Energy Drinks: Fact or fad? Good or bad?
© Robert Anderson PhD
Originally published in Organic NZ September/.October 2005, Vol. 64 No. 5
Energy drinks are the avant-garde of the beverage business. In the US, they have even taken over bottled water as the fastest-growing category in the beverage business. Scientific breakthrough, or packaged poison?
The success of energy drinks was undoubtedly due to Austrian businessman, Dietrich Mateschitz, who formulated and launched his Red Bull drink in Austria in 1987. From that day on the industry has not looked back. Sickly sweet, garishly coloured and guaranteed to energise the body and keep you awake, they have become the drink of the “cool set.” Unfortunately, most consumers are unaware of what gives the punch that such drinks can pack.
Almost every garage and supermarket now carries an arsenal of them. The business is booming. With over $1 billion in sales for 2004 in the US, energy drinks like Red Bull are the fastest growing division of the beverage industry. New Zealand is not far behind.
The way the food industry focuses on the commercial aspects of its products constantly disturbs me, adulterating appearance and taste, while taking a cavalier approach to nutritional values and their impact on children’s habits and future health. The energy drink market is a classic case in point. Unfortunately, most consumers are unaware of the punch that such drinks can pack and the possible dangers they can bring. The key ingredient of energy drinks is caffeine. This may be present in a variety of forms, together with lashings of white sugar. It is the old ‘empty calorie’ ploy. The evidence against sugar, not only from an obesity point of view, is voluminous. In 2000, research on sugar implicated detrimental neurological effects.[i] Researchers tracked patients’ responses to glucose in the brain using a technique known as temporal clustering analysis (TCA). This reveals where and when brain activity is occurring. TCA can be used to identify the maximum brain response and create a time frame to identify when brain activity occurs after a large sugar intake. The fact that cancer feeds on sugar[ii]is also a good reason to avoid consuming large quantities and even more so in the case of pregnant mothers, research indicating that excessive sugar can increase birth defects.[iii](N.B. A label with the warning “Not recommended for children, pregnant or lactating women and individuals sensitive to caffeine” appeared in the printed article.)
Seeing through the hype
Part of the problem with regulating these products is that there is no agreed definition of the products referred to as “energy” or “stimulant drinks.” As the high-growth sector of the soft drinks’ industry, they have been backed up by some heavy-duty marketing by the industry. Most of the advertising is aimed at the under 30 sector. It offers benefits ranging from “alertness fast” and “wings” to hype such as “Energizes the body’s metabolic pathways.”
So - is it all pseudo-science or can energy drinks really make a valuable contribution to consumers? It is certainly difficult to know the truth. On one popular energy drink web-site, the drink is claimed to increase such things as:
  • Performance
  • Reaction speed
  • Vigilance
  • Concentration
  • Emotional status
  • Metabolism
Many of these claims are completely spurious. Other label claims on cans/packs include, “full of
Goodness”, “wholesome” and “nutritious” - terms which are vague and unspecific. Sugar is not always labelled as “sugar” – it is called “energy” or “lift”.
From a nutritional point of view, energy drinks are comparable to the standard carbonated beverages sold in all supermarkets and they offer little more to the body. They certainly increase energy. Like coffee, the surge of energy comes from their high caffeine content, and for energy drinks there is lots of it. For example, a typical 250 ml can of Red Bull contains around 80 milligrams of caffeine (disputed by the manufacturer).
This is more than twice the caffeine in a 375 ml can of Pepsi or Coca-Cola. Some countries have now banned Red Bull, including Denmark, Malaysia, and France. This action followed several reported deaths of people who mixed the energy drink with alcohol. The industry claimed that there was no recognized connection between the drink and the deaths mentioned.[iv] However, doctors maintain that overloading the body with heavy stimulants (caffeine) and heavy depressants (alcohol) at the same time could well lead to heart failure. Regulators took a precautionary approach. Mixing these drinks can also lead to the risk of heart rhythm problems such as atrial fibrillation or AF.
There has also been research[v]showing that caffeine, especially in these concentrations, could worsen insulin sensitivity and lead to diabetes – now one of the major causes of chronic illness. Other studies have shown that caffeine leads to a loss of aortic elasticity,[vi]raises blood pressure and hence stroke risks.[vii] Caffeine has also been implicated in miscarriage or low birth weight in babies.[viii]
What other ingredients do energy drinks contain? One that has added to the popularity of these drinks is Guarana, pronounced gwa-ra-naa. Guarana is a berry that grows in the northern areas of Brazil and Venezuela and has an interesting history. The name comes from the Guarani tribe of Brazil where guarana has played an important function in their culture. The herb is believed to be magical as a cure for bowel conditions and a way to regain strength. The 18th century German medical botanist, C F Paullini, was the first to name the plant, Paullinia Cupana, when he discovered it being used by the tribe.
Guarana’s taste is unique and the major reason for its success in Brazil as a soft drink. The main constituent of guarana is guaranine, which is chemically identical to caffeine. This is the reason for the energy boost people get after ingesting guarana. Although many energy drinks boast they use Guarana, the majority simply use the straight chemical. The success of the drink in Brazil encouraged the Pepsi and Coca Cola companies to start the production of their own guarana drink products. Pepsi tried, but failed, to market ‘Josta’ in the US while Coca Cola still sells their product ‘Kuat’ in Brazil. The imitation brands are still unable to compete with the original Brazilian drinks; the genuine flavour of guarana often being absent and replaced by an overdose of sugar. A typical can may contain 2000 milligrams Taurine, 400 milligrams Panax Ginseng and 5000 milligrams of an “Energy Blend” which could include caffeine, Guarana and L-Carnitine.
Although New Zealand labels state the quantity of caffeine, levels in Britain are not shown on the cans.
Studies have revealed that energy drinks have nearly four times the amount of caffeine in them as normal popular soft drinks. Sugar levels are also considerably in excess of average soft drinks. For example, one variety has the equivalent of 13 teaspoons of sugar in one 325ml can. There is the sugar-free alternative, but this generally means that it contains aspartame or Acesulfame-k (E950) as sugar substitutes. The Centre for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI)[ix]includes all three artificial sweeteners - Aspartame (951), Saccharine, and Acesulfame K (950) – in their list of the “Ten Worst Additives.” All three of these sweeteners have been found to cause cancer in animals and may increase the risk of cancer in humans.
Other ingredients may include ginseng and vitamin B12. The most common are Taurine and L-Carnitine. Taurine is an amino acid found abundantly in the human body. It was first isolated in cattle some 40 years ago, hence the name Red Bull, but is now manufactured synthetically. Taurine acts as a metabolic transmitter, and has a detoxifying effect besides strengthening cardiac muscles. In 1980, a Japanese research team reported that Taurine could be beneficial to cardiovascular performance. It is an ingredient in a number of leading energy drinks, including Red Bull. L-Carnitine is another amino acid involved in protein metabolism. Vitamins are also popular ingredients, particularly riboflavin, niacin and B6.
Like many of the foodstuffs that we have covered in these articles, energy drinks also contain an astonishing variety of vivid colourants. The two food dyes generally used, although permitted under our Australia/New Zealand Food Standards Code, may be a cause for concern. It is worth looking at these in some detail:[x]
  • Atrazine (E102) in citrus and other beverages, appears to cause the most allergic and/or intolerance reactions of all the azo dyes, particularly amongst those with an aspirin intolerance and asthmatics. It is also linked to thyroid tumours and chromosomal damage. Other reactions can include migraine, blurred vision, itching, rhinitis and purple skin rashes.
  • In conjunction with E210, benzoic acid, tartrazine appears to create an over-activity in children and is one of the colours that the Hyperactive Children’s Support Group (HCSG) recommends be eliminated from the diet of children. Whilst being a commonly used dye in the UK and New Zealand, its use is banned in Norway and in Finland.
  • Quinoline Yellow (E104) used in lipsticks hair products, colognes; also in a wide range of medications; causes dermatitis; banned in Australia, USA and Norway.
  • Green S (E142) synthetic coal tar derivative; used in canned peas, mint jelly and sauce, packet bread crumbs and cake mixes drinks; banned in Sweden, USA and Norway.
  • Allura Red (E129) in cranberry may produce slightly less allergy/intolerance reaction by aspirin-intolerant people and asthmatics than most of the azo dyes, although people with skin sensitivities should be careful. It is presently banned throughout the EU and in Norway and Japan. A recent study by the David Hide Asthma and Allergy Research Centre in the UK, is disputed by food manufacturers. The study suggests that there is an indirect link between artificial colourings and preservatives in drinks to hyperactivity and aggression in children.[xi]
  • Sulphite ammonia caramel (E150d) made from sucrose; the HACSG recommends to avoid it. used in oyster, soy, fruit and canned drinks.
The terminology
The energy drink market is awash with fashionable terminology and pseudo-scientific claims. It is worth analysing some of the more commonly-used ones.
The term hypotonic sometimes appears on the can. It simply means that the concentration of the ingredients is less than the body’s own. What is the benefit? The presumption that the ingredients will be absorbed quicker than water due to osmotic pressure and will therefore re-hydrate the drinker more rapidly. However, for someone who has just exercised and feels dehydrated, drinking fruit juice or even water with a little salt added[xii]would be a cheap substitute.
The other in vogue term would be the opposite of hypotonic, hypertonic, which means the concentration of the ingredients is greater than that of body fluids. This time, because of osmotic pressure, they will be absorbed more slowly than water and can be used to provide a steady flow of energy. Once again, a cheaper substitute would be fruit juice with a little salt added.
The third term which may be used is isotonic. A fluid which is isotonic is one having the same concentration of body fluids. The absorption rate would be the same as water.
Advertising endorsements aim in a large part to encourage the use of energy drinks by amateur sportsmen and women, and an increasingly diverse cross-section of the population consumes them regularly. The caffeine high provided also means they are preferred by anyone who needs to stay alert such as long-distance drivers and night workers. It seems the major category of consumers are those frequenting night clubs. The cocktail of vodka and Red Bull has become a mainstay of the under thirties after a big night on the town. For those keen to avoid ecstasy, P and other such dangerous combinations, a blend of alcohol and an alertness-inducing stimulant seems irresistible. Unfortunately, this trend is now revealing hidden health threats.
The burning question is - do energy drinks really give us energy?
When we break down the contents of one of these drinks, the primary ingredients are caffeine and sugar. So the simple answer is yes, energy drinks will provide a burst of energy. However, the burst is short-lived. The effect of the drink will be similar to that of consuming a cup of coffee in that, when the effect wears off, you feel yourself slowing down and will invariably crave another to boost your energy again. It can produce a vicious and expensive cycle.
From a nutritional point of view, energy drinks are comparable to standard over-sweetened carbonated beverages in that they offer little to the body; in fact, quite the opposite. While there are traces of various herbs, minerals and amino acids in energy drinks, these cannot make up for the enormous amounts of sugar and caffeine they contain.
Industry forecasts have suggested significant profits for the leading companies. As the market has stabilised, standard can sizes have become fairly consistent at 250 ml, with prices ranging from NZ$2.49 to $3.00. In comparison with standard soft drinks, the energy drinks’ market is hugely lucrative. The concept is now as firmly entrenched in New Zealand as in other energy drink consuming countries world-wide. With continued sports’ endorsements and advertising hype that effectively targets a youth market, there seems no reason why this market should not continue to grow.
Energy drinks may make a valid contribution to the performance of sports people at the highest level, but a combination of water, fruit juice, sugar and salt can do equally as well. On the other hand, for the amateur sportsperson, the difference in recovery and performance will be negligible. The success of energy drinks, as with all soft drinks, is very much a matter of marketing and image. The portrayal of these products on television and in the media as a valid alternative to alcohol, has strengthened their perception among a key young adult market.
A personal tale
When I was a university student in the UK, one of the holiday jobs I secured was working for a well-known soft drink company. Being a student of chemistry, I was always intrigued by their laboratory and tried every ploy to get into it. The ‘powers-that-be’ knew this and made sure that I was never allowed access. Being mystified by the men in white coats and protective gear mixing the concentrate vats was just too much. I simply had to find out what went into these drinks. I waited my opportunity and crept in one afternoon at smoko. As I quickly read the labels on containers of dye, the phosphoric acid carboys, and the US 44 gallon drums marked avoid all skin contact, I made a mental note to supplement my university grant by working elsewhere. I also decided never to drink this stuff and to this day never have.
For a healthy substitute for sugar - zylitol and zylitol products - enquire at
Robert Anderson BSc (Hons), PhD
4 February 1942 to 5 December 2008
Robert Anderson was a Trustee of Physicians and Scientists for Global Responsibility (formerly Physicians and Scientists for Responsible Genetics) He authored The Final Pollution: Genetic Apocalypse, Exploding the Myth of Genetic Engineering and several other publications on environmental, health and social justice issues.
View his lectures on this website

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[i] Nature 2000;405:1058-1062.
[ii] Quillin P April 2000., Cancer's Sweet Tooth., Quillin P April 2000
[iii] Sugar Increases Birth Defect Risks., American Journal of Clinical Nutrition November, 2003;78(5):972-978
[iv] Energy Drinks Could Be Health Concern., February 3, 2005
[v] Caffeine Linked to Diabetes., Diabetes Care February 2002;25:364-369
[vi] 22nd Congress of the European Society of Cardiology August, 2000
[vii] Journal of Clinical Epidemiology 1998;51:487-494.
[viii] Caffeine May Up Miscarriage Risk., The New England Journal of Medicine, December 21, 2000;343:1839-1845
[ix] also
[xi] The Observer, Food Monthly, March 9 2003
[xii] This is added to make up for lost electrolytes etc.