“Are energy drinks bad for you?” That's the loaded question. I can’t tell you how many times someone has asked me this. The question doesn’t arise out of nowhere; it usually is asked because someone sees me drinking one. I work professionally in the fitness industry, so naturally, they become curious. So yes, let's get that out of the way first: I do drink energy drinks. Do I recommend them for everyone? Not always. But before we get into that, let’s discuss the loaded question. Now, this is definitely a loaded question because there are many, many variables. Before we can dive into whether energy drinks as a whole are bad for you, we need to define what energy drinks are and what classifies them as “energy drinks.” What defines a drink as an energy drink? The answer may surprise you.
So, what are energy drinks?
It depends on how you look at it! “Energy drinks” as a label is a vast category. If we label something as an “energy drink," that something is designed to give us energy in some form (usually some type of stimulant, which is most often caffeine). It can come in a can, a bottle, a powder — you name it, you can probably find the form. But when we traditionally think of energy drinks, we think of the typical brands such as Monster Energy, Red Bull, Bang, etc. But what we often don’t think of in terms of “energy drinks” is our basic morning coffee or the pre-workout we use before training. If we deem as an "energy drink" anything that is a liquid that gives us said energy, why aren’t coffee and pre-workouts lumped in the same category? In my opinion, they should be. When we think of whether an energy drink, in general, is good or bad, we first need to identify what type of energy drink we are talking about, because they are not all the same nor created equal. A cup of coffee in the morning is vastly different than a Bang Energy drink, but they are both “energy drinks” at the root of it.
Therefore, if there are a vast amount of energy drinks out there and they are all different, how can we interpret if they are in fact bad for us? It really comes down to two unique questions we must ask ourselves?
- How do I respond to stimulants (mainly caffeine), specifically as an individual?
- What other ingredients reside in the drink that may or may not be advantageous to my goals or have an adverse effect on me personally?
That being said, let’s go over the stimulant side of things first, then we can go into various other ingredients that are typically found in your most common energy drinks.
Image credit: pakete © 123rf.com
In terms of caffeine intake, everyone is vastly different in terms of how they respond to this stimulant. Some folks can have three cups of coffee in the morning and feel like a champ, while others would feel like they are losing their mind if they drank that much in one sitting. Everyone is different! So, from a caffeine perspective let's look at the actual caffeine amounts per serving in some of our most popular energy drinks:
- Sugar-Free Red Bull (8.4 oz): 80 mg
- Home Brewed Coffee (8 oz): 95 mg
- Monster Energy Zero Ultra (16 oz): 140 mg
- 5-Hour Energy (2 oz): 200 mg
- Starbucks Tall Pike Roast (12 oz): 235 mg
- Bang Energy Cherry Blade Lemonade (16 oz): 300 mg
- 10-Hour Energy Shot (1.93 oz): 422 mg
There are a few things that I found to be interesting when compiling this list, mainly:
- There are some energy drinks (Red Bull and Monster) that have far less caffeine per serving than one typically thinks in comparison to coffee.
- The higher the caffeine content became, the harder it was for me to find that information on their unique websites. 5-Hour and 10-Hour don’t even have the label or exact caffeine content displayed for any of their products on their site. I had to dig for it elsewhere.
- Take note of the caffeine per liquid ounce. Drinking 300 milligrams of caffeine in a 16-ounce drink (assuming you don’t chug it) has an immensely different effect on the body than chugging down 200 milligrams in 2 ounces.
As you can see from a caffeine perspective alone, not all energy drinks are created equal, which for many is the ultimate “health concern.” But also keep in mind that there sometimes are other ingredients found within the energy drink that can also have a stimulant effect on top of the caffeine. You see this more so in pre-workouts. That is also something to consider, so do your research if you have sensitivity to stimulants. Being mindful of your personal caffeine or stimulant intake over time is important. Consuming too much for too long can have negative effects on your adrenals, thyroid, blood pressure, etc. Is caffeine inherently bad for you? No, but there is definitely a point of diminishing returns over time. While the average person's caffeine consumption is around 200 milligrams a day, the Mayo Clinic advises against exceeding 500 to 600 milligrams per day.
Let’s move on to another hot topic when it comes to energy drinks: the "oh-so-dangerous” artificial sweeteners. There are two main artificial sweeteners you will find in many popular energy drinks that are low sugar or calorie free. Artificial sweeteners are found in low calorie or zero calorie drinks because it can give the drink a sweet taste without adding calories. Aspartame and sucralose are the two most common sweeteners in such products, and are also the most highly researched artificial sweeteners to date (meaning there has been a shit ton of research done on both of these, over and over, and again and again). Also keep in mind, if something is deemed “artificial,” that does not automatically make it bad for you. I’m not going to get into the natural versus unnatural debate in this article, but I wanted to throw that out there. There are plenty of naturally derived compounds that can kill you instantly. But before I go further down a rabbit hole, let's move on.
Aspartame is a derivative of aspartic acid and phenylalanine. It was first approved safe for consumption in the United States in 1974, after 90 other countries did so as well. Aspartame became the topic of debate when a few studies conducted (literally, like three, out of the hundreds of studies out there) on rodents showed the potential to cause cancer. But according to those studies, in order for a human to experience the same effect as the rats tested, a human would have to consume over 20 cans of diet pop (or energy drinks) a day for an extended period of time. Is that possible? Highly unlikely. You would also probably die of hyponatremia before you would ever get cancer, mind you. Those studies were completely dose-dependent, which makes them unreliable sources and cannot be used in the context of humans. In comparison, these studies are like saying, “Drinking water is bad for you because if you drink five gallons of water in an hour you will die.” No shit! Almost anything in excess can kill you. That doesn’t define whether it is bad for you or not. The devil is in the dosage.
Sucralose is derived from sugar, so it is pretty natural in comparison to some others. Sucralose is largely found in diet sodas and zero calorie energy drinks, and most popularly seen in Splenda. Upon consumption, sucralose is mainly excreted as waste, and if it does get absorbed it is quickly excreted through urine. Like aspartame, human trials have not shown any significant negative health effects to date. However, there is some research that does show a link between sucralose intake and migraine headaches. There isn’t a clear reason why, so obviously for those who may struggle with migraines, they may not want to consume sucralose on a daily basis. Now, does that mean because some people get headaches from sucralose that it is dangerous for everyone? I hope you are catching on that the answer to that is a big fat no. Again, everyone is different. If someone has a gluten allergy, for example, and you don’t, it doesn’t mean gluten is inherently bad for you.
Red 40 is a certified color that comes from petroleum distillates or coal tars. You may find this in some sodas or energy drinks that are red or purple in color. There have been a few studies that have shown negative health effects, but the main thing you will see here is a potential allergic reaction in some people. For example, myself: if I consume Red 40 I get a massive headache. So yes, if I drink an energy drink that has Red 40 in it, I will feel like shit. I am allergic to it, so I simply avoid it. Am I going to picket outside of a Red 40 production factory demanding that production ceases? No. I just don’t eat or drink shit I’m allergic to. Problem solved. This would be like if everyone who was allergic to peanuts raged outside of a peanut factory demanding that the US ban peanuts. Does that sound ridiculous? Yes, it does.
- Not all energy drinks are created equal.
- If you choose to drink energy drinks, be mindful of your unique sensitivity to stimulants.
- Drinking a shit ton of stimulants all the time will have an adverse effect eventually (adrenal health, thyroid function, blood pressure, etc.).
- Energy drinks can help focus and training performance but drinking too much will have diminishing returns.
- Avoid drinks (and foods) that contain ingredients you are allergic to.
- If you don’t like energy drinks, don’t drink them.
- Aspartame. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-causes/aspartame.html
- Examine.com. (2018, March 16). Artificial sweeteners - Is the evidence as sweet as these substitutes? Retrieved from https://examine.com/nutrition/artificial-sweeteners-is-the-evidence-as-sweet-as-these-substitutes/
- Examine.com. (2017, December 14). Is diet soda bad for you? Retrieved from https://examine.com/nutrition/is-diet-soda-bad-for-you/
- Integrative Nutrition. (2016, September 02). Red 40 Side Effects. Retrieved from https://www.integrativenutrition.com/blog/2016/09/red-40-side-effects
- Standard-Examiner. (2014, August 13). Lethal doses of caffeine drinks explained. Retrieved from http://www.standard.net/frontpage/2014/08/21/All-about-caffeine.html
Header image credit: deltaart © 123rf.com