Scaremongering is an effective way to get a story read. Journalists know this. Someone dies at a party after they took 37 shots of tequila and drank 2 energy drinks. Which headline are you more apt to click on?
“Energy drink may have caused death of area teen” or…
“Area teen dies from being an idiot”
I’m sure I’ve given away my position already in this intro, but let’s bring things back to a more scientific, reasonable footing. Let’s forget about all the headlines and scare tactics, and let’s just look at what’s in an energy drink, item by item. I’ll use the Rockstar Zero Carb as an example because, primarily, it’s my favorite.
1. Carbonated water: totally benign. Moving on.
Oh no! A potential bogey! Except… not at all. Taurine is produced by your body, found in a lot of foods you eat, and, if you follow my blog, you know that higher doses actually have numerous health and performance benefits (link).
“But,” you may argue, “surely 2000 milligrams per can is excessive.” Nonsense. That’s what you’d get from 6 oz. of cheese, six eggs, five cups of milk or yogurt, a little over half a pound of most meats, a little over a cup of cottage cheese, or three cups of granola. Basically, that amount is pretty easy to get from many dietary sources. Just because it’s in a fizzy can, it doesn’t suddenly become dangerous and scary.
3. Natural flavors:
Your guess is as good as mine in terms of what “natural flavors” entails. However, “natural flavors” shows up on the label of just about everything you buy in a box, bottle, or can, so there’s no reason to assume these “natural flavors” are in some way more insidious.
4. Malic acid
Found in wine, sour fruits, and just about every soft drink on the market. Makes things taste tart. And, since it appears after taurine on the label, you know there’s less than 1g of it. Not enough to make any difference whatsoever.
5. Citric acid
Not a concern unless you fear oranges. If so, the problem is with you, not energy drinks.
6. Sodium citrate
Just more citric acid with some sodium molecules attached to it. With only 110mg of sodium, this shouldn’t cause any issues for people with sodium-sensitive conditions.
7. Green Tea Extractives
Green tea is (rightly, in my opinion), seen as a health beverage. The compounds in green tea help people with weight control, they’re potent anti-oxidants in the body, and include cholesterol profile, among other things. Not a problem whatsoever.
Oh man! Here’s where the danger starts! Except, not at all. This product has 240mg of caffeine per can (pretty average for an energy drink). That’s about 2-3 cups of coffee, depending on how you brew it. So how many would you need to drink for it to be deadly? Well, assuming you’re shotgunning multiple energy drinks at the same time, a 200 pound person would have to drink at least 7.5 consecutively. A 100 pound person would have to drink at least 4 (going by estimates based off of scientific data, not hearsay). So, yeah, there is some risk, but only if someone’s taking it to an extreme in a very short time window. For most people, one a day isn’t worth worrying about at all, and even 2-3 spread throughout a 24 hour period is perfectly fine.
9. Bezoic acid
Found in many berries. Dangerous at super high doses, but not that you could get through energy drink consumption.
10. Sorbic acid
Preservative. may not be super good for you, but you’d have to consume a stupidly high amount (about 100g) of it to be deadly. Not an issue at all.
Used as a gelling agent. You consume it in pretty much every jelly or jam in existence. Not a concern.
12. Acesulfame Potassium and Sucralose
These are artificial sweeteners. Like any sweetened beverage, this is a “pick your poison” issue. Artificial sweeteners MAY increase hunger and alter insulin release, but the alternative is to drink beverages with a bunch of sugar. Neither is optimal, but it’s an issue you run into with any sweet beverage including all other sodas and juices. If it doesn’t bother you in those products, it shouldn’t bother you in energy drinks.
L-Carnitine is actually very good for you, improving nerve health, decreasing muscle damage from exercise, and decreasing circulating ammonia in your blood. Unfortunately, it tastes horrible, so there’s really not enough in any energy drink to make any real difference (because no one would want to drink it!).
14, 15, 18, 19, 21 B-Vitamins
They may look like scary chemical names on the label, but they’re B-Vitamins. They’re necessary for a ton of bodily functions. You get them from other sources in your diet as well, but their inclusion in energy drinks is certainly not a bad thing.
16, 20. Colorings
Found in all sorts of foods that come in boxes, bottles, and cans. I’ll treat this the same as “natural flavors” – if it doesn’t scare you in other products, there’s no reason energy drinks should be any different.
17. Yerba Mate Leaf Extract
Compounds from a popular and healthy South American tea. They’ve been shown to improve fat oxidation, blood glucose control, and cholesterol profile. Although it’s questionable whether the dosage in this product is enough to confer those benefits, yerba mate is definitely a pro, not a con.
So, there you have it. You now know about all the ingredients in Rockstar Zero Carb (most energy drinks use 90% of the same ingredients, so odds are this covers the high points of your favorite as well). Are they dangerous? Well, if you’re the type who would shotgun a 10 pack at a party, then maybe. If you like to drink a couple each day as a little pick-me-up, there’s no dangers as long as you’re not super young or a pregnant mother.
People get antsy about them because of their “edgy” ad campaigns and their relative newness on the market. You could die from chugging 2 pots of coffee for the same reason just as easily as you could from chugging a ton of energy drinks. As with anything – the dose make the poison. If you don’t feel the need to warn someone about the risks of their cup of morning joe, then you shouldn’t feel that need when you see someone with an energy drink.
Share with your friends who are afraid of energy drinks. This may be the first time they’ve ever seen someone take the time to break down what’s actually IN an energy drink, instead of simply sticking them with an arbitrary label of “OK” or “LETHAL” and leaving it at that. Maybe, just maybe, they’ll see the light and grow some wings 😉