You see them in every gas station and corner store. They are consumed by college students, athletes, working professionals and even children. We are talking about energy drinks, a now massive part of the beverage industry. They are a relatively new product (Red Bull did not come to the US until 1997), but the consumption and variety of them continues to explode. Despite the World Health Organization issuing a statement warning against the adverse health risks of these beverages, the industry continues to be as lucrative as ever. The global energy drink market was valued at $39 billion in 2013 and this number is expected to hit $61 billion by the year 2021.
It is easy to see why energy drinks are so popular. Unlike coffee, you do not need to take the time to brew them. They are an appealing alternative for those that do not like coffee as they come in so many different flavors. Most of all, they provide the feeling of a strong energy boost, which we all need from time to time. The majority of energy drinks even come in sugarfree or low calorie versions. So what's not to like? While they may seem an attractive option for quick energy, these beverages actually have a negative effect on your health in both the short and long term.
The biggest problem with energy drinks is that they are highly processed beverages that contain a number of chemicals as well as excessive amounts of caffeine, sugar/artificial sweeter and other stimulants. Caffeine is not an ingredient regulated by the FDA, so there are no limits on the amount of caffeine manufacturers can add to energy drinks. Excessive caffeine consumption can cause anxiety, gastrointestinal problems, insomnia and energy crashes.
Sugar content of energy drinks is also high. The typical 8.4 oz can of Red Bull (a normal soda/beer can is 12 oz) contains 27 grams of sugar. This means it has the same amount of sugar as soda, but with even more caffeine and added chemicals. Excessive sugar consumption leads to a slew of health problems, including obesity and diabetes. Sugarfree versions typically contain aspertame or other very unhealthy artificial sweeteners.
Energy drinks often do contain naturally derived ingredients, but in unnatural quantities. These include guarana (a stimulant), B vitamins, taurine and ginseng. At best, these additives are a marketing gimmick with no proven health benefits. At worst, they make the drinks even more unhealthy. Guarana is another stimulant that is piled on to the already excessive amounts of caffeine in the beverages. Ginsing is derived from the root of a plant, but the American Cancer Society advises that "Ginseng should be used cautiously, as it can cause undesirable side effects in high doses and may even be dangerous."
We advise our patients to drink plenty of water and to avoid processed drinks. If you need a degree in chemical engineering to understand the ingredients in your caffeinated beverage, then it isn't a healthy choice. Switch to tea or black coffee the next time you need a boost.