tin-1568095_1920.jpgSo you’re low on energy and coffee doesn’t cut it anymore? A popular alternative in liquid energy comes in small, bright cans, packing a big punch. Walk into any convenience or grocery store, and you’ll see various brands of Red Bull, Adrenaline Rush, Full Throttle, and Monster Energy. They’re a new breed of energy drinks, with stiff doses of caffeine, sugar, and a mixed bag of vitamins, amino acids and herbs.

Millions around the world consume them to receive that extra energy needed to survive the day. Bar hoppers mix them with vodka to party longer and students use them to pull all-night study sessions. Even athletes are hopping on the wagon as a boost to their performance.

But now they’re being flagged by some health experts as a potential health danger. According to a study published in the Journal of Analytical Toxicology, these and other drinks can contain ingredients which stress the immune system if consumed excessively or over the long haul.

Unfounded Claims?

Red Bull, arguably the most popular energy drink worldwide, states that their formula is scientifically formulated to “provide energy, vitalize the mind, improve concentration and reaction time.”

But many nutrition professionals remain unconvinced, noting that caffeine is the primary working ingredient.  In a report last month, Consumer Reports on Health criticized energy drinks for having ” ‘extras’ you don’t need.” The publication said these beverages “contain mostly sugar and caffeine, with other ingredients having little benefit or being untested.”

Red Bull contains about 80 mg of caffeine per 8 ounce can. While this is more than double that of a Coca-Cola Classic, it’s no more than your average cup of coffee. But now there’s a new breed of these super charged liquid stallions, led by a drink called  “Cocaine.” Also available in an 8.4 ounce can, it contains a whopping 280 milligrams of caffeine. According to the company’s Web site, the only way to get more caffeine per ounce is with an espresso.

A September 28, 2006 CBC article quoted Jamey Kirby, the drink’s inventor, as saying “the beverage is 350 percent stronger than Red Bull. The “high” hits within five minutes, followed by an energetic, buzzed out ride fifteen minutes later, which lasts five to six hours.”

With such an extreme high, this huge wallop of legal stimulants can be intense for anyone, especially kids. Of course energy drink manufacturers deny marketing to children, but the debate remains hot. The drinks are sold legally over the counter to anyone, and critics believe they may be fostering caffeine addiction, cause hyperactivity, restlessness, and increase excretion of calcium, a valuable mineral while bones are still growing. Health experts say young people already consume unhealthy amounts of caffeine and sugar, and don’t need a product which raises that intake.

The official imported Canadian Red Bull is a caffeinated version of Thai Krating Daeng. Until late 2004, it was prohibited for sale in Canada and now must carry a warning label that says: “Caution: Contains caffeine. Not recommended for children, pregnant or breast-feeding women, caffeine sensitive persons or to be mixed with alcohol. Do not consume more than 500 ml per day.”

The danger is obvious, says the National Institutes of Health. So much caffeine on a regular basis can raise blood pressure, (sometimes to the point of palpitations), dehydrate the body, as well as increase the risk of heart disease and premature death.

Do other ingredients contribute to the kick?

Arguably, the next ingredient is no healthier. Simple sugars are a “huge” part of these drinks and help elevate the buzz quickly. These cause the nervous system to become over stimulated, making people feel more energized. But clearly, a drink with a large amount of sugar is not a good high, because the energy produces can be ephemeral and short-lived, causing a crash once the sugar works its way out of the bloodstream.

Taurine also has been mentioned as a source of energy, especially when combined with caffeine. It is thought to be a “mild inhibitory neurotransmitter”, as some studies show it helps with excitable brain states. Though Taurine is an amino acid found naturally in the human body, in energy drinks it is entirely synthetic and could also have potentially negative side effects when present in high concentrations in the body.

A 2005 CBC Marketplace report stated that one can of Red Bull contains about 1000 mg of Taurine, or as much as 500 glasses of red wine. This amount is packed into a tiny 8.4 ounce can. But pick up a 16 ounce can of some other brands, and you can ingest up to 3000 mg Taurine and an insane 500 mg of caffeine.

In a nutshell, these drinks contain stimulant with unclear long-term consequences, in relation to amounts and interactions within in the human body.  What is known, is that they can boost the heart rate and blood pressure (sometimes to the point of palpitations), dehydrate the body, and, like other stimulants, prevent sleep. In extreme cases, they have been linked to deaths, though reports are inconclusive as to exact cause.

Alcohol and energy drinks

A November 2001 Science Daily states that college students and teens are now mixing these drinks with alcohol, producing a potentially dangerous combination. David Pearson, a researcher in the Human Performance Laboratory is quoted as saying that “mixing the stimulants contained in some energy drinks with depressants in alcohol could cause cardiopulmonary or cardiovascular failure.”

Other adverse effects include dehydration, insomnia, headaches, nervousness, nosebleeds, and vomiting.  Some countries like France and Denmark are so concerned about the possible side effects; they have banned the sale of Red Bull. This wasn’t a mere knee-jerk reaction, as the action followed several reported deaths of people who mixed the drink with alcohol.

The BBC News in 2001 reported that the three healthy young people who died are thought to have drunk Red Bull shortly before their demise. Two deaths came after mixing the product with alcohol, with one collapsing of the floor of a nightclub. A third person died after drinking several cans of the energy drink following a heavy workout at the gym. But the energy drink’s manufacturers said there was no proof the deaths were linked to its product, citing regulation of its product by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

In 2003, Ross Cooney, an 18-year-old college basketball player from Ireland, downed three cans of Red Bull and then played in a tournament a few hours later. He died partway through the game from what doctors called “sudden adult death syndrome.”

Red Bull denies actively marketing their product for mixture with alcohol, but on the question-and-answer page on its Web site, the company gives that practice a whole-hearted endorsement: “Can you mix Red Bull with alcohol? Yes!”

None of this takes responsibility away from the consumer, but it does show that such products have the potential to be lethal. Now, with even more powerful versions appearing on the market, these dangers will only increase.

And since energy drinks are stimulants, they can also mask alcoholic intoxication, say experts. Consumers may drink more than they would have without the caffeine, because of the alert feeling. As a result, people may be more inclined to drive while impaired. Of course much of this will be hard to prove after an accident, which is why some foresight on the part of regulators would be prudent.

To drink or not to drink?

Most of the time, the immediate dangers of energy drinks are only a concern when consumed too frequently or used at the wrong time. In today’s culture, that’s easy to achieve, since few people act in moderation. So the thought of consuming one energy drink for a quick boost, quickly translates into three or four drinks for sustained energy throughout the day.

Another thought to muse: While regulators allowing companies to sell these products, there is still little research done on long-term dangers. Current regulation merely means the products do not pose any “immediate” harm.

Labels also can carry misleading or ambiguous claims, leading the consumer to believe almost anything. It also remains unknown as to how medical conditions or prescription medication will interact with energy drinks. Everyone’s body chemistry reacts differently to various products. Alcohol is a prime example of this. Some people get drunk faster or have allergic reactions, so a universal reaction to energy drinks also seems unlikely.

In the end, most nutritionists agree that there’s little health benefit to be derived from these products. Claiming that a few herbs and vitamins counter the adverse effects of high caffeine and sugar levels is either a brilliant marketing campaign, or an outright lie. Either choice is unpleasant.