July 19, 2012
Beating the lazy, mid-afternoon summer heat with a cold energy drink?
Energy drinks are a staple among active Americans, who substitute the canned, sugary beverages for coffee or tea and have launched brands like Red Bull, Monster and Rockstar to the top of a $7.7 billion industry. Not only do energy drinks pack a caffeine-punch, they are filled with energy-boosting supplements.
It’s a tough call whether the benefits associated with supplemental boosters outweigh all the unhealthy sugars that give energy drinks their sweet flavor. Red Bull contains 3.19 grams of sugar per fluid ounce, Monster contains 3.38 g/oz. and Rockstar has 3.75 g/oz. Marketed as health drinks, energy drinks are as high in sugar as classic Coca-Cola, which contains 3.25 g/oz. of sugar.
So what exactly are those “energy-boosting natural supplements” that supposedly set energy drinks apart from other sugary beverages — and how do they affect the bodies of those who consume energy drinks?
Taurine: Although it sounds as though it was dreamed up in a test-lab, taurine isn’t foreign to the human body. Its name stems from the fact it was first discovered and isolated from ox bile, but the naturally-occurring supplement is the second-most abundant amino acid in our brain tissue, and is also found in our bloodstream and the nervous system.
The taurine used in energy drinks is produced synthetically in commercial laboratories. Since excess taurine is excreted by the kidneys, it’s improbable that someone could overdose on the supplemental form. To be on the safe side, one expert recommends staying under 3,000 mg per day. Animal experiments have shown that taurine acts as an antioxidant and may have anti-anxiety and anti-epileptic properties. Some studies have even suggested that dosages of the amino acid may help to stave off age-related bodily degeneration.
And taurine’s anti-anxiety effects might be useful when consumed as part of an energy drink; the amount of accompanying stimulant found in popular beverages is capable of causing some seriously anxious jitters.
Guarana: The caffeine component of many energy drinks is guarana, which comes from a flowering plant native to the Amazon rainforest. In fact, most people in South America get their caffeine intake from the guarana plant rather than coffee beans. Guarana seeds are about the same size as a coffee bean, but their caffeine potency can be up to three times as strong.
Both coffee and guarana have weight-loss inducing effects through the suppression of appetite, a common side-effect of caffeine. Although caffeine can improve mental alertness, it can also cause dizziness, nervousness, insomnia, increased heart rate and stomach irritation.
Ginseng: Some of the most interesting, if not debatable, effects come from supplemental Panax ginseng, which is included in 200mg doses in several energy drink brands. As a traditional herbal treatment associated with East Asian medicines, ginseng has many folkloric uses — although many of those uses are not proven scientifically. Rumored uses for ginseng have included improved psychologic functioning, boosted immune defenses and increased sexual performance and desire.
Myths aside, ginseng does offer some attractive benefits. Studies have indicated positive correlation between daily ginseng intake and improved immune system responses, suggesting ginseng has anti-bacterial qualities in addition to boosting a body’s “good” cells.
Ginseng has also been shown in animal and clinical studies to have anticancer properties, due to the presence of ginsenosides within the extract of the plant. Ginsenosides are a type of saponins, which act to protect the plant from microbes and fungal and have been described as being “tumor killers”. Scientists are still working to understand the effects of ginseng supplements for use in preventative and post-diagnosis cancer treatment.
Energy drinks may be overhyped as a source of supplemental substances. All of the supplements found in energy drinks can be bought individually as dietary supplements, which allows consumers to ingest the substances without the complementary sugar load found in energy drinks.
Please, though, if you’ve ever sprouted wings after chugging back an energy drink, we’d like to be the first to know.
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.