Health Nut: Deciphering energy drinks

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October 19, 2010

1:05 AM

Energy drinks are everywhere. Since the invention of Red Bull in Austria in 1987, and more pertinently since its introduction to the United States in 1997, the world has seen an explosion in the market for energy drinks. In college, where energy is a coveted commodity, these caffeinated beverages are never in short-supply. From the coolers in the Mews to the wall of cans at Wawa, energy drinks are prevalent in the lives of sleep-deprived College of William and Mary student.

Legal restrictions on energy drinks are minimal, and the United States is especially tolerant of these often bizarre concoctions. As producers vie for the hardest-hitting drinks, however, they continue to explore new ingredients, or unprecedented levels of current additives (Ammo energy shots contain 573 milligrams caffeine per 100 milliliters of fluid –– compare to around 100mg of caffeine in a small cup of coffee). Certain energy drinks have been banned in many parts of7 Europe and elsewhere, but the U.S. has not yet imposed any restrictions on this growing class of beverage.

Like any new dietary supplement, energy drinks have been subjected to allegations large and small regarding potentially adverse health effects. Claims ranging from insomnia to cardiac arrest are often thrown at specific energy drink ingredients without the scientific evidence to substantiate such claims. My hope here is to shed light on a few of the more common and controversial ingredients found in energy drinks so that you, the consumer, may make an informed decision the next time you think about sprouting the wings that a Red Bull promises.

Caffeine and its effects are familiar to most of us. The short and long term effects of the megadoses of caffeine found in many energy drinks, however, are less understood. In moderation, caffeine has been shown to improve mental and cognitive performance, as well as to enhance alertness and mood. Some studies suggest, however, that the mood and performance “enhancement” is actually nothing more than the reversal of the individual’s withdrawal from caffeine. Excess consumption of caffeine often induces agitation, anxiety, irritability and insomnia. Consuming more than 400mg of caffeine per day may lead to arrhythmia (abnormal heart rhythm). Mixing caffeine with alcohol masks the perception of the drink’s intoxicating effects, but psychomotor deficits and blood alcohol content remain unchanged. This means that, when you consume alcohol with caffeine, you are more drunk than you feel. This is why an increased risk of alcohol-related injury is associated with this deceiving mixture.

Guarana is a vine that is native to the Amazon rainforest. It was domesticated in Brazil for its caffeine-rich fruits, which have been long been used to treat various disorders and ailments. By mass, the guarana seed is approximately four to five percent caffeine, which is about twice the caffeine density of a coffee bean. It is tough to distinguish the physiological effects of guarana from those of caffeine, and many of the benefits are identical. Likewise, the risk of caffeine intoxication is especially relevant to the frequent consumer of guarana-enhanced beverages.

Taurine is an organic acid produced by the pancreas. This naturally occurring compound is a regular component of the human diet. A normal amount of taurine is generally within the range of 40mg per day to 400 mg per day. Taurine has demonstrated beneficial effects on blood pressure, skeletal muscle function and cardiovascular ailments. Many energy drinks contain 1000mg to 2000mg of taurine, and little research has been done regarding the short term (much less the long-term) effects of such a megadose. Current research regarding taurine consumption demonstrates that no adverse affects accompany such doses, although the interaction of taurine with other energy drink additives is still under investigation.

As of late, B-vitamins have found their way into energy drinks in ridiculous doses. One 5-Hour Energy shot contains an astonishing 8333 percent of the recommended daily value of vitamin B-12, 2000 percent of the RDV of B-6, and 100 percent of the RDV of B-9 (folic acid). B-vitamins do indeed help the body glean the nutrients from the foods we eat, but the average person has no trouble fulfilling their RDV with a normal diet. The megadoses in energy shots are merely flushed out of our systems through our urine. Also, indiscriminate consumption of B-vitamins can lead to peripheral nerve damage in the arms and legs.

Overall, due to the relatively recent pioneering of energy drink additives, little concrete data exists regarding the long term effects that these mixtures may have on human physiology. That said, there is no evidence to suggest that the occasional Monster, Rock Star, or Red Bull (all of the drink variety, mind you) will kill you. Check the label when buying a new energy drink to make sure it contains healthy levels of caffeine, and that it does not contain 101 other additives that you cannot pronounce. Also, try to think of other dietary or lifestyle choices (such as exercise) that will enhance your energy levels. Of course, you could get a bit more sleep, but I suppose that just isn’t the William and Mary way.

__Mike Coulter is a Health Nut columnist. He hopes you’ll put down your Red Bull, but will instead do sit-ups to stay awake during your 8 am class.__

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