There is no denying that energy drinks are popular – Americans consume nearly $8 billion dollars of Red Bull, Rockstar, Monster and related beverages every year. Numerous media reports have called energy drinks “useless” to “dangerous” (including the popular Dr. Oz Show, on which I’ve appeared as a guest and which I consult with from time to time on segments related to dietary supplements).
Although most energy drinks are little more than flavored caffeine/sugar concoctions, some products are striking out in new directions to deliver the energy boost that tired consumers are craving without the sugary side effects. As a nutritionist, I’m often conflicted when I’m asked if energy drinks are “safe” for kids (they are – if you choose intelligently) or whether they’re “healthy” to consume on a daily basis (most are certainly not, but some newer options are coming close).
All of the mainstream energy drinks deliver 3-4 grams of sugar per ounce – so for drinks ranging from 8 to 20 ounces, you’re looking at a massive dose of 25-80 grams of sugar. Your typical 12-ounce Coke packs 39 grams of sugar per can (almost 10 teaspoons of sugar and 160 calories). The sugar-free versions aren’t much better because you’re trading your sugar rush for a range of artificial sweeteners that often can only trick your brain and taste buds temporarily (you’re appetite is likely to increase significantly in the evening after having consumed an artificially-sweetened beverage earlier in the day – so you end up consuming those “missing” sugar calories later anyway – more on this delayed appetite effect of artificial sweeteners in a future blog).
Palatinose is a brand name of isomaltulose – a unique natural sugar that is absorbed about 50% slower than regular sugar (sucrose). This makes isomaltulose a “low glycemic” type of sugar that is less likely to result in the “spikes” of blood glucose that are common with traditional energy drinks. Isomaltulose is a form of sucrose (cane sugar) that has been naturally fermented in a way that slows its rate of absorption (which is good for energy levels, brain function, and fat-burning). For example, consuming an energy drink sweetened with sugar or high fructose corn syrup is likely to result in a fast rise in blood glucose (and a resulting spike in energy levels and rapid drop in fat-burning), but is also likely to result (about 90 minutes later) in a fast drop in blood glucose levels and a corresponding fall in mental and physical energy levels.
Most mainstream soft drinks and energy drinks use synthetic caffeine added at 50-200mg per can to their high fructose corn syrup and artificial colors – not a very appetizing brew (5-Hour Energy has 207mg, Red Bull has 80mg, Coke has 35mg, and a typical coffee has 100mg). This level of caffeine has been shown to improve subjective feelings of physical energy, mental focus, and reaction time, alertness, and overall cognitive performance. A handful of studies have also demonstrated an improvement in energy expenditure (burning more calories) as well as improved physical performance in both sprint and endurance events.
Clearly, there is a short-term benefit of energy drinks on various aspects of mental and physical performance – but what about the long-term health effects? It’s obvious that high doses of sugar are detrimental to health in myriad ways from insulin overload to outright addiction. Caffeine overdoses are associated with elevated stress responses, higher blood pressure and heart rate, exacerbated hyperglycemia, tension, and insomnia.
As a physiologist, nutritionist, and endurance athlete, I don’t want anyone to be over-consuming either sugar or caffeine, and when they (myself include) DO consume energy drinks, I’d prefer the sugars to have a lower glycemic index (such as Palatinose) and the caffeine to come from natural sources (which can be “slower” forms of caffeine in several ways). Plants such as Green Tea Leaves, Coffee Beans, Guarana Seeds, Maca Roots, Cha de Burge Fruits, Yerba Mate Leaves, and Kola Nuts are all rich sources of natural caffeine that tend to be absorbed into the blood stream more slowly than synthetic caffeine. The combination of natural caffeine plus lower-glycemic sugars results in a more sustained, longer lasting, and less “jittery” form of energy – without the common up/down spikes that come from many mainstream energy drinks.
At the more “premium” end of the energy drink spectrum (not the stuff you buy at the gas station), it’s becoming more common to see exotic energy boosters such as Panax ginseng (very effective for mental/physical energy, but also very expensive) and stamina/endurance enhancers such as Ribose (great for cardiovascular and muscular energy), as well as amino acids such as Taurine (to increase blood flow) and Tyrosine (for mental focus). Unfortunately, these exotic ingredients are often added to many energy drinks in tiny “pixie dust” amounts (too little to be effective) – so don’t put too much faith in a long list of exotic ingredients unless the actual product has undergone some level of scientific validation of its energy boosting claims.
The bottom line when it comes to energy drinks is to look for some of the “healthier” options that are coming to market – those with “slower” types of both sugar and natural caffeine, perhaps combined with meaningful levels of exotics such as panax ginseng, ribose, and tyrosine – for a more sustained increase in whole-body energy levels and improvement in mental focus.
About the Author: Dr. Shawn Talbott holds a MS in exercise science (UMass Amherst) and PhD in nutritional biochemistry (Rutgers). As an exhausted dad, scientist, and ultramarathoner, he is a frequent user of energy drinks that take a healthier approach to restoring mental and physical energy levels.