Health & Medicine

Energy drinks are made of caffeine, sugar and marketing

It's easy for a middle-aged woman like me to drift through life without paying much attention to energy drinks. I had been vaguely aware of Monster, Red Bull, Rockstar, Amp and the like, but never was I tempted to buy or try one; nor did I think about their nutritional value or potential health risks.

Then my son turned 13. He's now an energy-drink consumer waiting to happen, and the marketing people work hard to seal the deal.

We're not a soda-drinking family, so I was surprised when my son asked for a Monster. Several of his extreme-sports heroes had promoted it. Then friends told him how good the drinks taste.

We agreed that he could have an occasional energy drink as a treat. Was this a good idea?

Mary Claire O'Brien, an associate professor in emergency medicine at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center, says that all energy drinks feature the same basic components: caffeine, a stimulant that can come from several sources, including guarana or herba mate, and "some kind of sugar," often glucose or sucrose. Beyond that, she says, the drinks commonly contain an amino acid such as taurine or L-carnitine, herbs (ginkgo biloba, ginseng) and vitamins (particularly B vitamins).

Despite all that, O'Brien says there's little or no evidence that such ingredients perform any function. Andrea Giancoli, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, says, "Like a lot of dietary supplements, they put in a small amount of an ingredient without a lot of research to show that it does anything."

"Dietary supplements" are the more loosely regulated category of foods into which energy drinks fall. Their ingredients must be among those classified by the Food and Drug Administration as food additives or listed as "generally regarded as safe," says Maureen Storey, senior vice president for science policy for the American Beverage Association, which represents the non-alcoholic drink industry.

O'Brien, Giancoli and Storey say that energy drinks are mostly caffeine and sugar.

Caffeine content varies by brand and can be tough to calculate. Red Bull, the first commercial energy drink to make it big in the United States (in the late 1980s), lists 80 milligrams of caffeine in an 8.4-ounce can and 114 mg. in 12 ounces. Compare that with 34 mg. in a 12-ounce Coke and 38 mg. in Pepsi.

Monster doesn't list caffeine content separately, including it among a handful of ingredients labeled the "energy blend," which totals 2,500 mg. in 8 ounces. I spoke with someone from Monster Beverage Co., who said a 16-ounce can has 160 mg. of caffeine. But regular consumers get only an advisory on the can that warns them to limit themselves to three cans a day and notes that the beverage is "not recommended for children, pregnant women or people sensitive to caffeine."

"There's no way to look at (some energy drinks) and see how much caffeine you're getting," O'Brien says. She worries there's far more in some drinks than we might think. The loose regulation makes it hard to compare energy drinks to other beverages.

Even so, why worry about caffeine? O'Brien says that at high doses, it can cause anxiety, insomnia, nervousness, high blood pressure and heart palpitations. Giancoli says that even if the caffeine content is relatively low, "If a kid isn't already used to caffeine," that child might experience the stimulant effect more strongly.

Giancoli worries most about the sugar. "That's exactly what 'energy' is: calories," not caffeine, she says. Some brands (including Monster) offer low-carb or diet varieties, but a 16-ounce can of standard Monster contains 200 calories, comparable to the calories in Coke and Pepsi.

I hope this is a phase my son will soon outgrow and maybe even learn from. I'm also wary: O'Brien says its common among college students and young adults to mix alcohol and caffeine. Was it OK to let my son enjoy an occasional energy drink? I sure hope so. Time will tell.