Energy Drinks: The Real Deal or a Bunch of Bull?

Walk into any grocery store or mini mart these days and you’re likely to find an entire wall taken up by a refrigerated beverage case. Look closer to find the usual assortment of beer, soda and bottled water. But there’s more: a section of juiced-up water, sports drinks, bottled teas and energy beverages in every color of the rainbow, many selling for between $2 and $4 per bottle.

Gatorade started it all when they carved out the sports drink niche in 1967. Today’s energy drinks are highly marketed to college students, carrying aggressive names such as Rockstar, Venom, Blue Ox, Monster, Hype, Piranha, Red Bull, Stinger and Whoop Ass.

More than 50 percent of college students buy energy drinks on a regular basis, and bottled sports and energy beverages are a multi-million dollar industry in the United States and the fastest growing sector in the bottled drink business.

The drinks’ touted benefits include the provision of vitamins, energy, hydration, cellular repair, cancer-prevention, ready carbohydrates, antioxidants and heightened alertness, as well increased metabolism.

It’s an attractive lure to many, but is the hype worth it?

Caffeine is known to maintain alertness and decrease sleepiness. Many energy drinks pack a double-punch of caffeine and taurine (an amino acid associated with alertness) as well as artificial flavors, colors, carbonated water, guarana (a stimulant imported from Brazil), B-vitamins, sugar and – the main ingredient – water.

A typical caffeinated energy drink has about three times as much caffeine as the same amount of cola, about twice as much as the same amount of coffee and about four times as much as an equal volume of black tea.

Sports drinks typically combine some form of sugar with small amounts of electrolyte minerals, claiming to replace fluid lost through exercise-induced perspiration.

Thanks to their sugar content, most bottled teas and drinks are high in carbohydrates and calories. Add artificial colors and flavors to the mix, and you might wonder what happened to drinking plain old water, brewing a cup of tea or squeezing some fresh orange juice.

The “juicing movement” is one response to this question. But while bottled waters and “fresh-squeezed” fruit and vegetable juices are easy to find in stores, they don’t fly off the shelves like energy drinks and bottled teas.

Energy drinks have even penetrated the bar scene, where caffeinated beverages are mixed with alcohol to create an alcohol high that does not diminish alertness. Some of the creations include the Speed Bull, Bullgarita, Bull Rider and the Viagra Martini, a combination of Red Bull and gin, topped with a cherry.

Despite the enthusiasm for these mixed drinks, there have been at least three deaths associated with caffeinated beverage and alcohol combinations, and researchers advise that the two should never be combined.

Caffeine, almost completely absorbed through the stomach walls within 20 minutes of ingestion, is a powerful heart and respiratory stimulant and can also be hazardous to those with heart problems, hypertension or stroke.

Several countries restrict certain energy beverages sales to pharmacies. France and Denmark have banned Red Bull altogether, and in 2004 the European Union begin requiring caffeinated energy drinks to carry health warnings about their “high caffeine content.”

Caffeine is also a potent diuretic, which can contribute to dehydration. Anyone chugging a bottle or two of energy drink is advised to chase it with a big glass of water.

The consensus? A sports or energy drink now and then won’t hurt most people. But a big glass of water, a cup of coffee, some freshly-brewed tea or even a glass of orange juice is probably a better bet, and it’s cheaper.

“Energy drinks seem so gimmicky,” said Jonathan Fine, a PSU graduate student who prefers natural juice. “I haven’t seen any of those drinks that I’d call natural. I tend to believe that people can meet all of their needs by eating real foods. Instead, people look to all these exotic sources to get energy, and it’s fundamentally wrong.”