Energy Drinks - Is High Performance in a Can a Bad Thing?

The HWN Team | Heads or Tails
Energy Drinks - Is High Performance in a Can a Bad Thing?

image by: Mike Mozart

Despite their growing popularity, energy drinks remain controversial because of the effects of excessive caffeine, combination with alcohol and marketing to tweens and teens

If you're one of those people who routinely burn the candle at both ends, you may find yourself running out of energy midway through the day, just when you need it for that afternoon meeting or kid-pickup/run-to-the-ball-field sprint. Yesterday's overachiever reached for a cup of coffee; today's overachiever might reach for an energy drink instead. Oh, by the way, today's "overachiever" in need of an energy boost is also more likely to be 12 to 24 years old.1

Energy drinks are 'soft drinks' advertised as providing energy to improve physical activity of the drinker, as compared to a typical drink. There is a second type of energy drink, more often referred to as a sports drink, that combines fluid/electrolyte replacement with either simple or complex carbohydrates (usually glucose or maltodextrose) to provide energy and hydration during strenuous physical exercise. Sport or electrolyte drinks are not included in this discussion.

Energy drinks provide a performance-enhancing energy boost wrapped in a pleasant convenient to buy and carry beverage. Rather than providing food energy, energy drinks are designed to increase mental alertness and physical performance by the addition of caffeine, sugar, vitamins, and herbal supplements which may interact to provide a stimulant effect over and above any effect from just caffeine. The sugar found in most energy drinks is in a very simple form which can be quickly digested and transformed into a short-lived burst of energy. Sugar is an “energy-only” constituent, adding no proteins, minerals or other nutrition.2

Among the most popular brands of energy drinks are Red Bull, Monster, XS, Boost, Crunk, Rockstar, Crunk Juice, Full Throttle, Spark, Amp, SoBe, Rush, Pimp Juice, Shark, Piranha, Red Line, Bookoo, Socko, Fuze, Hype, Guru and Atomic X.3

Energy drinks vary widely in the amount of caffeine they contain. With drinks packing as much as 171 mg of caffeine per ounce, it’s easy to ingest a lot of caffeine without knowing it. Here's a sampling of energy drinks along with a comparison cup of coffee from

Drink Ounces Caffeine (mg) Mg/Oz
Red Bull 8.3 80 9.64
Monster 16 160 10
Ammo 1 171 171
Red Line 8 250 31.25
Jolt Energy 23.5 280 11.91
Bookoo 24 360 15
Coffee 8 80 10


Once ingested, caffeine acts like adenosine, a biochemical with a number of specialized functions in the body. When adenosine binds to adenosine receptors in the nervous system, it inhibits nervous system activity, creating a calming, drowsy effect. Caffeine mimics adenosine, and binds to the adenosine receptors in your brain, preventing the real adenosine from slowing down nerve impulses so your brain becomes more alert. At the same time, the absence of bound adenosine results in a higher level of dopamine being released into the blood system. Dopamine improves feelings of well-being and enhances mood. It's this dopamine effect that is the root of caffeine's addictive properties.5

Besides caffeine, energy drinks usually contain one or more of the following ingredients that have caffeine-like effects on the body.


Taurine is an amino acid that is found in abundance in muscle tissue. While some studies have indicated that taurine, combined with caffeine, improves mental performance, those studies have generally been too small to draw definitive conclusions. On the other hand, Cornell researchers recently discovered a receptor for taurine in the brain, suggesting that taurine may have a role in neurological development and may actually contribute to the “crash” people often experience after the energy jolt from an energy drink.6


Guarana is a berry that grows in Venezuela and Brazil. Its extract is used as a flavoring and as a caffeine-like stimulant. The few studies that exist suggest that guarana may have either no effect or a limited stimulant effect. Energy drinks add guanara as an additional source of nervous system stimulation.7

Yerba mate

A holly native to South America the leaves from this bush-like plant are steeped to access the chemically active ingredient mateine, which chemists do not distinguish from caffeine. Anecdotal evidence from users suggests that there may be fewer negative side effects from using mateine than from using caffeine.

For those who appreciate a little help getting going in the morning or making it through the last meeting in the afternoon, a pleasant tasting drink that doesn’t stain your teeth or give you “coffee breath” sounds good.

So, why are energy drinks controversial?

The controversy around energy drinks focuses on several issues including safety, especially effects of excessive caffeine, quality control and labeling issues, combination with alcohol and marketing that is targeted at tweens and teens.

Most of the following issues might be countered with the theory of the individual's right to make decisions except that the final issue, marketing that is targeted at tweens and teens, raises a bigger concern about safeguarding a population that may not yet have the judgment to evaluate information and the fact that there is limited information available to evaluate.


Although a ubiquitous component of daily life, caffeine is not without risks. Most of us have at least some anecdotal evidence of the effects of too much caffeine – the heart racing jitters that accompany a few too many espressos. In fact, excessive caffeine intake can lead to not only a fast heart rate and tremors but also excessive urination, nausea, vomiting, restlessness, anxiety, depression and difficulty sleeping. Caffeine intoxication, a recognized clinical syndrome, can lead to death in rare cases.

Many studies have been done to determine whether caffeine is “good for you” or “bad for you” and frankly it’s still not completely clear. However the National Institutes on Health (NIH) indicates that moderate caffeine intake is probably not associated with any health risk. In fact a recent study suggests that java drinkers do live longer.8-11

So what’s moderate and what’s excessive? Most sources agree that s moderate amount of caffeine consumption is 250 mg per day (2-3 8 oz. cups of coffee). Excessive intake is identified as ten cups of coffee per day. Yes, that does leave a seven cup or approximately 600 mg grey zone to think about.

There is not the same uncertainty about the issue of caffeine in children. Although caffeine is safe to consume in moderation, it may negatively affect a child's nutrition. Caffeinated beverages may be replacing nutrient-dense foods such as milk. A child may also eat less because caffeine acts as an appetite suppressant. This caution regarding children and caffeine speaks directly to the issue of marketing energy drinks to young people that we’ll explore in a moment.12

In a survey tracking calls to the Illinois Poison Control Center over three years, there were more than 250 cases of medical complications from ingesting caffeine supplements and 12% of callers had to be hospitalized. The average age of the callers was 21. A 2007 survey of 496 college students revealed that 51 percent reported consuming at least one energy drink during the last month. Of these energy drink users, 29 percent reported "weekly jolt and crash episodes".13,14

Quality Control and Labeling

Like many industries that are not regulated, the energy drink industry would like to keep it that way and has vigorously resisted imposition of governmental standards on quality or ingredients, including labeling standards. Consequently, it can be difficult to know how much caffeine or any other ingredient an energy drink contains or whether two different production lots of an energy drink contain the same amount of an ingredient. Interestingly, while sodas are limited to 71 milligrams per 12-ounce serving, there are currently no restrictions on the amount of caffeine an energy drink can contain.

In the fall of 2008, one hundred scientists and physicians sent a letter to the Food and Drug Administration, asking for more regulation of energy drinks based on their caffeine content, noting that young drinkers may be at possible risk for caffeine intoxication and higher rates of alcohol-related injuries. The signers asked the FDA to require the drinks' caffeine content be listed on the can, to set a limit on the amount of stimulant allowed in the drinks and to require warning labels.15

Combination with Alcohol

A third breed of energy drink (along with non-alcoholic energy drinks and sports drinks that contain carbohydrates for energy) combines caffeine and other stimulants with alcohol. These potent beverages are particularly concerning because the combination of ingredients mask helpful warning signs. When someone consumes too much alcohol, their head spins and they feel tired. Energy drinks cancel out these warning signs. The person feels good and therefore keeps drinking without realizing they are drunk or may drive a car because they are simply unaware that their reflexes may be too impaired for them to drive safely. In addition, the non-alcoholic and alcoholic versions of the drinks are often marketed side by side, making it more possible to make the wrong selection.

In early 2008 Anheuser Busch was forced to reformulate several of its alcohol/caffeine combo drinks after an eleven state investigation charged that they were marketing the drink to minors and misrepresenting health benefits. Anheuser-Busch admitted no wrong doing but agreed to reformulate its products without alcohol.16

Marketing Targeted to Teens and Young Adults

U.S. energy drink sales topped $6 billion in 2006, according to Goldman Sachs. The most popular drink, Red Bull, reportedly generates over $1 billion in sales annually. Sales of Monster follow closely behind. Drink makers target teens and young adults, promote the performance-enhancing and stimulant effects of energy drinks and equate drink use with coolness and popularity. One product, Go Girl, comes in a pink can and advertises as sugar-free and containing a mild appetite suppressant, clearly appealing to young woman who want both energy and weight control, a strategy that dips toes into another difficult teen problem.17

Many teenagers don’t have enough information about the effects of energy drinks’ ingredients. "If they use it for three or five days in a row, and then suddenly quit, then they're going to be thrown into withdrawal," says Roland Griffiths, professor of behavioral biology at Johns Hopkins University. Withdrawal symptoms can include headaches, mood swings and trouble concentrating.18

Moreover, a 2008 study of 1,253 college students found that energy drink consumption significantly predicted subsequent non-medical prescription stimulant use, raising the concern that energy drinks might serve as "gateway" products to more serious drugs of abuse.19

OK, what's the appeal of energy in a can? Works better? Tastes better? Safer? Better marketing?

Very simply, energy drinks provide a possibly performance-enhancing energy boost wrapped in a pleasant, convenient to buy and carry, beverage. Most energy drinks do not contain more than the recommended moderate level of caffeine intake for a normal adult. For some audiences, the energy drink creates a fun, legal “high” that can be shared with others, not unlike the morning coffee klatch, huddled around a steaming pot of java or the hordes of Americans who stop by a Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts at all hours of the day or night for a quick pick me up.

Secondly, although research documentation is thin, there is some evidence that the addition of other ingredients such as amino acids and herbal extracts combine to create a better, safer boost than their caffeine equivalent.

The Bottom Line

Informed, thoughtful use of energy drinks can be a great way to get a short term energy boost. However, if you plan to use an energy drink, make sure you know how much caffeine you are actually ingesting and don’t risk mixing your energy beverage with alcohol.

The combination of no labeling requirements, significant side effects and complications from excessive use and indications that young adults will move from these drinks to stronger stimulants creates a disturbing backdrop to the popularity of energy drinks.

If you have children, think twice (or maybe more) before allowing them to use an energy drink. Remember that children’s systems are still developing, they may be more susceptible to the effects of caffeine and there are addictive qualities to both caffeine and caffeine-like ingredients such as the taurine and mateine found in some energy drinks.

Published May 11, 2009, updated May 21, 2012


  1. Alcohol, Energy Drinks and Youth: A Dangerous Mix, The Marin Institute, 2007
  2. Reissig C, Caffeinated Energy Drinks -- A Growing Problem, Drug Alcohol Depend. 2009 January 1; 99(1-3): 1–10
  3. Brian, Energy Drinks: Ingredients & Dangers, Citynet Magazine, November 23, 2004
  4. Caffeine Content of Drinks,
  5. Solinas M, Caffeine Induces Dopamine and Glutamate Release in the Shell of the Nucleus Accumbens, The Journal of Neuroscience, 1 August 2002, 22(15): 6321-6324
  6. Researchers close in on taurine’s function in the brain, Cornell University, Feb 2008, 
  7. Haskell CF, A double-blind, placebo-controlled, multi-dose evaluation of the acute behavioural effects of guaraná in humans, J Psychopharmacol. 2007 Jan;21(1):65-70. Epub 2006 Mar 13
  8. Chen Tsui-Ju, Coffee and Health
  9. Higdon J, Coffee and Health: A Review of Recent Human Research, Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, Volume 46, Number 2, Number 2/March 2006, pp. 101-123(23)
  10. Caffeine, MedlinePlus
  11. Coffee buzz: Study finds java drinkers live longer, Associated Press, May 17, 2012
  12. Langston K, Caffeine and Children Don’t Mix and Neither do Energy Drinks, MedicineNet, March 8, 2012
  13. Stephenson K, Substance Abuse Now Includes Energy Drinks,, Feb 14, 2009
  14. Warning Labels for Energy Drinks, ScienceDaily, September 24, 2008
  15. Weise E, Petition calls for FDA to regulate energy drinks, USA Today, October 22, 2008
  16. Frayter, K, Anheuser-Busch will stop alcoholic 'energy' drinks, CNN, June 26, 2008
  17. Disturbing Trends in Energy Drink Marketing: Clever Branding or Sinister Gateway, eReleases, July 2007
  18. Aubrey A, The Buzz over Energy Drinks, NPR, January, 2007
  19. Caffeine Experts at Johns Hopkins Call for Warning Labels for Energy Drinks, Johns Hopkins Medicine, September 24, 2008

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