Energy Drinks: Skip or Sip?

Cans of sweet drinks (or beer)

These days, it’s hard to walk into a drugstore, grocery store or even a bar without seeing a slew of energy-drink options and the marketing of these products. Quite frankly, it’s nothing short of genius. While the majority of energy drinks have been geared towards attracting college-aged kids and athletes, a new demographic has emerged in the past few years – women. Energy drinks can now be found in pretty pink cans with promises of revitalizing and energizing the busy woman on the go, the tired mom raising a family and caring for herself at the same time or just a woman who likes a little zip in her drink.

But are you really getting the results for the promises you see on the front of the can? Or, are you spending a few bucks on a quick source of energy that you could obtain if you had a cup of coffee instead? The bigger question, perhaps, is this: Are some of the ingredients you’re putting in your body through these drinks actually hurting you? It’s time to look beyond the smoke and mirrors and really assess what these drinks are doing. The best way to do this is to go straight to the ingredients.

Many of the energy drinks on the market contain similar components. Almost all of them provide B-vitamins and taurine and because they are now being marketed towards women, popular weight loss components such as green tea extract and hoodia are now being added as well. What’s missing? Sugar and calories – two things that are sure deal breakers for women looking for a refreshing pick me up. But among all the ingredients is the main one that actually provides the source for the energy – the caffeine. In some cases, the amount provided in female-marketed drinks is actually less than the amount of caffeine in an 8-ounce cup of coffee. However, if your drink of choice throughout the day has the word “energy” on its label, you could easily overdue it.

“Energy” Ingredients
Next is the other “energy” component – B vitamins. These vitamins are available in foods help the body stay energized, but when the form of vitamin B comes in a supplement energy drink ingredient, the energy effects often do not occur in the same manner. Additionally, some B vitamins in energy drinks are present in such large amounts that people may unknowingly exceed recommended doses – potentially leaving the female energy drinker at risk. While it’s generally difficult to overdose on B-vitamins, excessive intake of both folate and niacin may have adverse effects.

Next up for energy supplementation is an amino acid called taurine. Taurine is typically found in shellfish and meat and although taurine is regarded as “safe” in energy drinks, it’s also not clear whether it makes any difference at all in terms of providing added energy effects. The only proven energizer in most energy drinks is the caffeine added and unfortunately, in many products, the actual amount that the drink contains is not provided to the consumer.

Weight-Loss Ingredients
The most common weight-loss ingredients in energy drinks marketed to women is garcinia cambogia, hoodia and green tea extract. While some animal studies show that these ingredients may fight against fat, there’s really not enough evidence at this time to say that the promise of weight loss is a guarantee. Further, we’re also lacking long-term data on how regular consumption of these ingredients may affect long-term health. You should also be wary of combining weight-loss stimulant supplements together. For example, enjoying an energy drink with green tea extract and then taking a weight-loss drug with other stimulant-containing ingredients could threaten your health.

Artificial sweeteners are added to “sugar free” energy drinks to provide the sweetness you’re craving without the calories you’re dreading. Sound too good to be true? That’s because it is. As it turns out, a lack of calories doesn’t always equate to a lack of consequences. A 2013 study in the journal Diabetes Care found that artificial sweeteners can actually alter the way the body metabolizes sugar. A 2008 animal study found that rats given artificial sweeteners ate more calories throughout the day and as a result, gained weight. The researchers found that the ingestion of artificial sweeteners essentially caused confusion between the gut and the brain. The authors of the study stated that “sweet foods provide a ‘salient orosensory stimulus’ that strongly predicts someone is about to take in a lot of calories. Ingestive and digestive reflexes gear up for that intake but when false sweetness isn’t followed by lots of calories, the system gets confused. Thus, people may eat more or expend less energy than they otherwise would.”

While these studies provide incentive from a weight approach to kick the fake-sugar habit, it’s what artificial sweeteners are doing to your sugar-laden diet that is most concerning for the energy drink addict. Why? Studies show that replacing regular sugar with artificial sweeteners is akin to kicking your cigarette habit by switching to cigars. You’re still getting the sweetness you crave, so you’re never really taking away the sweet taste that keeps calling your name. Chances are, you’ll go back to the real stuff.

While the ingredients covered thus far have not been found to do major damage to your health, there are a few things to avoid when looking at your energy drink label.

Combining drinks with alcohol: Several studies show that combining energy drinks with alcohol is a recipe for disaster. Effects range from increased  intoxication to a higher incidence of developing alcohol dependence.

Consuming energy drinks if you’re pregnant or breast feeding: Women that are pregnant or breastfeeding should avoid all energy drinks due to their caffeine and other stimulant components as well as unregulated herbs.

Ginkgo: Despite promising claims, many ginkgo studies have not demonstrated definitive links to increasing brain health and may in fact have some rare, but serious adverse health effects for certain populations. Ginkgo has also been linked to increased risk of certain cancers in rats and mice.

Finally, it’s important to understand that supplements added to energy drinks do not fall under the same safety scrutiny by the FDA as drugs do. That means you, the consumer, should do your homework before developing an energy drink habit. Talk to your doctor or dietitian about your energy drink consumption. After all, they are the best experts to look at your personal health, weight loss goals and medications in relation to the whether or not an energy drink every now and then will really do any harm.