Energy drinks are beverages like Red Bull, Rock Star and Monster, which contain large doses of caffeine and other legal stimulants like guarana and ginseng. The amount of caffeine in an energy drink can range from 75 milligrams to over 200 milligrams per serving. This compares to 34 milligrams in Coke and 55 milligrams in Mountain Dew. For more information on caffeine content of energy drinks and other products, click here.
If a drink advertises no caffeine, the energy comes from guarana, which is the equivalent of caffeine. 5-hour energy drink advertises “no crash,” but this claim is referring to no “sugar crash” because the drink has artificial sweetners.
Any vitamins or amino acids like taurine are better found by eating a variety of foods and taking a daily vitamin and mineral supplement.
Individual responses to caffeine vary, and these drinks should be treated carefully because of how powerful they are. Energy drinks' stimulating properties can boost the heart rate and blood pressure (sometimes to the point of palpitations), dehydrate the body, and, like other stimulants, prevent sleep.
Energy drinks should not be used while exercising as the combination of fluid loss from sweating and the diuretic quality of the caffeine can leave someone severely dehydrated.
When used occasionally, energy drinks are not necessarily bad for you, but they shouldn't be seen as "natural alternatives" either. Some of the claims they make like "improved performance and concentration" can be misleading. They are marketed as dietary supplements, and the FDA does not approve or review the products before they are sold. Some energy drinks have no caffeine but instead use the stimulant guarana, which is the equivalent of caffeine. Others may say that 1 can is 2 servings so you have to calculate the correct amount of caffeine.
If you think of them as highly-caffeinated drinks, you'll have a more accurate picture of what they are and how they affect you. You wouldn't use Mountain Dew as a sports drink. And a drink like Red Bull and vodka is more like strong coffee and whisky than anything else.
Energy drinks are also used as mixers with alcohol. This combination carries a number of potential dangers:
- Since energy drinks are stimulants and alcohol is a depressant, the combination of effects may be dangerous. The stimulant effects can mask how intoxicated you are and prevent you from realizing how much alcohol you have consumed. Fatigue is one of the ways the body normally tells someone that they've had enough to drink.
- The stimulant effect can give the person the impression they aren't impaired. No matter how alert you feel, your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is the same as it would be without the energy drink. People will misperceive their ability to perform complex tasks like driving or crossing a busy road. Once the stimulant effect wears off, the depressant effects of the alcohol will remain and could cause vomiting in your sleep or respiratory depression.
- Research has found that people drink more and have higher BACs when they combine alcohol and caffeine.
- Both energy drinks and alcohol are very dehydrating (the caffeine in energy drinks is a diuretic). Dehydration can hinder your body's ability to metabolize alcohol and will increase the toxicity, and therefore the hangover, the next day.
Because of some serious intoxication incidents involving these drinks, several states and college campuses have banned alcoholic energy drinks like Four Loko and Joose. Like non-alcoholic energy drinks, it’s important to have an accurate understanding of what’s in these drinks:
- Most 23.5-ounce cans of Four Loko are 12% alcohol, which is the equivalent of 4-6 beers. (A standard beer is 12 ounces and 4-6% alcohol.) A 23.5-ounce can of Joose contains 10-12% alcohol.
- Four Loko has 135 milligrams of caffeine per 23.5-ounce can, and a can of Joose has 54 milligrams of caffeine. By comparison, an 8.3-ounce can of Red Bull has 76 milligrams, 8-ounces of Starbucks coffee has 180 milligrams, and a 12-ounce Coke has 35 milligrams.
- Four Loko also contains guarana, but it’s unclear how much is in the drink. Phusion Projects, the maker of Four Loko, does not publish information about the amount of guarana in the drink.
- Unlike non-alcoholic energy drinks, alcoholic energy drinks do not have to print nutrition facts on the can, so you have much less information about what you’re drinking.
These drinks originally contained caffeine, guarana and ginseng. Because of some dangerous intoxication incidents involving these drinks, the FDA has issued a warning letter to the manufacturers, stating that it is unsafe to combine alcohol and these stimulants. Subsequently, the stimulants were removed. It's important to know that most 23.5-ounce cans of Four Loko are 12% alcohol, which is the equivalent of 4-6 beers. (A standard beer is 12 ounces and 4-6% alcohol.) A 23.5-ounce can of Joose contains 10-12% alcohol.