The 'energy' in energy drinks is mostly caffeine

Beverages: Doctors question the benefits -- and marketing -- of popular energy drinks.

Health & Fitness

November 11, 2001|By Fred Shuster | Fred Shuster,LOS ANGELES DAILY NEWS

The slogans for so-called energy drinks promise benefits with instant appeal: Athletes will excel, partiers can stay on the go-go, students will be alert enough to study till dawn, and you'll be more productive than that annoying co-worker in the next cubicle.

In fact, canned energy in the form of Red Bull, Sobe Adrenaline Rush, Hype, and countless other flashy caffeine- and sugar-choked beverages crowding the shelves has the potential not only to give you a lift but also to drop you on your own slim designer can.

The boost in these hip-sounding products comes largely from caffeine -- about the same as a cup of strong-brewed coffee in each 8-ounce serving.

"It's entirely misleading to call them energy drinks," said Dr. Timothy Horita, a family medicine doctor at Kaiser Permanente in Los Angeles. "There are no benefits compared to the potential harm involved. All you're getting is a lot of caffeine and concentrated sugars."

Kids chug these sweet-flavored carbonated drinks to get through a day of classes, athletes gulp them before workouts and, on the social scene, barflies mix them with alcohol for a wide-awake buzz.

Los Angeles hair stylist Lauren Vass, 30, said she has an energy drink or a Coca-Cola almost every morning. "I need something that picks me up and gives me energy," she said, standing outside a convenience store.

Janis Metcalfe, 17, a North Hollywood High School student, was at the same store buying a diet Pepsi, a box of powdered-sugar doughnuts and a can of Hype.

"Breakfast," she said with a smile.

Besides caffeine, most energy drinks contain around 125 calories and 20 to 30 grams of carbohydrates, mostly in the form of sugars, and either guarana or taurine. The latter ingredient is an amino acid naturally present in the human body and found in meat, red wine and other foods. Guarana, produced from the seeds of a creeping Amazonian shrub called the guarana plant, is a source of caffeine.

So, in that sense, you are getting a natural source of energy. But like so much in nature, there are positive and negative sides to these substances -- and the beverages that contain them.

In normal quantities, caffeine is a mild stimulant to the nervous system, producing an alert, focused state. Its toxic effects can include nausea, agitation and, in severe cases, seizures and heart palpitations.

"Caffeine in moderate doses is not dangerous," said Dr. Sam Chia, a doctor affiliated with St. Luke's Medical Center in Pasadena, Calf. "When you get to the equivalent of six to 10 cups of coffee a day, some of the side effects start to kick in. And with high sugar content, anybody who has diabetes should stay away. I really don't think these things should be sold as health drinks."

The drink Rockstar crows that one can "party like a rockstar." KMX urges customers to "be bold, stay focused, don't miss a beat." And Hype, a "complete-lifestyle" drink, wants you to "live life, love life, love Hype."

Health experts reserve their stiffest warnings for drinks with ephedra, a powerful herbal stimulant used for centuries in Chinese medicine.

"Ephedra and caffeine is a lethal combo," said Dr. Michael Hirt, director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at Encino-Tarzana Regional Medical Center in Encino, Calif. "It's herbal speed, and you can become addicted and end up with serious health problems. It's a powerful herb that needs to be treated with respect."

Of all the drink brands, Red Bull -- which does not contain ephedra -- is the most popular, with almost 70 percent of the energy-drink niche. Sales of the products make up about $150 million of the $57 billion market for soft drinks in the United States, according to Bloomberg News.

As a result, the biggest names in soda have entered the picture. Coca-Cola has KMX, Anheuser-Busch boasts 180, and Pepsi is making a stand with Adrenaline Rush. The drinks cost around $2 to $3 in stores and $4 to $7 in bars and nightclubs.

"There's no true benefit from these drinks at all," said Dr. Marc Lavin, an internal medicine specialist at West Hills Hospital and Medical Center in Los Angeles. "The potential dangers clearly outweigh anything that might possibly be gained. And they're terrible for kids. Young boys who think this stuff will build muscle or give them increased energy are making a big mistake."

The Food and Drug Administration so far has not gotten involved in evaluating the safety of energy or diet drinks, but some doctors believe a certain amount of oversight is needed.

"I think we have to recognize that just because it's natural doesn't mean it's safe," Hirt said.


Most of the energy drinks we found claim to contain about the same amount of caffeine as a cup of coffee. A 7-ounce cup of coffee has 115-175 milligrams of caffeine, according to Bunker and McWilliams in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. An 8.3-ounce can of Red Bull has 80 milligrams of caffeine.

By comparison, a 12-ounce can of Coca-Cola has approximately 46 milligrams of caffeine, and Pepsi has 37 milligrams, according to the National Soft Drink Association. Energy drinks also contain sugar and other herbal boosters, including:

Taurine: One of the most abundant amino acids in our bodies. Naturally found in seafood and meat, it is believed to help detoxify and cleanse the system.

Guarana: An herb that grows in the Amazon jungle in South America. Traditionally, guarana was used in herbal teas in Brazil and is still widely used in drinks. Its effects are similar to those of caffeine.

Ginseng: A Chinese herb that is believed to stimulate mental and physical activity.

-- Los Angeles Daily News

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