Energy Drinks: The good, the Bad and the Jittery

 A Popular Alternative to Coffee. Step aside coffee, energy drinks are taking over!

About half of all adults have tried them, and about half of all teenagers and young adults drink them regularly. When asked why they like them, most people mention the taste, the convenience, and the “boost” it gives them. Energy drinks also have a “cool factor” that coffee doesn’t, especially with the younger crowd, since they are marketed by rock stars and X-Games athletes.

What IS an energy drink anyway? Energy drinks and caffeinated soft drinks share several similarities: both contain caffeine and sugar and many energy drinks are carbonated. The biggest difference between them is how they are classified by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA).

The ingredients and caffeine content of sodas are tightly regulated – they are clas- sified as “functional foods”, since they provide a non-nutritious benefit (alertness).



energy drinks


The amount of caffeine has to be listed in the ingredients, and cannot exceed 71mg of caffeine in 12oz. Energy drinks on the other hand are classified as dietary supplements, and are not regulated by the FDA. The claims of an energy drink to “increase energy” or “improve health” don’t have to be proven scientifically. In a dietary supplement, the ingredients must be listed, but the amount does not, unless the manufacturer chooses to do so.

What gives an energy drink its “boost?” The energy “boost” in energy drinks is mostly due to caffeine and sugar. We compared some of the top selling energy drinks, energy shots, and coffee brands to compare caffeine and sugar amounts (see table on front page).

Energy drinks contain a lot of caffeine (on average 9-10 mg/oz) – but not more caffeine per ounce on average than a cup of hot coffee (9-21 mg/oz). And when it comes to packing the biggest caffeine punch, the energy shots are the clear winners with 100 and 123.2 mg/oz of caffeine. What makes energy drinks different from coffee and energy shots is the amount of sugar. The sugar in an energy drink can range from 26-81 grams of sugar per can! Why so much sugar in energy drinks?

Well, one possibility is that caffeine takes about a half an hour to reach peak levels in the bloodstream, so the added sugar could be used to get your body moving until the caffeine takes over (and causes it to crash when the sugar is gone).

Most energy drinks and energy shots add a number of other ingredients, although how these increase energy is less understood, and there are no guidelines for how much it takes to get an energy boost. Popular additives include taurine, massive amounts of Bvitamins, and guarana, to name a few.

Dangers of energy drinks and shots? Imagine drinking seven and a half 12oz cans of coke during a football game (as a player or observer) – that’s the caffeine equivalent of a single 16oz NOS energy drink or 1 NOS Energy Shot. The high caffeine content in many energy drinks can put you at risk for dehydration and caffeine overload after a couple of drinks. For example, 750+ mg of caffeine can cause anxiety, rapid heart rate, and stomach agitation.

Recommendations for use. The bottom line: use in moderation. Keep in mind that some people are more sensitive to caffeine than others. Wherever you get your caffeine from, try to be aware of how much you are consuming and how it affects your energy level, mood and even sleep quality. But by using caution and monitoring your caffeine consumption, you can enjoy the benefits of energy drinks – feeling energized, and alert.



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