Do Energy Drinks Really Work?

Move over, baristas! There’s a new supercharged sip in town that’s giving your local Starbucks some stiff competition. A host of energy drinks, shots, and gels are flooding the marketplace, promising to get you through your afternoon meeting, yes, but that’s just the beginning. Today’s energy products also claim to boost your workout, improve your health, and help you stay more alert. It’s no surprise that business is booming: Around the world in 2010, energy-starved people downed close to 4 billion cans of Red Bull Energy Drink, a brand barely known in this country just 10 years ago. In the United States alone, the market value of energy drinks hit $4.9 billion last year, according to the Mintel International Group, a market research firm. What’s more, between 2002 and 2007, total retail sales of energy drinks increased a reported 440 percent, to an estimated $6.6 billion.

Research forecasts that by 2014, sports and energy drinks’ global market value may reach $47 billion, according to, a compiler of beverage industry information. But for all the hype, do these moolah-making java stand-ins really give you wings? How does the “energy” in one of these products compare with, say, the energy you get from a homemade PB&J? What really works to power you through your run or a meeting with your boss? FITNESS investigates.

What’s Really in an Energy Drink?

Known for their fast-acting jolt, energy drinks like Red Bull and Monster tout a high dose of caffeine and a varying blend of “energizing” extras that include vitamins and amino acids and herbal supplements. But despite the eye-catching cans and slick marketing, the main ingredient responsible for that mojo is good old-fashioned sugar. “Calories are energy, plain and simple,” says Katherine Zeratsky, RD, a dietitian at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. “It’s what your body uses for fuel. Any food, whether it’s a turkey sandwich, a can of soda, or an apple, has energy. Energy drinks should be thought of as calorie drinks.”

They can pack a lot of them, too: A 16-ounce can of Red Bull Energy Drink has 220 calories, and a 24-ounce can of Rockstar Energy Drink has a whopping 420, almost as much as a double cheeseburger. Unlike most foods, however, most of the calories in energy beverages come from simple sugars. Devoid of fiber, fat, and protein, three nutrients that slow digestion, the sugar hits the bloodstream quickly, giving you the superfast rush you crave. Sadly, it’s short-lived. “Your body wants only so much sugar in the blood at a time,” Zeratsky says. “When it receives a big load, the pancreas shoots out any additional insulin to push sugar it doesn’t currently need into fat cells.” In the long run, having too many energy drinks, like consuming too much soda, can cause weight gain. In the short term, you are faced with the infamous energy-drink crash. Either way, you’re left tired and still looking for a lift.

Hoping to skip the sugar and save calories, some women opt for the sugar-free versions of their favorite energy drinks, relying on the high caffeine content to give them a boost. “Caffeine is widely studied and well-known for making you feel more alert,” says Matthew Ganio, PhD, a researcher at the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas. “But its effects come from being a stimulant, meaning it makes you feel energetic by offsetting the mental and physical fatigue that occurs throughout the day, especially during exercise.” Currently, the FDA doesn’t limit the amount of caffeine in energy drinks, so manufacturers often pack from 50 to 200-plus milligrams into a 16-ounce serving (the average cup of coffee contains anywhere from 40 to 180 milligrams). Check the label, however, because some drinks go way beyond that range: A 16-ounce can of Wired X 344, for instance, has 344 milligrams. “More isn’t always better with caffeine,” says John Higgins, MD, director of exercise physiology at Memorial Hermann Sports Medicine Institute in Houston. In some people, more than 200 milligrams can cause insomnia, nervousness, headache, and nausea.

As for the effectiveness of the brand-specific blend of supplements and amino acids, it’s debatable. “These ingredients are mainly about smart marketing,” says Kevin Clauson, associate professor at Nova Southeastern Univer­sity College of Pharmacy in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. “Some have studies backing the beneficial claims, but most of these ingredients are in quantities far below the amounts needed for any actual benefit.” If you’d prefer a low-tech boost, go for a glass of milk, a cup of yogurt with fruit, or an apple with a little peanut butter. The mix of carbohydrate, protein, and fat will ultimately slow digestion, thus preventing the spike and subsequent roller-coaster drop in blood sugar. “Your energy will last longer, and you’ll get a nice dose of nutrients along with the calories,” Zeratsky says.

– By Jenna Bergen FITNESS Magazine


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