement. There is some evidence it improves aspects of mental and physical performance, but other than that, we don't know a lot about the herb, says Haggans.

Rhodiola is often combined with cordyceps mushroom, another herb that has had little scientific research. Cordyceps mushroom by itself and the combined formula of cordyceps and rhodiola have been tested on athletic performance, and the results have been contradictory.

There are benefits to taking cordyceps mushroom, says Weil. It can reportedly provide energy to older people who have been debilitated by age or illness and to young athletes who need a boost in performance.


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