“Energy” Drinks or “Stimulant” Drinks?

Does anybody “need” them?

by Kirsten Falcone, RN
Hilbert College Wellness Centerenergy-drinks-healthy.jpg

Energy! Think of that word and the concept of consuming extra energy. Energy is a good thing, right? Who doesn’t want to have more energy? This is the deceptive way the beverage industry frames their advertising for so-called “energy” drinks. “Energy” drinks can be found almost anywhere soda pop and bottled water are sold. Even with the increasing dire news events and warnings concerning their use, many statistics show that energy drinks are among the fastest-growing consumer crazes today.

Some best-selling drinks currently on the market are Red Bull, Monster, Rock Star, NOS, Full Throttle and No Fear. Two locally popular brands are Mountain Dew Kickstart and Venom Black Mamba. Even if you have never tried these, their reputation precedes them.

Well, now, you might think having a little extra energy is a great idea! What could be so wrong with that? I wondered that, myself, so I went looking for more information. Even though I wanted to believe these drinks had some value, almost every respectable source I found stated that drinking “energy” drinks is not only not beneficial, but can be extremely harmful.

The FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) does not regulate “energy” drinks, and this is probably the main problem with these drinks. (More on this later.) Despite the lack of regulation, many companies have put labels on their products. If we trust that the labels are truthful, the basic ingredients are caffeine; another caffeine source called guarana; taurine, an amino acid that amplifies the strength of the caffeine; B vitamins; L-carnitine, an amino acid derivative; sugar; and sodium.

Caffeine

The main ingredient in energy drinks is caffeine, and not just a little caffeine, but some sources state up to 500 milligrams in a 24-ounce can. Caffeine is unhealthy for people under 18, because people under 18 are still developing, and caffeine affects the absorption of calcium into bones and tissue. Caffeine has a proportionally larger effect on smaller bodies, and it causes even greater hyperactivity, mood swings and anxiety due to its effects on neurological and cardiovascular tissue. Caffeine also suppresses appetite, which would not be beneficial for growing bodies. It also constricts blood vessels, has diuretic properties (which is dehydrating), and makes any kind of cardiovascular exercise risky. Of great concern, also, is the fact that caffeine is an addictive drug.

For adults (or those who are done developing), caffeine should be limited to 200-300 milligrams or about two cups of coffee per day. According to the Mayo Clinic, most adults should consume no more than 400 milligrams per day.

Caffeine may be helpful for keeping alert. However, in mass quantities, and combined with the other ingredients in these drinks, there are some side effects worth mentioning. They include:

  • Heart palpitations, and increased heart rate,
  • High blood pressure,
  • Increased stress,
  • Upset stomach, and nausea,
  • Dehydration,
  • Leg weakness,
  • Feeling jittery and nervous,
  • Sleeplessness and sleep disruption, leading to fatigue and lower immunity against infection,
  • Mental confusion and difficulty concentrating,
  • Agitation, anxiety, and hyperactivity,
  • Increased risk-taking behavior,
  • Cardiovascular and nervous system damage in children,
  • Habit-forming or addictive characteristics.

Sugar Content

I decided to do a little personal research. At the local grocery store, I bought several cans of various “energy” drinks. They included Red Bull, Mountain Dew Kickstart, Monster Energy, Rockstar, Rockstar Pure Zero, and Venom Black Mamba. The added sugar in these drinks ranged from 20 grams in Mountain Dew Kickstart to 53 grams in Venom Black Mamba. To put this in perspective, this is as much as about 5 to 12 teaspoons of added sugar. Ingesting sugar is a problem for diabetic and prediabetic people. The RDA (recommended dietary allowance) of added sugar is 36 grams or nine teaspoons for men, and 25 grams or six teaspoons for women. Keep in mind that this is not the only source of added sugar in most people’s diets!

This amount of sugar may sound like a lot, but, in contrast, a can of Coca Cola has 39 grams of added sugar, so one could easily downgrade this amount of sugar to nuisance status, compared to some of the other ingredients. Let’s keep going….

Calories

Of course, calorie content is sugar-related. The calorie content in the samples I bought (not including Rockstar Pure Zero, which has no calories) ranged from 80 calories for a 16-ounce can of Mountain Dew Kickstart to 240 calories for a 16-ounce can of Venom Black Mamba. The recommended daily number of calories for adults is between 2,000 and 2,500. If you are concerned about calories, you should be concerned about the empty calories in these drinks.

Sodium

Now we’re getting somewhere. Sodium seems to be a greater concern than sugar, surprisingly. In my samples, the sodium content ranged from 35 milligrams in regular Rockstar to 310 milligrams in Venom Black Mamba. The others were in the 105 to 180 range. It pays to read the label, since there are two servings in some 16-ounce cans, and only one in others. In a 16-ounce can of Monster, there are 360 milligrams of sodium! In comparison, our can of Coke contains 45 milligrams of sodium. The RDA for sodium is not as stringent as for sugar, but a general recommendation is set at 1,500 to 2,300 milligrams per day. Cutting out sodium from the diet has been a cardiologist recommendation for decades. When contemplating this gargantuan amount of caffeine and sodium, one begins to understand the solemnity of the potential health threat in these drinks.

B Vitamins

It is safe to say that B vitamins are definitely the only good thing about “energy” drinks. However, most nutritionists are skeptical about vitamin supplements, suggesting that most supplements are not absorbed into the body well, unless they are part of solid food. In fact, according to Johns Hopkins University, vitamin supplements are of no value. Therefore, the addition of B vitamins to “energy” drinks appears to be a gimmick to fool the consumer into equating these drinks with health, which has turned out to be the opposite of the truth!

No FDA Regulation

As mentioned, the FDA does not regulate “energy” drinks, so the companies who make them can put anything on the label that they want. All of the samples I bought had a label, but, according to some sources, the true amount of caffeine is rarely listed. Several of the ingredients in these drinks are known to enhance the effect of the caffeine, and some contain their own even stronger amount of caffeine. Bottom line: We don’t really know the exact amount of caffeine or other ingredients contained in them!

Flavor and Other Qualities of “Energy” Drinks

My personal research revealed a few things. I am a morning coffee drinker. I usually drink the recommended one to two cups brewed at home, and I add some cream or sweetened Coffee Mate (an indulgence I know I could edit due to the sugar in the Coffee Mate!). Though I was used to my caffeine drink tasting somewhat sweet, I didn’t care for the carbonated and syrupy, sickly sweet smell and taste of all of the drinks in my sample. In fact, I really felt they were true to their names—especially “Monster” and “Venom.” (At least that labeling is correct!) The flavor is definitely not why they are popular!

In lieu of coffee one day, I drank a Red Bull. In my opinion, there was nothing at all redeeming about Red Bull. On consecutive days, I drank Mountain Dew Kickstart, Monster Energy, and Venom Black Mamba. The best thing I can say about them is they are gone. The worst? They were revolting. I needed to brush my teeth thoroughly after what seemed like a sugar steep. I am happily a coffee drinker once again.

Marketing and Slogans

Marketing can be a good thing, but it can also be misleading. I worked in marketing before I was a nurse, so I believe that the marketing to the young generation is responsible for these ubiquitous drinks. The advertising and slogans printed on the cans might reveal a clue:

The Red Bull can states, “Vitalizes body and mind. Red Bull is appreciated worldwide by top athletes, busy professionals, college students and travelers on long journeys.” (Yes, it could definitely be a “long journey” to the Emergency Department! Mixing Red Bull and other “energy” drinks with an exercise routine is a bad idea.)

The Mountain Dew Kickstart label states, “New energizing original dew. Real fruit juice.” (In small writing, “Contains 5% juice.”)

The Venom Black Mamba label states, “When you want to stay razor sharp and are ready to take on the world, you need the venom of Black Mamba. Venom packs a powerful payload of strong fierce energy….Take on the world and OWN IT!”

The Monster Energy label states, “…athletes, musicians, anarchists, co-eds, road warriors, metal heads, geeks, hipsters, and bikers dig it—you will too. … Unleash the Beast!” (I daresay the “Beast” could represent the foolish choice of drinking Monster.)

As you can see, every can portrays language that praises the contents of the can, promising it will make you cool, energized, and ready to handle anything. The problem is, it couldn’t be further from the truth. “Energy” drinks are NOT health drinks. If they were health drinks, would almost ALL of them have warning labels? They do! All but Mountain Dew Kickstart had warning labels that stated, “Not recommended for children, pregnant or nursing women and persons sensitive to caffeine.” In addition, their warnings should say, “Do not use while exercising.”

Alternatives to Caffeine

Instead of using caffeine, make these lifestyle choices/changes:

  • WATER, because we need to replenish our bodies, of which 50 to 70 percent is water! Drinking water will immediately energize you if you are dehydrated.
  • Proper nutrition, so your body has the correct fuel for all its processes,
  • Sleep, so your body and brain can heal and recharge,
  • Exercise, for your circulation, muscles, heart, brain, and more!
  • Avoid extra sugar, because we get enough in food,
  • Avoid or limit alcoholic beverages, and DO NOT mix them with energy drinks.

If you must imbibe caffeine, then regular coffee, one to two cups per day (allowing no other caffeine that day) is the safest caffeine you can consume. We know about the caffeine in coffee, but the lack of regulation on “energy” drinks should be a red flag.

 

In conclusion, does anybody “need” “energy” drinks? No. It is my opinion that these drinks should not be labeled “energy” drinks, but, rather, “stimulant” drinks. A stimulant is a drug, and that is what these drinks are. As with any addiction, it is best to break the habit.

 

For further reading, and more information on stimulant drinks, visit these Web sites:

CNN:
https://www.cnn.com/2017/04/26/health/energy-drinks-health-concerns-explainer/index.html

WebMD:
https://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/features/whats-the-buzz-about-energy-drinks#1

National Institutes of Health:
https://nccih.nih.gov/health/energy-drinks

Mayo Clnic:
https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/expert-answers/energy-drinks/faq-20058349

U.S. News and World Report:
https://health.usnews.com/health-news/health-wellness/articles/2015/01/16/are-energy-drinks-really-that-bad

Energy Drinks Lawsuit:
https://www.energydrinkslawsuit.com/fda-regulate-energy-drinks/

American Heart Association, Sugar 101:
http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/HealthyEating/Nutrition/Sugar-101_UCM_306024_Article.jsp#.WtDqhIjwaUk

SFGate, FDA recommended sodium intake:
http://healthyeating.sfgate.com/fda-recommended-sodium-intake-1873.html

Healthline, L-Carnitine:
https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/l-carnitine

Caffeineinformer.com, 20 harmful effects of caffeine:
https://www.caffeineinformer.com/harmful-effects-of-caffeine

LiveScience.com, Is caffeine bad for kids?:
https://www.livescience.com/36164-caffeine-bad-kids.html

Johns Hopkins Medicine, Are vitamin supplements beneficial?:
https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/healthy_aging/healthy_body/is-there-really-any-benefit-to-multivitamins

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