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ENERGY DRINKS: What's All the "Buzz" About?

Posted Monday, May 28, 2007 by Fred Fornicola, Resource Member N. J. Council of P

Although it seems to be a recent trend, energy drinks have been around for years. The rapid increase in popularity-more than 500 new drinks worldwide were spawned in 2006 alone-especially with young adults in the last few years, has caused some real concerns. There are many health risks associated with drinking these elixirs, especially when excessive amounts are consumed or mixed with alcohol.

The concept of “energy drinks” has been around for years. Jolt Cola was one of the first of its kind to be released in the 1980’s in North America. More recently, the energy drink craze has gained greater popularity with brands such as Red Bull, Full Throttle, Rock Star, and Amp, just to name a few.

Because of the increased interest in these products, manufacturers are jockeying for position to gain “energy supremacy” as they produce more and more complex and exotic elixirs.

As most of us know, this highly competitive market maintains that drinking their products are a way of providing heightened mental alertness, increasing athletic performance, and all kinds of grandiose pledges. This has people, especially the younger generation, flooding the food stores for the barrage of choices of those trendy “high powered” concoctions.

Some manufacturers keep upping the ante to keep their share of the market place by boosting the chemical compounds in these drinks, amping up the concentration of caffeine to unsafe levels, and even taking it a step further over the line by calling their drinks drug related names. Manufacturers are banking on pumped up names like Monster or Spark to lure people in.

Do consumers realize it’s merely a ploy? Using a marketing strategy based around controversy instead of focusing on what the product is (for example, the new drink named “Cocaine”). It is a way for the manufacturer to entice the consumer to buy a really expensive can of highest caffeine.

So what’s a consumer to do? Do you pick the drink that is loaded with high fructose corn syrup or the one with the most caffeine (which isn’t designated on the label)? Or do you go for the one with the ingredients you can barely pronounce (let alone know what they are) or maybe the one that has the most attractive name?

Let’s start filtering through this by providing just some of the information you can use in making an intelligent choice.

The most active ingredient in all of these beverages is, surprise, caffeine. Generally, the average cup of coffee can contain approximately 100 milligrams (mg) of caffeine with some of the leading commercial coffee establishments offering caffeinated products that can yield upwards of 180 mg of caffeine per serving. Products such as Red Bull have 80 mg of caffeine while a single serving of Cocaine Energy Drink contains a whopping 280 mg of caffeine.

To the best of my knowledge, those amounts are exclusive of the herb Guarana, which also adds an additional 40 mg of caffeine. That’s a total of over 320 of caffeine in one 8.4 ounce serving for the Cocaine brand!

Ok, I’m sure we can all agree that there’s nothing really wrong with taking in some caffeine. Based on statistics from 2001, 120,000 tons of caffeine is consumed each year worldwide and the average daily consumption of caffeine among adults is 200 mg/day.

So there is no shortage of caffeine users, that’s for certain. Those numbers are perhaps even higher now in 2006 with energy drink consumption becoming so popular.

Along with the main ingredient caffeine, other leading brands (but not all) have additional ingredients such as:
-High fructose corn syrup-sugar (do I need say more?).
-Taurine-an amino acid that “might” be a mild inhibitory neurotransmitter used to level out the other stimulants.
-Guarana-used to increase alertness and energy and contains caffeine.
-Vitamins-to help in converting the sugar into energy.
-Glucuronolactone-added to fight fatigue and provide a sense of well-being but no substantial studies have been done to determine long-term effects on the body

There are just a few of the additives that can appear in some of the more popular drinks. The concern is that no studies have been done to determine what happens when these chemicals interact together.

For instance, Taurine is an amino acid that can be found in most meat and dairy products and is nonessential amino acids that occur naturally in the body. Dosages consumed via food sources can be around 35 mg, where Red Bull is 1000 mg-even though it isn’t listed on the can but is on the Web site at the time of this writing.

Because studies have not been done to determine what kind of effect high levels of Taurine can have on the body, especially when mixed with additional substances such as caffeine, researchers recommend erring on the side of caution and not consuming this high of a level of Taurine.

According to research, the amounts of the ingredients other than caffeine and sugar may not be significant enough to have the proported impact other than that of a placebo effect, but concerns still resonate with what may happen long-term.

The Journal of Analytical Toxicology published information in March of this year stating that they tested the caffeine content of more than 15 popular energy drinks on the market today.

They found that one drink contained as much as 141 mg per 8 ounces while the majority of drinks contained 65-75 mg per 8 ounces. These figures are well above the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) proposed amount, which is 65 mg per 12 ounces.

The problem, however, is that these are merely recommended amounts, and because there isn’t a written law on labeling or the amount of caffeine that can be legally put in a beverage, most energy drinks do not disclose the caffeine content and they certainly don’t adhere to the unwritten FDA proposal of 65 mg per 12 ounces.

Besides the temporary sugar high you may achieve, caffeine seems to be the main driver in the slight increase in alertness and rush one may obtain. Okay, so what’s the concern then? Well for one, “caffeinism.”

Research has shown that those who ingest energy drink that are loaded with caffeine without reducing their regular caffeine intake from other sources may risk developing what has been termed “caffeinism.”

Caffeinism is caused by toxic levels of caffeine with symptoms that include: nausea, diarrhea, indigestion, irregular heartbeat, irregular respiration, light headedness, jitteriness, and frequent urination.

This limited list doesn’t take into consideration the potential for weakness of bones and, with pregnant women, the chance for miscarriage. These symptoms may also develop in those not habitually exposed to caffeine even while ingesting a moderate dosage.

Researchers feel that caffeinism occurs more often with those who consume energy drinks because of the time at which caffeine is ingested.

Most people who drink hot coffee do so slowly and over the course of several minutes (10-30), while the tendency is to guzzle the colder caffeinated drinks as well as consume more than those drinking hot brews.

So, over-consumption of caffeine (and over-consumption is based on the individual-not a set number of mg) can lead to many uncomfortable trips to the bathroom, sleepless nights, “the shakes” and because of caffeine’s diuretic properties (remember all the bathroom trips) many individuals-especially athletes-can experience muscle cramping and fatigue from the dehydration factor, which kind of squelches the idea of getting an extra “boost” to improve performance.

Here’s where the really big problems come in to play. The marketing gurus in their infinite wisdom started publicizing the idea of mixing their energy drinks with alcohol. So now let’s take a look at what happens when you mix these beverages with alcohol and what some of the hazards may be.

It was stated earlier that energy drinks are primarily made up of caffeine and we know that caffeine is a stimulant. Conversely, alcohol is a depressant, making this unlikely combination very dangerous.

Here’s why: The stimulant effects from the energy can mask how intoxicated you are becoming, there-by preventing you from realizing just how much alcohol you’ve consumed. If this is the case, your blood alcohol concentrate (BAC) can exceed legal and health-related levels, making the situation very dangerous for numerous reasons.

It the stimulant is camouflaging how impaired you are, and then you aren’t going to feel the depressant effects of the alcohol-that is until the stimulant effect wears off. This can cause severe vomiting-which is extremely dangerous if you are sleeping-and you can encounter respiration depression (improper ventilation to breathe properly).

In addition, both alcohol and caffeine are very dehydrating to the body. Becoming dehydrated can hinder your body’s ability to metabolize the alcohol in your system and will increase your toxicity. Clearly put, you will have a kicking hangover the next day-that being the least of your problems if you choose to experiment with this combination.

So where does all this leave us? We know that the main component of all these drinks is caffeine, with some brands offering exceedingly high amounts. It was also noted that the remaining ingredients vary from potion to potion, with a lot of them containing tons of sugar (which as we know can help pack on unwanted pounds as well as raise triglycerides and insulin levels) and we certainly know that mixing these drinks with alcohol can be a deadly duo-something that shouldn’t be taken lightly.

It should be obvious by now that there is absolutely no need to consume an energy drink to gain any kind of “edge” or “advantage.” Catching a quick caffeine-sugar high isn’t the most intelligent choice one could make, especially when there are safer, more advantageous alternatives available.

For instance, the next time you need to need to increase your alertness or energy, grab a small handful of walnuts or almonds or even pumpkin seeds (raw if possible) and a big glass of water and see if your energy doesn’t increase.

Another choice or option would be to consume a protein source like a tuna or roast beef sandwich, maybe a hard boiled egg or even a protein shake. Protein has been proven to increase brain chemistry and provide energy so it makes for a great, healthy choice. I would also recommend getting more quality rest, evaluate your exercise and eating habits or meet with a qualified individual to help you assess your situation.
If you should still choose to use these products then please do so by using discretion based on information that has been provided here as well as other available sources.

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