Behind the buzz

Special to The Times

When Jason Lee, a 41-year-old research analyst in Los Angeles, goes out for a night on the town, he wants to be able to dance until the wee hours. To rev up, Lee will drink three or four cans of Red Bull energy drink.

“It has more zing than a Diet Pepsi,” Lee says. “I’m looking for something to help me stay up later, for more energy.”

Energy -- that’s what drinks such as Red Bull, Monster Energy, Rockstar, Amp, KMX, SoBe Adrenaline Rush and Shark promise. Red Bull, for example, boasts that it “vitalizes body and mind,” “improves performance, especially during times of increased stress or strain, increases concentration and improves reaction speed” and “stimulates the metabolism.”

The drinks contain caffeine and sweeteners, as well as various herbs, nutrients and other ingredients (guarana, ginseng, taurine, vitamins, minerals and amino acids). According to their manufacturers, these ingredients give energy.


Consumers seem to be buying the claim: The energy drink market increased by 44% between 2002 and 2003, from $454 million to $653 million, according to the Beverage Marketing Corp., a market research firm in New York. Red Bull is the leader in the energy drink market, the company says, and sells more than all of the other brands combined.

“Consumers are interested in the energy function,” says John Sicher, editor of Beverage Digest, a beverage industry publication. “People like the product.”

Young people in particular seem attracted to energy drinks, which are marketed heavily to them. The drinks have aggressive names and cool packaging, and many are linked to extreme sports events and musical acts.

The question, of course, is whether consumers are getting what they think from energy drinks. Does an 8.3-ounce can of sweetened, fortified carbonated water really provide energy? And if so, what price do you pay for your pick-me-up? The drinks’ worth -- and risk -- varies by user.


Despite their long lists of ingredients, energy drinks get their stimulating effects from plain old caffeine, according to Gail Frank, a professor of nutrition at Cal State Long Beach and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Assn.

Ingredients such as taurine, an amino acid, are just for show, Frank says.

Amino acids -- which are sometimes given to ill people to help with tissue repair, cell structure maintenance and hormone production -- have not been shown to help healthy people.

Researchers aren’t sure what the herbs and other “natural” ingredients do because they have not been rigorously tested, Frank says. Aside from guarana, which contains caffeine, she says there is little evidence that the herbs increase energy.


Energy drinks contain a substantial amount of caffeine, either manufactured or from such “natural” sources as guarana seeds.

Red Bull, for example, has 80 milligrams of caffeine in a 250-milliliter (8.3-ounce) can, although the caffeine count is not listed on its label. That’s more than three times the amount of caffeine in the same amount of Coke or Pepsi and more than double that of Mountain Dew, according to the National Soft Drink Assn. (A cup of coffee has roughly 100 to 150 milligrams of caffeine, depending on how it’s brewed; an 8-ounce cup of Starbuck’s brewed coffee contains 160 milligrams of caffeine.)

Some of an energy drink’s boost comes from sugar. Non-diet energy drinks contain a good-size dose of sugar -- for example, Red Bull has 27 grams, which is 5 grams more than a Hershey’s milk chocolate bar. Ingesting high levels of sugar can lead to a sugar crash 30 to 45 minutes later, about the same time as for a caffeine crash.

In some cases, the products’ websites warn consumers not to have too many energy drinks. “Monster Energy is not for wimps!” says a note on the drink’s site. “But even for those who like to go big, we suggest no more than three cans per day. Having more Monster won’t hurt, but we can’t be responsible if you never go to sleep!”


Anecdotal evidence suggests, however, that some consumers do drink as many as three or four energy drinks in a day.

Arlyn Petalver, 27, a photo editor who lives in Oxnard, usually drinks three Red Bulls when going out with friends.

“I drink one Red Bull while I drive, so I don’t get too tired before I arrive, then I usually drink another two on my drive back to keep me awake when it’s late,” Petalver says.

“For me, it’s not as dehydrating as coffee, and it’s a quick pick-me-up available in any gas station.”



Detrimental effects

Of course, as with coffee or any other beverage containing caffeine, too many of the high-powered drinks can cause muscle twitching, gastrointestinal problems, rapid heartbeats or dizziness.

For some people, the caffeine in even a few energy drinks is too much, says Margaret R. Savoca, an assistant research scientist at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta. In her research, Savoca has found that in teens -- especially African American boys -- caffeine intake may increase blood pressure enough to trigger hypertension in those who are predisposed to the condition.


In her study, published in May 2004 in the Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine, Savoca saw detrimental blood pressure effects in teens who consumed as little as 100 milligrams of caffeine a day. If blood pressure is continually elevated because of caffeine, stress, genetics or lack of exercise, Savoca says, hypertension can occur in susceptible people. And as the number of obese youths grows, more and more are susceptible.

Hypertension is a major health problem in the U.S., particularly in the African American community. More than 40% of African Americans have hypertension. It develops earlier in life and is usually more severe in blacks than in whites, according to the American Heart Assn. Hypertension is a major risk factor for heart attack, stroke, heart failure and kidney failure.

Because energy drinks contain so much caffeine, they can become addictive, says Roland Griffiths, a caffeine researcher and professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University. In adults, as little as 100 milligrams of caffeine a day -- the amount in a small cup of coffee -- can cause dependence and, as a result, such withdrawal symptoms as headache, lethargy and moodiness when the caffeine is taken away.

Young people are particularly vulnerable to caffeine, Griffiths says. Ingesting inconsistent amounts of caffeine can cause them to alternate between dependence and withdrawal, negatively affecting schoolwork, mood and sleep.


Energy drinks are also touted for boosting sports performance. However, other drinks are more effective, says Todd Trappe, an associate professor in the human performance laboratory at Ball State University. To fuel a workout, athletes need water, sugar and, when exercise is heavy, electrolytes, but nothing more. Sports drinks like Gatorade are better for high-performing athletes than energy drinks, Trappe says.

Caffeine can help athletes in the short term -- for example, during a workout done 30 to 60 minutes after consumption, Trappe says. “It does in fact work pretty well; it has a benefit on sports performance.”

After a short time, though, the caffeine wears off and performance suffers because the athlete feels tired and sluggish. Energy drinks have shown up at nightclubs too. An example is the Shark Power Punch (gin, white rum, apricot brandy, vodka, orange juice and Shark energy drink). People think the energy drinks will make them less drunk or speed them through a hangover, but neither is true, Frank says. Energy drinks merely make drunks more alert, and an alert drunk is more likely to engage in such risky behavior as driving under the influence of alcohol.

Frank also believes that for some kids, partying with energy drinks opens them up to other stimulants. “I’m concerned because people keep wanting to find another high,” she says. “The body doesn’t need all these stimulants.”


Grabbing an energy drink once in a while probably won’t harm you; it may even help you make that long drive or finish that big project at work. But drinking them regularly and depending on them for everyday energy probably isn’t a good idea.

If you want to feel revved up, improve your performance and boost your vitality, the best strategy is to eat healthful foods, exercise and get enough sleep. Unfortunately, that’s not what people in our fix-it-quick society want to hear, Frank says. “It’s not a sexy message, but it works.”




Caffeine boosts many beverages

The boost provided by energy drinks comes from caffeine, the same stimulant in many soft drinks. Here’s how the caffeine contents compare:

*--* Product Serving size Milligrams of caffeine Monster Energy 8 ounces 95 mg Red Bull 8.3 ounces 80 mg Shark 8.4 ounces 80 mg SoBe Adrenaline Rush 8.3 ounces 79 mg Rockstar 8 ounces 66-75 mg Amp 8.4 ounces 74 mg KMX 8.4 ounces 38 mg Mountain Dew 12 ounces 55 mg Diet Coke 12 ounces 45 mg Pepsi 12 ounces 38 mg Diet Pepsi 12 ounces 36 mg Coca-Cola Classic 12 ounces 34 mg Snapple Lemon Tea 12 ounces 31.5 mg Nestea sweetened 12 ounces 26 mg



Source: Energy drink manufacturers, the National Soft Drink Assn.