“Are energy drinks bad for you?” I’m asked a lot about the risks of energy drinks for heart health or health in general. If you’ve ever publicly consumed an energy drink, I’m sure you’ve heard comments from someone on how unhealthy you are. I know I have. So, when a friend asked for my thoughts on an NBC News article titled Energy Drinks Worse for Your Heart Than Caffeine Alone: Study, I put on my research-reading pants. Unfortunately, my expedition was cut short when they debunked the study early into the article:
“These changes are by no means worrisome for healthy individuals, the researchers say, but patients with certain heart conditions might need to exercise caution consuming energy drinks… Larger studies are needed to evaluate the safety of the noncaffeine ingredients contained in energy drinks, they conclude.”
Despite the click-bait title, it seems the argument is over. However, I want to expound on a few popular ingredients in energy drinks and give my two cents on their safety as a whole.
Assessing Common Energy Drink Ingredients
What I enjoyed seeing in the original article was the mention of proprietary blends and the dangers of consuming products containing them. If you don’t know how much of “x” ingredient is in a product, that’s a problem.
As an example, Monster Ultra (which I love, btw) has a proprietary blend of Taurine, Ginseng, Guarana, and L-carnitine. Using Examine.com to research the scientific research behind these ingredients, I found:
- Taurine has been shown to be perfectly safe up to 3g/day. The odds of a company putting that much taurine in a product are small due to cost reasons.
- Similarly, Ginseng has been shown to be effective at 3g/day, with toxicity levels being much higher.
- Guarana is primarily a source of caffeine, and Monster does disclose the total amount of caffeine per can to be 150mg in total.
- L-carnitine is considered a nootropic with “brain boosting” effects. Again, doses up to 4g have been used in studies.
Overall, the biggest takeaway would be the cost of these ingredients and the odds of a company over-dosing compared to under-dosing. Nine out of ten products you look at will be under-dosed for cost maximization.
Are the ingredients safe? Yes.
Are the ingredients safe when ingested together? Needs more research but as far as we can tell, yes.
Are energy drinks safer than preworkouts or other weight loss supplements? Probably.
Should you always research the products you’re taking/consuming? Absolutely.
Note: This is only taking Monster Ultra into consideration. I can’t speak for other energy drinks and their blends, but I’d venture to say they’re all fairly similar.
What You Should Worry About
- If you’re using energy drinks to make up for a lack of sleep or you HAVE to have one to function, you may need to evaluate your sleep schedule. The ill effects of inadequate sleep, unlike energy drinks, have been well studied and are confirmed killers. Be sure to limit caffeine later in the day if you have trouble sleeping.
- You should definitely avoid sugar bombs and pure sugar liquid calories of any kind at all times. If you go with a sugar-free energy drink, be aware that you’re still getting some calories from artificial sweeteners and trace calories from other ingredients. If you are concerned about artificial sweeteners, even with the dearth of research showing any danger, go with black coffee. Again, the effects of obesity, insulin resistance, and centralized fat storage are well studied and confirmed killers. Save you calories for food.
- Assess your total caffeine intake. While 200-300 mg of caffeine has been shown to enhance performance and fat burning, if you’re not training hard or exercising you don’t need large amounts in your day. The upper limit on caffeine is a bit hazy but for most, keeping it under 400 mg is probably a good idea. For what it’s worth, that would take 3 Monster Ultras or 4 large cups of coffee. Some ingredients in energy drinks may enhance the effects of caffeine, so if you notice jitters, restlessness, or elevated heart rate, you may want to back off.
- Also on caffeine, since we’re all unique snowflakes, we metabolize caffeine at different rates. Some people clear it from their system rapidly while others have it circulating for hours. Blood tests may be able to tell you which you are, but I’d be taking a shot in the dark. There’s a good chance you can tell just by observing how you feel after large doses of caffeine.
- Take any article you see demonizing energy drinks, or anything for that matter, with a grain of salt. Is there an agenda behind an article or study that might sway the final results? I love this video from John Oliver on scientific studies. Seriously, take the time to watch it. You’ll be able to dominate your smarty pants friends the next time they tell you anything is bad for you.
To summarize, unless you have pre-existing health concerns, energy drinks should be fine for you. It will be more important to be aware of overall caffeine intake and the possible side effects from overconsumption. If you enjoyed this article and would like to learn more about nutrition, feel free to download a copy of my eBook, Nutrition Made Easy 2.0, below.