Are energy drinks as bad as everyone thinks they are?
The consumption of energy drinks is not something I recommend regularly in my practice. Not only do these beverages usually have a high sugar and moderate to high caffeine content, they can also be addictive. People see these types of drinks as a quick energy fix and a good substitute for coffee, if they don’t like the taste. The fact that they have “natural” ingredients and additional vitamins, is somehow a justification that they are fit for consumption. This, in my mind is absolutely incorrect and it should be known that there are much better ways to optimise your energy than reach for a Red Bull to give you wings.
Nowadays, you see many people substitute their breakfast for an energy drink, thinking it will speed up their metabolism and assist with weight loss (if it’s a goal). All of a sudden they experience an energy crash a couple of hours later and reach for another energy drink, wondering why they’re so tired. A better solution is to consume a proper breakfast as the best fuel source for our brain and body is food!
Why are they considered bad for us?
The main active ingredients of energy drinks include varying amounts of caffeine, guarana extract, taurine and ginseng. Additional amino acids, vitamins and carbohydrates usually complete the list of supposedly beneficial ingredients. It’s important to note that the intended effects (and forgotten intention) of energy drinks are to provide sustenance and improve performance, concentration and endurance. Manufacturers pitch their product to athletes, students and people in professions that require sustained alertness.
The problem is that these drinks are readily available and over-consumed. Energy drinks are also commonly consumed at bars and night clubs, which usually require sustained energy for prolonged activity into late hours. If these drinks are ordered, they are usually combined with alcohol and/or recreational drugs, further exacerbating the effects of the ingredients.
The main reason why energy drinks are so bad for you is due to their high sugar content, which is similar to other soft drinks and is known to contribute to a myriad of health problems. Additionally, adverse reactions and toxicity from high-energy drinks stem primarily from their caffeine content. This may be worse for young adults and adolescents who are particularly attracted to energy drinks because of effective product marketing, peer influence and a lack of knowledge of the potential harmful effects.Since there is currently no age restriction on the sale of these drinks, frequent and high consumption of energy drinks for younger people can cause a number of health problems.
How do energy drinks compare to coffee and soft drinks in terms of caffeine and sugar?
Caffeine is added in the form of:
- brewed coffee;
- guarana (another caffeine-containing plant product); or as
- the straight chemical caffeine (which is obtained commercially as a by-product of the manufacture of decaffeinated coffee).
By law, energy drinks (or ‘formulated caffeinated beverages’) must contain no more than 32mg of caffeine per 100mL. In practice, this means a standard 250mL can of energy drink has no more than 80mg which is equivalent to a 250mL cup of instant coffee or espresso shot. However, manufacturers of energy drinks are now making “double shot” versions of the original, which can see the caffeine content double.
Below is a table of caffeine content of common caffeinated beverages:
|Food item||Caffeine content|
|Percolated coffee and Espresso||60-120 mg/250 mL cup|
|Formulated caffeinated beverages or ‘Energy Drinks’||80 mg/250 mL can|
|Instant coffee (1 teaspoon/cup)||60-80 mg/250 mL cup|
|Tea||10-50 mg/250 mL cup|
|Coca Cola||36 mg/375 mL can|
|Milk Chocolate||20 mg/100g bar|
Unless you opt for a sugar-free version, most energy drinks have around 30 grams of sugar per serving (250mL), and, depending on the size of the drink itself, you could be ingesting a small meal’s worth of calories without supplying your body with any important nutrients. The table below gives an overview of the comparison of sugar content in well-known soft drinks and energy drinks in Australia.
The problem lies in the fact that energy drink manufacturers are now making larger serving sizes (i.e. can or bottle sizes), which can see the sugar content double compared to their generic 250mL can.
|Drink||Serving size||Grams of sugar (per serve)||Grams of sugar (per 100ml)|
|V Energy Drink||250ml||26.5g||10.6g|
|V Energy Drink||500ml||53g||10.6g|
|V Energy Drink||710ml||75.3g||10.6g|
|Gatorade: Fierce Grape flavour||600ml||36g||6g|
|Powerade: Mountain Blast flavour||600ml||34g||5.7g|
What are the potential short and long term risks associated with drinking energy drinks?
The short-term effects of energy drink consumption can include:
- feeling more alert and active
- need to urinate more frequently
- rise in body temperature
- increased heart rate
- stimulation of the brain and nervous system
The long-term effects of energy drink consumption can include:
- headaches and migraines
- rapid heart rate
- increased anxiety
- hormone imbalance
Bottom line is that energy drinks are full of stimulants that can provide immediate spikes in energy and mental alertness. However, these energy ‘highs’ may not last long and their ingredients, especially caffeine and sugar, threaten long-term harm to the body. Furthermore, some of the ingredients are not regulated and their effects when combined with other ingredients is unknown.
Potential risks associated with long-term energy drink consumption include:
- caffeine overdose – this is a serious condition and can lead to a number of symptoms, including palpitations, high blood pressure, nausea and vomiting, convulsions/seizures and, in some cases, even death
- type 2 diabetes – since high consumption of caffeine reduces insulin sensitivity. As well as a high intake of sugar, which elevates blood sugar levels.
- late miscarriages, low birth weight and stillbirths in pregnant women
- neurological and cardiovascular system effects in children and adolescents
- addictive behaviour
- use and dependence on other harmful substances
- poor dental health e.g. dental carries
Is there a ‘safe’ amount we can drink?
While there’s no current consensus on what’s a safe amount of caffeine since the effects of caffeine differ from person to person, depending on age, body size and general health, commonly cited research has found that increased anxiety levels have been recorded in adults whose caffeine intake exceeded 210mg, and reduced ability to sleep above 100mg.
Research also suggests that moderate amounts of caffeine (300-400mg, or three to four espressos, per day) isn’t considered to be harmful for most people. But it is a stimulant and has measurable effects even at very low ‘doses’.
Most importantly, pregnant and breastfeeding women should be wary, and make sure their daily caffeine consumption doesn’t exceed 200mg.
I think the important take home message is, if you are going to consume energy drinks, it’s all about moderation. Australian energy drink manufacturers include a daily maximum usage of 500mls on their labels.
Tips for people who feel reliant on energy drinks, to wean off energy drinks
Here are a few tips on how to wean yourself off energy drinks:
- Cut out one can of energy drink each day – this is best achieved on a weekend or on holidays when you won’t be under pressure or stress. Start by dropping an afternoon or evening drink. Plan to have your last by 4pm so the caffeine won’t affect your sleep. Do this for a week to get your body used to having less.
- Aim to cut your overall intake by half, long term – or until you have reached a level you’re comfortable with and don’t have symptoms associated with caffeine toxicity or withdrawal. This will vary depending on your sensitivity.
- Aim for a goal to keep cutting back until you drink no more than approximately 200mg of caffeine a day.
- Switch to no or lower caffeine options when you can – this includes:
- Caffeine-free alternatives
- Decaf coffee
- Decaf tea
- Herbal infusion, especially after dinner.
- Try a coffee substitute (made from roasted barley, chicory or dandelion root) e.g. Caro, Dandelion tea.
- Switch to other carbonated drinks that are lower in sugar e.g. mineral or soda water, real lemon squash, ginger beer, or other non-cola soft drink.