The Dope on Energy Drinks

It’s impossible to walk through a bar, college campus, city park, gym(!), or even company break room without spying one. You know, those gi-normous cans with the graphics so obnoxious (e.g. lightning bolts, claw marks, neon slashes and splatters) they leave your eyes bloodshot. (Can you tell we’re in the mood for a rant?)

It used to be if you were tired you grabbed a morning/afternoon cup of joe. Nothing fancy. It was simple, “old school” (if you will), and mercifully cheap. (Relatively bland and weak by today’s standards, but did most of us know any different back then?) Then came the Starbucks/Seattle revolution, and suddenly coffee – and all manner of coffee related drinks – were practically an official American accessory. Seemingly more omnipresent (or at least obviously visible). More potent. Decked out. Pricier to be sure. Not only did the cost and flair go up with this new wave, the caffeine and sugar content of our coffee did as well. (Ever wonder what’s in that special syrup that makes a mochachino a mochachino?)

If we weren’t all sufficiently caffeinated before, it now seems that marketers (and a certain portion of the American public) aren’t content until consumers among all generations are madly spinning in clouds of dust and unintelligible snarls like that Tasmanian devil figure. We’re talking the “monster” market (Sorry – we couldn’t resist) of energy drinks: more caffeine, more sugar, more stimulants. The “energy” drink industry is growing at an enormous rate of 55% each year and accounts for $5.6 billion dollars in annual revenue.

And with this skyrocketing popularity comes a new warning. Researchers from Johns Hopkins are calling for more complete labeling of these energy drinks. The scientists, who have studied caffeine’s physiological impact, report that the caffeine content in these drinks range from 50-500 milligrams of caffeine. (For perspective, the typical cup of coffee weighs in at about 100 milligrams.) The more “loaded” drinks in particular, the researchers warn, mean a significant risk for “caffeine intoxication, dependence, and withdrawal.” Consumers of these drinks, many of whom may be genetically sensitive to caffeine, generally don’t have the benefit of knowing much about the products either. The drinks, it turns out, aren’t required to print their caffeine content because of their “dietary supplement” status.

With names like Rockstar, No Fear, Amp, Adrenaline Rush, and Full Throttle, the energy drink marketers clearly equate guzzling their product with living on the edge. (The edge of sanity perhaps? Edge of physical collapse? ) As the researchers note (and the rest of us clearly see), the ads for energy drinks especially target younger men and women. Teenagers are, in fact, an enormous part of their market, and they may be the most “vulnerable” group according the researchers. The scientists, for their part, note the “psychoactive, performance-enhancing and stimulant drug effects of these drugs.” Nearly 30% of energy drink users interviewed say they have “‘weekly jolt and crash episodes'” and nearly 20% said they experienced heart palpitations when drinking these products. Judging by sales, however, it seems they’re drawn to the flame nonetheless. As for parents of minor age consumers, they likely don’t know the potency of these products or the physical impact caffeine intake of this caliber can have on adolescents.

The energy drink promotions aren’t the first, of course, to dare people to prove how poorly they can take care of their bodies. It’s a common and oddly tempting taunt (perhaps especially for the younger set): the challenge to inflict physiological shock in the name of bravado. And many of these companies throw in the ridiculous promise of nutrient “boosts” such as B-vitamins. (Gee, the drink itself will cause so much stress to your body, you’ll definitely need it and then some!) Additionally, the added stimulants in many energy drinks (e.g. ginseng, guarana seed extract) together with the caffeine stimulate both the cardiac and nervous systems, which has resulted in seizures in some consumers of the drinks.

Add to all of this the punch of sugar in many of the drinks – more than 80 grams per insidious serving, and we think you’ve set yourself up for a real crash and burn scenario. Sugar shock alone puts the body into rapid response frenzy as we described in the “What Happens to Your Body When You…Carb Binge?” post. (We’ve got a raging headache just thinking about it.) Sure, some of the drinks are now offered in “sugar free” versions, but you’re just exchanging sugar for a hefty dose of chemical sugar substitutes – wholly unnecessary and harmful to those with sensitivities.

Our final word on these siren song beverages? Big hype, huge hazard. “Unleash the beast,” one product calls. Sounds primal and all, but no thanks.

Comments, rants, disputes, questions, or stories about energy drinks? We want to hear them!

TIO…, ghostbusterfamous, _Gerardhino_ Flickr Photos (CC)

Further Reading:

Carl’s Jr. – ‘Feel Good About Being Fat’

Fast Food Indulgence, Dirty Marketing Tricks and Personal Responsibility

They Did It! A 134-lb hamburger has been constructed! (I hope you can sense the sarcasm.)

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47 thoughts on “The Dope on Energy Drinks”

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  1. When I was a kid, we used to sneak a drink called “Jolt” which advertised something to the effect of twice the caffiene. Our parents would never willingly let us drink the stuff. I bet “Jolt” had half of what these modern “energy” drinks have and probably had half the sugar. Years ago, when I was working in the Bar industry, I began to get really concerned about these drinks because people started drinking them with alchohol (I don’t know if its still done but i hope not). Can you say upper/downer cocktail?

    Anyways, to my point if there is one. Back when these energy drinks were coming on to the scene, I rode on an airplane with a prodect development person for a major beverage company. He was telling me about this great new product they had that cost them pennies to make because it was nothing but cheap garbage and that people were willing to pay 2-3$ for it. He called it liquid gold.

    This knowledge right from the horses mouth was enough to keep me from ever drinking “energy” drinks even before I started living primally. Whatever happened to marketing ethics? I guess they went out the window for more than the cigarette companies back in the day.

    1. Well I can personally say that in highschool, these things are considered “cool”. Although most people know their not great for you, I dont think they really know the health hazzards they cause.

      One way I’ve noticed energy drink companies attrack young customers is by creating really tasty (yes I have tasted them once or twice) new flavors, that regular soda companies dont make.

      Also, a lot of times, they dont really lsit the flavor, but put a color or “energy-ish” title. Then teenagers, being the curious creaturs we are, want to taste it.

      After that, they taste it a few times, and they’re hooked.

      And the alchohol with it? Everywhere. People think it’s benificial because it makes them feel like thier still in control, even though thier completely drunk! However, the alchohol still has the same effect on them.

  2. Don’t forget about Sparks and its knock offs.
    Its an energy drink malt beverage. 6% so nothing crazy, but still not the best combination.

  3. An energy drink malt beverage? Scary. What is going to happen when people start having strokes?

  4. I’m glad to see this topic. In my area on the local news the warning of Red Bull energy drink has been talked about much. It makes the blood sticky and increses risk of stroke and heart attack. It’s such a dangerous drink, it’s now banned in some countries. It bothers me every time i see someone buying this, if they only knew what they were really drinking.

    1. hey thanks alot fo diz info… em reallly much thank full to diz site n u… as i used to drink redddd bull alot… wif my frnds.. thanks =)

  5. I remember once I looked at the ingredients on the side of one of these things just for a lark…and aside from a few token vitamins, it was identical to regular soda, HFCS and all. Really, you could drink that and take a vitamin for much less, if you were really that in the need of it. Which no one ever will be.

  6. I never understood the draw to these things. I tried Red Bull once (and, yes, people definitely still drink them with alcohol – Red Bull and vodka is a standard around here), and it completely disgusted me. I can’t stand soda, can’t stand these either.

    Coffee? Now that’s another story… 🙂

  7. “official American accessory” – that is so true. its almost a status symbol to walk around with your cup of starbucks, and I hate to say it, but I almost laugh when I see an overweight person drinking a large (or whatever their term is) coffee. that thing has more caffeine in it than would last me two weeks.

    I am glad you posted on this. My opinion on these drinks is that they are the modern day equivalent of cigarettes. No one knew cigarettes were bad for you, and it was “cool” to do it. Decades later after we have data, look at people now.

    Teenagers are pumping themselves with these, and parents are probably thinking at least its not alcohol. I have no doubt that there will be long term effects of younger people loading themselves up with caffeine, sugar, guarana and whatever crap they put in there – b vitamins and all.

  8. Wow, amazing post Mark. I remember I once took a sip of Red Bull right before Karate class. I was so jumping, it was almost scary. I started getting into them during college when I needed “something” to stay awake during professor lectures. I spent so much money on energy drinks and starbucks. I’m just glad I decided to drop weight and now stay the hell away from both starbucks and red bull.

  9. Admittedly I will indulge in the occasional Red Bull, but only because Red Bull is one of the few energy drinks that shied away from this sort of “arms race” of making the drinks bigger and more caffeinated. The small cans are equivalent to a cup of coffee (around 85mg to be exact) and aren’t overly sweet (maybe 25g of actual cane sugar) and that’s plenty for my purposes.

  10. Great post. I’ve tried a Red Bull as well as an AMP and both times I was just a jittery as I could be. The kids use them for study time in school. I remember “no doze” we used to ingest to get through an all night cram session. That was just pure caffeine, but I think the ingredients in the drinks truly makes them an accident waiting to happen.

  11. Good rant on a subject about which it is not possible to rant too much. If ever there was a demonstration that companies will sell whatever they can get away with irrespective of the damage it causes, this is it. Yet another product on which the apparently toothless regulators need to get a grip, both in terms of marketing and content.

  12. I suppose I fall to the other side on this issue. While I would never consume a regular sugarized beverage, I do partake in using Lo-Carb Monster as a mixture with tequila. It makes a wonderful, refreshing cocktail with a bit of fresh lime added.

    Furthermore, given the internet, it is not difficult to find websites and ascertain the caffeine content of an energy drink in question.

    In conclusion, I believe that the choice to use an energy drink relates to how much caffeine one believes is safe.

  13. I like energy drinks b/c they have the same or less caffeine as coffee but they don’t make my teeth yellow like all my co-workers. My teeth are pearly white. I eat a lighter lunch when I consume the ones with sugar in them, but I typically stick to the Lo-Carb Monster ones.

  14. I shudder when I see a gaggle of teenagers checking out of a grocery store with a four-pack of these things. Generally, these teenagers make me think, “Really? Seriously? You really think you need that much more sugar?” It’s just another way to take in unnecessary amounts of unnatural sweeteners without realizing it.

    Mark, could you do a rant on protein shakes, at some point? I’d love to hear your perspective on the “healthy” shakes that you find at most health clubs’ front desks (including mine).

  15. Great post Mark. What gets me with these drinks is that I never understood the appeal? For starters I’ve never really been that tired that I needed more than a few cups of coffee to get through the day, even on the days where I have been awake all night previously.

    Secondly, is the taste. Although I know soft drinks are bad, I do let myself have one occassionally because I do like the taste. However, energy drinks are just disgusting. I can’t imagine how anyone could actually enjoy drinking them.

  16. Tom Parker… Energy drinks have less caffeine than coffee. That is why you are so wound up after all that coffee. And there are a lot of bad energy drinks and a lot of good ones. Everyone’s tastes are different.

  17. Does everybody need a kick start from coffee, energy drinks or soda anymore thsee days? Whatever happened to energy from good food and natural sugar, like fruit?

    1. Well typically people party hard, stay up really late, and then have to get up really early for their jobs or school.

      In short, people simply don’t get enough sleep nowadays. If you look around in a lax highschool class, half of the students are napping throughout the class as a result of staying up untill 4:00 A.M.

  18. Did you test 5 hour energy that claims it does not have the crash effects etc…

  19. I think this blog is great to expose the real scary, disgusting side of energy drinks. While one every once in awhile isn’t going to kill you, it really grosses me out to think of how mush sugar they put in those things. I don’t understand people who drink multiple one’s a day!

    Also, clever name for your blog! (An apple a day…)

  20. I used to drink 4 cups of coffee a day.

    Now i just eat fruit (pears and apples), and i wake up naturally REFRESHED (without an alarm) after 4 to 6 hrs of sleep.

    Good luck with your addiction!!

  21. I used to drink Full Throttles (VERY addictive) to keep me up at my night job, and within about 3 months my hair started to thin and fall out! Needless to say I quit drinking them.

    Day jobs are much better than night ones.

  22. I used to drink around 5 of these a day a few years ago. They are probably what drove me to persue a healthier lifestyle, eventually leading me to MDA.

    I actually love the taste of most of them. I’m surprised nobody has mentioned that they are HELL on your teeth! They’ll rip through your enamel in no time.

    One my former co-workers used to show up at work with one of those 77oz (yes seventy-seven ounce) AM/PM mugs full of energy drink to START the morning!

    My favorites were the “Wired” ( I quit drinking them. Wired had by far the most caffeine and/or B12. One of the flavors has over 500 mg of caffeine.

    I still consume way too much caffeine at various times, but almost never energy drinks anymore. The HFCS in them (in addition to what was already in my diet) was playing hell on my overall health. I was a walking inflammatory disaster.

    The carb free 5 Hour Energy’s do work. Two of the “Extra” bottles were the last “energy” type product I consumed.

  23. Stumbled upon this site whilst researching “5-Hour” ands “red Bull” after finding my kid taking it for the SAT’s. It has been making him edgy and angry, then he dozes off.

    It’s also banned in several European countries due to strokes and deaths.

    Read the ingredients folks then do some research. Scary stuff. They don’t even have to tell you how much scary stuff is in it as they are “dietary supplements.”

    I may be getting old here, but I remember the good old days when we had things like exercise that kept us fit and gave us energy.

    Scary stuff. Do your research before you down one of these.

  24. to me, i didn’t taste any of the energy drinks before, but i’m looking for information for my presentation about the danger of energy drinks..
    i have a healthy life style and i’m happy with it.. but why do people drink energy drinks while they know that this will affect their health? i mean, do they just feel that they want to try it or because they lack energy?

  25. I find the explosion in this market disturbing. I’d heard of a couple of brands but last time I looked in my local store the shelves were full of them. I’m probably getting old too, but at the very least I’d like to see an 18+ law on these products.

    1. We have a gas station here along I5 that must have 100 different types. I knew there were a lot of them (because I use to be a big consumer), but I was blown away by the selection. I’ve never seen so many in one place.

  26. I found a really great healthy energy drink! I’m a nurse, and all this drink is is vitamines and fruit juice with a natural form of caffeine that’s easy on the body. Try it!

  27. Any word on the 5 hour energy “shots”? My wife is getting ready to embark on September’s 30-Day Challenge with me and she’s terrified of ditching her lo-carb Monsters…She is curious if she can substitute the 5-hour-energy drinks…Looking at the ingredients (albeit on THE MANUFACTURERS site) looks like there’s nothing that immediately jumps out as non-primal but at the same time it’s got a few unpronouncable ingredients which scares me too…Ideas?

  28. Mark, what do you think about guru light as an occasional indulgence?

  29. I recommend Multi-Vitamins for energy; but you have to make sure they are good ones.

    I’ve been taking the Dr Max Powers Multivitamins for about a year or so and, it takes about a week before you notice anything, but you WILL notice an increase in energy. And unlike what another reviewer said, they are not big at all.

    The ingredients look pretty straightforward, I don’t know what causes the energy boost unless it’s the high volume and unusual type of B supplements (cyanocobalamin?) and/or the “good” kind of vitamin E that most brands don’t have. I was taking a Puritan brand men’s vitamin prior to this, and although I’m sure it helped me stay balanced nutrient-wise, it did nothing for energy, which was my primary reason for taking vitamins.

    it INSTANTLY brought my energy level back up to normal with no reflux problems. I was amazed! I headed off to work without need of caffeine or sugar as an artificial jump start. I’m sold on these, they work for me.

  30. My boyfriend got me hooked on these awhile back, and after I realized how much it cost us I decided to stop. I could get them at $1 each but id drink 1/ day, and him 2/ day so just under $100/month!! I’m glad I “came down” because I actually have more energy now and my body feels great! I went cold turkey but let me tell you I had the WORST migrane withdrawal headache and body ache!! Never again will I down one of those!

  31. Also if you need a kick, trader joes has a b vitamin pill you dissolve under your tongue, seems to work well. Nature made also has natural energy products as well as sleep products

  32. Wow, I’m glad for one reason or another in my entire life I’ve had less of these “energy” drinks than I can count on both hands. Thank God despite my ignorance I somehow steered clear.

    Any comparison between energy drinks and coffee should take into account that caffeine levels are not the only difference between the two. At least coffee comes from a bean that grows spontaneously. Whether it’s healthy or not is debatable. However one thing coffee is not, is it’s not something artifically sweetened (probably with HFCS, derived from GM corn), loaded with synthetic chemicals foreign your body’s metabolic capabilities, and who knows what other crap in the form of “dietary supplements”.

    Well this one’s a no brainer really, it comes in a package after all, I guess you can’t expect too much.

  33. I’m an ex-energy-drink addict. The thing that finally made me give them up was my kids seeing me drink them and asking to try it. I said “no way these are horrible for you”. Oh irony! I now limit myself to two cups of plain black coffee every day. One in the morning, one after lunch if I have boring meetings scheduled. But I find if I take a short nap on my lunch break I can get by without the afternoon cup.

    If you don’t want your kids drinking it, you shouldn’t drink it either.