We can all do with an energy boost sometimes, but store-bought energy drinks are far from the best option. The side effects of popular energy drinks may surprise you. Below I’ll show you how I use natural energy boosters, the scary side effects in energy drinks, and why you won’t see me with one in my hand.
Are Energy Drinks Bad for Your Health?
Even the most popular energy drinks boast natural plant ingredients, like ginkgo biloba and guarana… so are energy drinks really that bad? That’s the million dollar question.
Let’s break it down:
What’s in an Energy Drink?
One of the most common ingredients in energy drinks is some sort of sugar (and lots of it). Caffeine, B-vitamins, plant and herbal extracts, taurine, colors, and flavors are other common ingredients. This will vary by the exact brand, but this article will cover the most common ingredients.
This is the star ingredient in most energy drinks and energy shots, and one of the most familiar. The Mayo Clinic caps caffeine consumption at 400 miligrams a day, which is still more than most people (especially kids) can safely handle. For comparison, an 8-ounce cup of coffee averages about 130 miligrams of caffeine. Compare that to a Red Bull energy drink with 80 miligrams of caffeine, and Monster energy drinks which range from 115 miligrams to 184 miligrams of caffeine.
Why is caffeine a problem? Most of us have experienced the caffeine jitters at one point, or know someone who gets a little too wired after their latte… or four. Caffeine tolerance levels vary because of genetics and other factors, but 500 mg of caffeine, or about 5 cups of coffee, can cause caffeine toxicity.
Most of us look at caffeine as an acceptable health “vice,” but Kathleen Miller, a senior research scientist at the University at Buffalo’s Research Institute on Addictions, warns:
(Caffeine toxicity) includes headaches, tremors, heart palpitations and nausea. At high enough levels – and this is fairly unusual – caffeine is toxic enough that for some people it can cause seizures, mania, hallucinations, even strokes.
In addition, caffeine acts as a diuretic, dehydrating the body. Athletes and those who are downing energy drinks during sports and activities may experience serious consequences.
Another common ingredient in energy drinks is guarana. Guarana beans are similar to coffee beans, but they contain about twice as much caffeine according to this article. It’s yet another way energy drink manufacturers up the caffeine content of their beverage without looking so obvious on a label.
This is one ingredient in energy drinks that might actually be good for you. Taurine is amino acid our bodies naturally produce and can be found in healthy foods like meat, fish, dairy, and breastmilk. It’s most likely added to energy drinks since some research indicates its combination with caffeine peaks mental performance.
Taurine itself is actually very helpful to the body and studies have shown it assists with weight loss, mitigates workout-induced muscle damage, and improves oxygen transport in the body. It’s also been used to treat congestive heart failure, among other conditions.
Sugar, Sugar, and More Sugar
Energy drinks all contain high levels of sweeteners. For example, just 1 tiny can of Red Bull contains 27 grams of sugar, or the equivalent of 6.43 teaspoons.
Most energy drinks opt for fuel options like glucose, fructose and sucrose, while some brands use artificial sweeteners.
Sugar causes so many issues in the body (read my full opinions on sugar in this post). At the very least, it depletes minerals in the body and can cause insulin resistance in high amounts. This 2007 study showed it to be even more addictive than cocaine!
Artificial Colors and Flavors
Depending on the brand, energy drinks have a range of natural and artificial colors and flavors. (I’m not sure why they need artificial coloring since it’s going straight from a can to your mouth!) Food dyes have been associated with behavioral issues (like ADHD) and cancer to name just a few.
Even the most conventional energy drink brands usually add B vitamins. Some brands that call themselves caffeine-free instead replace the caffeine with massive amounts of vitamin B12. While vitamins are necessary and healthy, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing (especially when it’s isolated and synthetic!).
So… Are Energy Drinks Good for You?
In a word, no.
Like most junk food, an energy drink here and there probably won’t have a disastrous effect on the body. However when multiple drinks are consumed and it becomes a weekly or even daily habit, that spells trouble. With the amount of toxins we’re exposed to on a daily basis in our air, food, water, and the products we use (even despite our best efforts at avoiding them), energy drinks just add to that toxic burden.
They Target Children
This to me is the biggest reason to take a hard line on energy drinks: they are marketed to our kids. Caffeine is one of the only stimulant drugs that a child (teen) can buy at any store. Even worse, in the US caffeine content in soda is regulated, but not in energy drinks. Compare that to countries like Australia that do limit the amount of caffeine in energy drinks.
From 2005 to 2011 energy drink related emergency room visits jumped from 1,494 to 20,783. This statistic included children younger than 6 years old. The American Academy of Pediatrics states that energy drinks “pose potential health risks because of the stimulants they contain and should NEVER be consumed by children and adolescents.”
In just an 8-year period, 34 deaths were reportedly associated with energy drink consumption. That doesn’t even include the unreported deaths, the heart events that didn’t result in death, and other serious health issues that occurred after consuming energy drinks. Most of those affected are children and teenagers.
They Contain Dangerous Stimulants
Surely these kids were downing way too many energy drinks though, right? Wrong. People have died after drinking only 1 or 2 energy drinks.
Now that’s not to say their may have been other underlying health issues that also played a factor, but it’s enough for me to never give them to my kids!
A 2017 study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that the group who drank a regular energy drink had abnormal heart rhythms and elevated blood pressure for more than six hours. Even the control group, who was given flavored water with high amounts of sugar and caffeine didn’t experience the same level of adverse effects.
The energy drink caused a 10 millisecond delay in the heart’s beat, while prescription drugs that cause a 6 millisecond delay are required to carry a warning label.
They’re Not Regulated
It’s not surprising that the US isn’t as stringent as other countries when it comes to energy drink safety. By adding plant extracts like ginseng and ginkgo, energy drinks can be regulated as dietary supplements, not food, and avoid stricter safety restrictions.
In 2011 Canada changed energy drinks from being labeled and regulated as “natural health products” to food. Energy drink brands will lower their caffeine content in countries like Australia that have stricter restrictions, but sell drinks with higher amounts in the US.
Best Energy Drink Alternatives
While you won’t see me with a sugary, caffeinated energy drink in my hand, sometimes this mama needs a natural boost (especially with 6 kids to keep up with!). Thankfully there are safe and natural ways to get the energy we need.
Here are some healthy “energy drinks” and snacks that won’t give a sugar crash:
I use chia seeds a lot to thicken recipes, as an egg replacement, and for a nutritional boost. These tiny seeds are packed full of omega-3s to lower inflammation in the body. They contain natural amounts of energy-boosting B-vitamins and ancient cultures used them to promote energy and endurance.
A 2011 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research measured athletic performance and found that chia seeds were just as effective as energy drinks!
Here are some delicious way my family and I use chia seeds for energy:
- Chia seed pudding
- Chia seed squeeze pouches with juice
- Coconut chia porridge (to start the day with energy!)
- Wellness energy bars
- Chocolate coconut energy bars
Homemade Chia Seed Kombucha Energy Drink
Kombucha naturally contains high (but still healthy) levels of B vitamins and is known to increase energy, improve digestion, and cleanse the liver, among other benefits. Chia is an energizing powerhouse on its own, but it’s even better with kombucha. Get the recipe for this chia seed kombucha energy drink here.
Ok, so this one still has higher levels of caffeine than many beverages, but it also has some health benefits. I don’t drink a cuppa every day, but when I do I add even more nourishing ingredients, like collagen and coconut oil. Here’s my full take on the “is coffee healthy” debate (hint: it depends).
Here are some of my favorite healthy coffee recipes:
- Cold brew coffee
- Superfood vanilla latte
- Coffee kombucha
- Bulletproof coffee
- Mushroom coffee (yes, really!)
Not a coffee drinker? Here are some other options.
Different varieties of tea contain varying caffeine levels, making it easier to adjust the brew to your needs. I avoid cheap bagged tea since it’s not as high quality as loose leaf options, although an organic bagged tea isn’t as bad.
Note: I drink green and oolong teas sparingly because they can have naturally occurring fluoride that causes issues for those of us with a thyroid problem.
Homemade Electrolyte Drink
Proper hydration is naturally invigorating! For sports and hiking, we use this homemade sports drink subsitute.
Are Energy Drinks Healthy? The Verdict
Replace “energy drink” with “caffeine and sugar drink” and you have your answer. Obviously many people rely on them, but not for the right reasons. If you’re looking to boost energy, you’re definitely better off drinking a glass of lemon water or two to start the day, getting outside for some sunshine, and ending the day with a full night of sleep!
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Scott Soerries, MD, Family Physician and Medical Director of SteadyMD. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
Do you drink energy drinks? What are some healthy ways you’ve found to increase energy?
- Thompson, D. (2017). Energy Drinks May Give the Heart an Unhealthy Jolt.
- Lenoir, M., Serre, F., Cantin, L., & Ahmed, S. (2007). Intense Sweetness Surpasses Cocaine Reward. PLOS.
- Illian, T., Casey, JC., & Bishop, PA. (2011). Omega 3 Chia seed loading as a means of carbohydrate loading. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 1, 61-5. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181fef85c.
- Statista. (2018). Leading energy drink brands in the United States in 2017, based on sales. [Online Article].
- Mayo Clinic. (2017). Caffeine content for coffee, tea, soda and more. [Online Article].
- Fitzpatrick, M. (2011). Energy drink labels to contain warnings. [Online Article].
- Center for Science in the Public Interest (2014). Documents Link More Deaths to Energy Drinks. [Online Article].
- Zeratsky, K. (2018). Taurine is an ingredient in many energy drinks. Is taurine safe? Mayo Clinic. [Online Article].
- Weil, A. (2017). Can Any B Vitamins Be Harmful? [Online Article].
- Consumer Lab. (2017). Can Taking Too Much B-12 Be Dangerous? [Online Article].
- Oregon State University. (2015). Pantothenic Acid [Online Article].