What's the Buzz About Energy Drinks?

There are healthier ways to get an energy boost, experts say.

By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Pimp Juice, Full Throttle, Rock Star, Monster Energy, Rage, Cocaine, Red Bull -- these are some of the high-powered energy drinks being marketed to young adults. The web sites for these products are full of images of macho lifestyles. They promote beverages containing ingredients that sound scientific, but may be unfamiliar to many consumers.

While we all need an energy boost from time to time, an energy drink may not be the best way to get it, experts say. The FDA does not define the term "energy drink"; that label is up to manufacturers' discretion.

"There is scant scientific support for these ingredients to make the kind of claims manufacturers use in hyping their products," says Suzanne Farrell, MS, RD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "Most of the energy from these drinks comes from the sugar and caffeine, not from the unnecessary extras."

She also points out these drinks contain plenty of calories from sugar, which can add up quickly if you drink a few cans.

Aside from caffeine and sugar, some of the more common ingredients are taurine, ginseng, guarana, vitamins, and green tea.

"Most of the energy drinks contain high-tech-sounding ingredients that are not controlled substances, of no value, and potentially harmful" in large amounts, adds Cynthia Sass, MPH, MA, RD, a board-certified specialist in sports dietetics.

And trying to figure out exactly how much of each stimulant is contained in an energy drink can be difficult, she says.

"The amount of the stimulants is not always listed on the label, and even when the information is listed, it is hard for consumers to interpret because we are not familiar with these ingredients," says Sass.

One ingredient most people are familiar with is caffeine, and "what we do know is that large doses of caffeine can be very dehydrating," says Sass.

While one cup (8 ounces) of strong coffee has about 125-150 milligrams of caffeine and a 12-ounce can of ordinary cola has 35-38 milligrams, an 8.3-ounce can of Cocaine energy drink contains 280 milligrams. In general, caffeine consumption should be limited to about 200-300 milligrams per day, says Farrell.

Easy to Drink

One of the concerns about energy drinks is how easy it is to drink large quantities of these sweet beverages.

"Energy drinks contain multiple stimulants that, when combined, can be dangerous and have a very powerful effect on the body," says Sass. Most people know how much caffeine they can tolerate, but may not be familiar with the effects of some of the other ingredients.

She describes such possible symptoms as upset stomach, leg weakness, heart palpitations, being jittery, nervousness, and more. Drink these energy drinks on an empty stomach and the effects can be magnified.

"There will be an energy burst, but it could also lead to agitation, difficulty concentrating, hyperactivity, a problem sleeping, nausea, and affect blood pressure," Farrell says.

Energy Drinks and Alcohol

Because alcohol is a depressant and caffeine is a stimulant, mixing energy drinks with alcohol is a bad idea, experts say.

"Both are also diuretics that can lead to dehydration and ultimately, drinking more alcohol, because the burst of energy from the sugar and caffeine misrepresent the state of inebriation," says Farrell.

She compares it to the misconception that coffee can sober someone who has had too much to drink: "Using coffee to sober up just makes you feel more energetic; it does not decrease the effects of inebriation."

The result is that you may feel less intoxicated than you really are. "These products may be natural, but they can be very dangerous when mixed with alcohol," says Sass.

Club soda, water, and fruit juices are better mixers with alcohol. Sass recommends choosing a mixer you have had before, so the result is more predictable.

If you want to dance all night long, a glass of water is a better choice than an energy drink between cocktails, to keep you well-hydrated.

And whatever you do, don't drink alcohol on an empty stomach. "Have a snack before you go out so the absorption of alcohol is slower and safer," says Farrell.

Fuel for Workouts?

Don't be misled into thinking energy drinks will power up your workouts, Sass says.

"If you take an energy drink before exercise, it could increase your blood pressure, overstimulate your heart or nervous system, resulting in a number of potential side effects on your body," she says. "You might think there would be no risk to drinking an energy drink, but some of these products have powerful, drug-like effects and should not be underestimated."

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