Making The Case For Energy Drinks

Making The Case For Energy Drinks

By Stephen Brenna, Pn1, Pn2, PPSC

Making The Case For Energy Drinks

"Those things can’t be good for you…".

As a seasoned consumer (dare I say, connoisseur?) of energy drinks, this is a phrase I'm quite familiar with. Viewed by many as the harmful fodder of college students and shift workers, popping open some "crack in a can" is often met with raised eyebrows.

While many people see them as poison, the energy drink industry continues to expand exponentially, with US sales topping $18 billion in 2023. This number is projected to continue rising over the next 5 years, with worldwide sales estimated to reach $240 billion by 2027, according to Statista.

Clearly there's a massive market for these things, but is there any place for them in a health conscious lifestyle? Spend some time on the internet and it won't take long to find a headline about someone's heart exploding or some other catastrophic cardiac event attributed to accidental caffeine overdose.

As with many things, the dosage makes the poison when it comes to energy drinks. While negative side effects are possible, a case can be made for energy drinks as legitimate performance enhancers that can be consumed safely and mindfully. Let's first look at the effects of caffeine consumption, and what qualifies as "safe" intake.

Caffeine Improves Mental and Physical Performance

The extensive body of research on caffeine has consistently shown its positive effects on both cognitive and physical performance, largely free of significant side effects for individuals with a normal tolerance to it. On the cognitive side, caffeine intake can improve mood, reaction time, alertness, and recall. In terms of physical effects, it may boost caloric expenditure, improve exercise performance, and actually be protective against cardiovascular disease. Recent studies have found a correlation between caffeine intake and decreased risk of stroke, diabetes, and other forms of heart disease.  

At this point, we can call it a nearly proven performance enhancer for most people. So why the consistent negative messaging around caffeine intake? 

While most caffeine consumers won't argue that their morning cup of coffee often improves their focus and productivity, caffeine seems to get lumped into the "guilty pleasure" category. As if it's something we probably shouldn't be doing or shouldn't need to have, but we simply can't resist the vice. The prevailing view seems to be that caffeine can't be good for our health, and that energy drinks are the highway to excess consumption.

The reality is that even that person you think is a little too hardcore about their coffee or energy drinks probably isn't consuming a dangerous amount of caffeine.

Both the U.S. Department of Agriculture and European Food Safety Authority consider a daily intake of 400mg of caffeine to be safe. That's roughly equivalent to four 9.5oz cups of regular coffee, and five standard cans of Red Bull, the best selling energy drink in America by a long shot. Most energy drinks on the market deliver between 100-200 mg per serving, a dose that should be well-tolerated by most people, even if consumed daily. 

Are some individuals going to experience negative side effects like anxiety or sleep disturbances at doses lower than 400mg? Yes, it's entirely possible, and up to the individual to understand their personal tolerance as well as the caffeine content of something they're choosing to consume. The vast majority of energy drinks on the market do not yield anything close to a dangerous dose in a single serving; it's up to you to practice common sense with your intake.

The Sugar and Sweeteners Concern

It feels like sugar content should be an outdated concern when it comes to energy drinks, with the widespread availability of zero sugar and low calorie options. But open the refrigerator at just about any gas station or convenience store in America and you'll likely find high sugar versions of the two energy drink titans: Red Bull and Monster Energy. The two brands have become so synonymous with energy drink imagery that these original versions define the category for many people, leading them to believe that all energy drinks are loaded with sugar.

While both brands (and dozens of others on the market) offer sugar-free options, these products supposedly present their own set of dangers. The debate over the health effects of non-nutritive sweeteners (NNS) like sucralose, aspartame, and sugar alcohols like erythritol continues to rage on. Many social media pundits warn that NNS may cause damage to the brain, gut, or heart, and they can usually produce some type of study to back their claims. Yet it's just as easy to find flaws in that research or other studies stating the opposite.

It's difficult to argue in favor of beverages that deliver 54g of sugar per serving, which is the sugar content in a 16oz can of classic Monster Energy. For all the inconclusive evidence around their possible negative effects, low calorie products containing sweeteners like sucralose remain the clear better option when choosing energy drinks.

What about option C though, skipping them altogether? If someone can get the beneficial effects of caffeine from coffee or tea, why would they even bother with energy drinks and their questionable ingredients at all?

The Ingredient and Quality Control Concern

Apart from caffeine and sugar or artificial sweeteners, those that place energy drinks in the junk food category may cite "sketchy" other ingredients, or questionable quality control practices. In their eyes, you're playing with fire every time you crack open a can that could contain dangerous and possibly illegal substances. Who's even regulating this stuff anyway?

Well, the FDA. And most people throwing stones at energy drinks have been on board with a thing or two from the FDA. It's entirely possible to run into some questionable products on the market, but as competition in the energy drink space has exploded, there is now considerable pressure on brands to up their game or exit the marketplace.

Upping their game doesn't just mean new flavors or more caffeine per serving. As relative upstarts like Ghost Energy, C4, Celsius, and Prime Energy grab more market share from the old giants in the space, they're leading with performance enhancing ingredients beyond just caffeine. These "elevated" energy drinks may contain brain-boosting nootropics, hydration components, or other ingredients aimed at increasing athletic performance.

When consumed in moderation, these new-gen energy drinks may provide guilt-free, legitimate benefits for the health-conscious individual. So go ahead, open one in the boardroom before that big presentation, let everyone see. You've been forced to pretend that you like coffee for too long.


(Disclaimer: Article may have been written under the influence of energy/blog enhancing substances)