Woman drinking energy drink
Personal Health

Are Energy Drinks Safe? Getting a Boost Without Unhealthy Trade-Offs

You've seen them in supermarkets, convenience stores, and advertisements: aggressively labeled cans promising long-lasting energy. But what are you doing to your body when you guzzle an energy drink? What impact do these products have on our health? Are energy drinks safe?

Here's what you should know about energy drinks so that you can make an informed decision.

What's in Energy Drinks?

Energy drinks can contain a variety of ingredients, including caffeine, vitamins, taurine, sugar, carnitine, guarana, and other additives. Manufacturers can decide whether they want to label their product as a beverage or a liquid dietary supplement. If it's labeled as a beverage, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for ensuring the safety of the product and the accuracy of the labeling.

If it's tagged as a dietary supplement, however, the FDA hasn't evaluated its safety. The product can truly contain anything, as there isn't a regulatory body managing supplement labeling. You can tell whether the product is regulated by the FDA or not by checking whether it has a normal food label with nutrition facts or a supplement label.

Some of the most common energy drink ingredients include:

  • Caffeine. The most physiologically active ingredient that you'll find in energy drinks, caffeine is considered safe by the FDA, but adverse effects can occur with excessive consumption, including increased heart and breathing rate.
  • Guarana. A plant containing caffeine, guarana is used as a natural energizer, appetite suppressant, and cognitive stimulant. It's recognized as safe by the FDA but may cause caffeine toxicity when consumed together with caffeine.
  • Taurine. Some have claimed that the amino acid taurine can improve the force and speed of muscle contraction, but research hasn't yet proven this. One study looked at energy drinks' effect on performance in young adults and found that the combination of taurine and caffeine didn't increase the participants' abilities.
  • Carnitine. Derived from an amino acid, carnitine is contained naturally in our cells and plays an important role in energy production. However, a recent study found that consuming a lot of dietary carnitine was associated with hardening of artery walls and increased cardiovascular disease risk.

Sugar and Calories

Perhaps the most frequently overlooked flaw of energy drinks is that they usually contain added sugar and empty calories. For example, one standard-size, 8.4-ounce can of Red Bull contains 110 calories and 27 grams of sugar. That's equivalent to just under seven teaspoons of granulated sugar, which exceeds the American Heart Association's (AHA) daily recommended sugar intake for women in just one serving and is only two teaspoons away from matching the AHA's recommended daily intake for men. If consumed on a regular basis, the sugar and calories in these beverages could contribute to weight gain and chronic illness.

Safety and Effectiveness

So we return to our initial question: Are energy drinks safe? Luckily, there's some research to help guide us.

One review found that the frequent consumption of energy drinks significantly increased blood pressure, particularly those who consumed more than 200 milligrams of caffeine. Other health concerns have also been tied to energy drink consumption, including seizures, cardiac arrest, and dental erosion. And when mixed with alcoholic beverages, energy drinks can be dangerous due to the interaction between depressant (alcohol) and stimulant (caffeine).

Despite these concerns, the jury is still out on the safety of energy drinks. A recent study declared that more research is needed to accurately determine the short- and long-term safety of these products.

Healthy Alternatives

If you're concerned about the safety of energy drinks and are looking for healthier, more natural ways to get the energy you need, here are a few tips:

  • Exercise. Physical activity releases endorphins that provide natural energy, especially if you work out in the morning.
  • Go natural. Focus on getting moderate amounts of caffeine from unprocessed sources. Your body can adjust to getting smaller amounts of this stimulant than what energy drinks, or even coffee, provide. Try to exchange one of your daily cups of coffee for a black or green tea.
  • Get more sleep. You may not be sleeping enough in the first place if you're seeking out the aid of processed energy drinks. Aim to get 8 hours of shut-eye every night.
  • Eat a balanced diet. By including the proper amounts of carbohydrates, fat, and protein in your everyday diet, you're providing your body with the nutrition it needs to keep your mind activated.

While the answer to "Are energy drinks safe?" isn't a flat-out no, it may be best to avoid them considering the discrepancies in their labeling, the added sugar and empty calories they contain, the concerning effects of some common ingredients, and the lack of research to support their safety and effectiveness. Thankfully, with a healthy lifestyle and good habits, you can boost your energy naturally -- no products necessary!

Posted in Personal Health

Christina Manian is a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist based out of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Originally from the Boston area, she attended Boston University where she majored in nutritional sciences with a concentration in dietetics. She recently completed her nutrition education at the Mayo Clinic with a focus on medical nutrition therapy. While her background has mostly been in the clinical setting, Christina embraces wellness nutrition as the backbone of optimum health. She is excited to be able to educate a larger audience about nutrition through the written word.

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*This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute health care advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor or physician before making health care decisions.