Energy drinks are widely promoted as products that increase energy and enhance mental alertness and physical performance. Next to multivitamins, energy drinks are the most popular dietary supplement consumed by American teens and young adults. Men between the ages of 18 and 34 years consume the most energy drinks, and almost one-third of teens between 12 and 17 years drink them regularly. Energy drinks are supposed to do just what the name implies — give you an extra burst of energy. As it turns out, most of that “energy” comes from two main ingredients: sugar and caffeine. A typical energy drink can contain up to 80 milligrams of caffeine (about the same amount as a cup of coffee). By comparison, a 2006 study found that the average 12-ounce soda contains 18 to 48 mg of caffeine.
Other than caffeine levels, how do energy drinks differ from sodas and sports drinks? Soft drinks are mainly water, sugar and flavouring. They don’t do anything for your body; they’re just supposed to taste good. Sports drinks are designed to replenish fluids lost during activity. They typically contain water, electrolytes and sugar. Energy drinks have added caffeine and other ingredients that their manufacturers say increase stamina and “boost” performance. They’re designed for students, athletes and anyone else who wants an extra energy kick.
Energy drinks became popular in Asia long before they reached the United States. In 1962, Japanese pharmaceutical company, Taisho, released its Lipovitan D drink. It was designed to help employees work hard well into the night. Lipovitan D contains taurine, the same ingredient found in many of today’s energy drinks.
The very first “energy” drink to reach the United States wasn’t an energy drink at all — it was more of a hyped-up soft drink called Jolt Cola. The “jolt” in the cola was a lot of added sugar and caffeine. Introduced in the 1980s, Jolt Cola quickly became a staple of college campuses.
There are two kinds of energy drink products. One is sold in containers similar in size to those of ordinary soft drinks, such as a 16-oz. bottle. The other kind, called “energy shots,” is sold in small containers holding 2 to 2½ oz. of concentrated liquid. Caffeine is a major ingredient in both types of energy drink products—at levels of 70 to 240 mg in a 16-oz. drink and 113 to 200 mg in an energy shot. (For comparison, a 12-oz. can of cola contains about 35 mg of caffeine, and an 8-oz. cup of coffee contains about 100 mg.) Energy drinks also may contain other ingredients such as guarana (another source of caffeine sometimes called Brazilian cocoa), sugars, taurine, ginseng, B vitamins, glucuronolactone, Yohimbe, carnitine, and bitter orange.
Consuming energy drinks raises important safety concerns.
- Between 2007 and 2011, the number of energy drink-related visits to emergency departments doubled. In 2011, 1 in 10 of these visits resulted in hospitalization.
- About 25 per cent of college students consume alcohol with energy drinks, and they binge-drink significantly more often than students who don’t mix them.
- The CDC reports that drinkers aged 15 to 23 who mix alcohol with energy drinks are four times more likely to binge drink at a high intensity (i.e., consume six or more drinks per binge episode) than drinkers who do not mix alcohol with energy drinks.
- Drinkers who mix alcohol with energy drinks are more likely than drinkers who do not mix alcohol with energy drinks to report unwanted or unprotected sex, driving drunk or riding with a driver who was intoxicated, or sustaining alcohol-related injuries.
- In 2011, 42 per cent of all energy drink-related emergency department visits involved combining these beverages with alcohol or drugs (such as marijuana or over-the-counter or prescription medicines).
A growing body of scientific evidence shows that energy drinks can have serious health effects, particularly in children, teenagers, and young adults. In several studies, energy drinks have been found to improve physical endurance, but there’s less evidence of any effect on muscle strength or power. Energy drinks may enhance alertness and improve reaction time, but they may also reduce the steadiness of the hands. The amounts of caffeine in energy drinks vary widely, and the actual caffeine content may not be identified easily. Some energy drinks are marketed as beverages and others as dietary supplements. There’s no requirement to declare the amount of caffeine on the label of either type of product.