Energy Drinks: Friend or Foe?

Energy drinks and energy shots have become very popular to reportedly keep us energized and alert. According to market researcher Packaged Facts, the United Stated energy drink market was worth $12.5 billion in 2012 and is expected to continue to grow. However the long-term safety of the energy drinks or shots is unknown, and there have been documented accounts of negative side effects from excessive intake of these products. The biggest questions then are, are they safe and should we consume them?

What exactly are energy drinks or shots? They are flavored beverages containing different amounts of caffeine in addition to other additives such as herbal supplements, vitamins, minerals, sugar, or guarana, a plant product that contains naturally concentrated caffeine. Many claim to improve concentration, alertness, and help with mental or physical performance. They are readily available at many different locations and some of the most popular brand names include: Red Bull, 5 Hour Energy, Monster, Rock Star Energy, or Full Throttle.

Many of these energy drinks or shots contain high amounts of caffeine. Some contain up to 150 mg per serving, however, many energy drinks contain two or three servings per container which can quickly add up throughout the day. In healthy adults, a caffeine intake of 400 mg/day or less is considered safe. In reference, 400 mg is the equivalent of 4 cups of coffee or 10 regular sodas. However, some researchers have found that doses greater than 300 mg can cause negative side effects. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends an upper limit of 300 mg/day for pregnant women, and caffeine is not recommended for children and adolescents.

Adults who consume low to moderate amounts of caffeine may have improved exercise endurance, cognition, reaction time, and mood, however, many of the claims related to the products in energy drinks have not been backed up by science. Consuming higher amounts of caffeine has been linked to anxiety, jitteriness, restlessness, headache, and fatigue. Caffeine intoxication can cause insomnia, tremors, heart palpitations, and upset stomach and at the highest levels, can cause vomiting, abdominal pain, hallucinations, muscle tremors, rapid heartbeat, stroke, paralysis, altered consciousness, seizures, arrhythmias, and even death.

Nutritional concerns with these products include labeling issues. Many companies are not required to disclose information related to the caffeine content, although some voluntarily do so. In addition, many energy drinks contain excess calories and sugar which can lead to obesity and high blood sugar over time. Some cans contain as much as 60 grams of sugar or the equivalent of about 15 teaspoons of sugar! Energy drinks can also contain higher levels of sodium. Some are even as high as 400 mg of sodium per can.

The bottom line? If you are going to consume caffeine or energy drinks, as with anything, moderation is always key. Keep tabs on how much you are drinking throughout the day. Cut back gradually if you exceed the 400 mg/day upper limit. Try decaf instead of regular, as it typically has the same taste without all of the caffeine, or choose an energy drink that is a smaller size or only drink half of a can. If being treated for high blood pressure, energy drinks are not recommended. Remember to get plenty of sleep, eat healthy, and exercise, all of which can give you healthy energy without needing to take a supplement or energy drink!

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