They promise to boost your energy, make you super alert and enhance your performance, both physically and mentally. And they are extremely popular, especially among young people. Ever since they came on the market in the late Nineties, demand for energy drinks has exploded, totaling sales of more than $5 billion annually in the U.S. alone.
Energy drinks typically combine a variety of ingredients, most of which are stimulants, such as guarana, ginkgo, ginseng, taurine, glucuronolactone and also plenty of sugar and vitamins. The main active ingredient, however, is caffeine.
Depending on the brand, the caffeine content can be much higher than in regular coffee, although it has been pointed out that many “mainstream drinks” like cappuccinos and espressos contain just as much caffeine, if not more.
As of now, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate the caffeine content of energy drinks, as it does with cola-type sodas. Manufacturers argue that regulation is altogether unnecessary, since their products don’t contain any dangerous substances. Energy drinks are not marketed as sodas, but as “dietary supplements” and are expected to be used as such.
So, why should anyone be worried? Proponents of regulation warn that energy drinks may be a major cause for so-called “caffeine-related disorders.” Medical research has long known about the dangers of heart disease and even cardiac arrest in connection with excessive caffeine consumption. Now there are concerns about cases of caffeine intoxication, which are sharply on the rise, especially among college students and young professionals.
And it is not only the young and restless crowd that regularly fuels up, professional drivers and night shift workers also operate frequently under the influence of power drinks.
Unfortunately, energy drinks are not only popular as boosters, they are often mixed with alcohol as well. The problem is that alcohol works as a depressant. Mixing stimulants with depressants can be a dangerous combination, and it is certainly not healthy. Imagine yourself driving a car with one foot on the gas and the other on the break at the same time. These cocktails can make you feel alert and energized, although you are really drunk. Your judgment may be even further impaired because the normal effects of alcohol, like sleepiness, are absent. In terms of safety, this is a recipe for disaster.
So, should the FDA look into regulating energy drinks? Clinical studies (e.g. in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, January 2009) have indeed recommended that the FDA require labeling that specifies the potential dangers of energy drinks. Moreover, they recommend having manufacturers list the exact amount of caffeine, along with the other ingredients in their products. This should not be dismissed as an unreasonable burden on the industry, especially since the information is already available on the Internet. It may not significantly impact the behavior of consumers, but, at least, nobody could say they hadn’t received a fair warning.
Caffeine content by comparison:
Red Bull® Energy Drink: 80 mg per 8.3 oz. serving
Monster® Energy: 160 mg per 16 oz. serving
Wired® X505: 505 mg per 24 oz. serving
Starbucks® “Tall” Coffee: 260 mg. per 12 oz. serving
Stash® “English Breakfast” Black Tea: 60 mg. per 12 oz. serving
Coca-Cola® Classic: 34.5 mg per 12 oz. serving
Pepsi® Cola: 38 mg. per 12 oz. serving
Dr. Pepper®: 42 mg. per 12 oz. serving