Nowadays, not many individuals have the luxury of attending the gym to undertake their chosen sporting activity after waking up fresh from a twelve hour sleep. In fact, it’s quite the opposite – after you’ve managed to fit in a full time career, family life and even a social life, there barely seems enough hours in the day to complete a gruelling exercise session.
With this in mind, many individuals are turning to ‘energy drinks’ as a means of mustering up that little bit of additional energy to get themselves through their respective workouts. How many of you have made a brief diversion to the petrol station whilst en route to the gym in order to pick up one of several top selling energy drinks following a hard day at the office? Personally speaking, I know I have.
Subsequently, the purpose of this article is to consider the potential safety issues surrounding commercially available energy drinks, so that you can make an informed decision regarding the nutrition that you put into your body as a means of getting you through a workout. It should be noted at this point that this article is making reference to commercially available energy drinks only, such as Red Bull, Monster and Relentless to name but a few. It is not making reference to any pre/intra workout supplements.
Energy Drinks: Big Business
The energy drinks business can be considered a multi billion pound industry. From 1998-2003, the sale of energy drinks in the United States of America alone increased its turnover of sales by a staggering 465% (Von Fraunhofer and Rogers, 2005). In 2006 it was estimated that the sale of energy drinks generated profits of over 5 billion dollars (Bauerlein, 2007).
Their popularity is simply unrivalled; and this is particularly true with teenagers and young adults, who are believed to be the key target audience and make up a large percentage of the product sales.
So why are these energy drinks so popular? For starters, many of the aforementioned products fortify their drinks with dietary supplements that are considered both beneficial and healthy. These include but are by no means limited to ginseng, guarana and l-carnitine. Through advertising and other means, these products also promote the following attributes: increased energy, enhanced alertness and overall improvements in athletic performance (Clauson et al. 2008).
Who wouldn’t want these key natural ingredients and beneficial effects prior to a sporting performance? Surely in this day and age, with all the rules and regulations in place, not to mention the various governing bodies, consumers wouldn’t be presented with inaccurate information and hidden issues? Before attempting to answer this question, let us initially contemplate a piece of research into this very topic of discussion…
Potential Safety Issues Surrounding Energy Drinks
In 2008, Clauson et al. carried out a thorough review regarding the consumption of energy drinks and any cause and effect relationship with either beneficial and/or adverse effects. Their research was aptly titled ‘Safety Issues Associated With Commercially Available Energy Drinks’.
As part of this review, all research falling into this remit from 1980-2007 was contemplated as part of their overall investigation. Company websites specialising in the energy drinks industry and even manufacturers themselves were also contacted for information which formed a significant portion of the final report.
One of the key findings from the research investigation focussed around the notion that although many of these energy drinks contain natural ingredients, which are reported to promote various benefits, the majority of these energy drinks do not contain the necessary quantities to achieve such results.
This can be further demonstrated utilising the ingredient of ginseng. Ginseng is believed to promote various positive effects, including enhanced immune function, physical stamina, overall well being and concentration. Therapeutic doses for ginseng commonly range between 100-200 mg per day.
Here’s the problem: many energy drinks available commercially contain no more than a 25mg serving (McCusker et al, 2006). At these levels, it is not known what benefits, if any, ingredients such as ginseng will create on the human body – unless, of course, you consume 4-8 cans of the energy drink to get the required quantities!
Furthermore, despite these reported benefits being heavily pushed through clever advertising and gimmicky packaging, these natural ingredients can also create serious health issues. If we continue utilising the example of ginseng, previous research has identified that this ingredient can bring about numerous adverse effects including: insomnia, palpitations, hypertension, oedema, headache and vertigo to name but a few (Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database, 2007). Unsurprisingly, these potential health issues are not so openly displayed and advertised for obvious reasons.
To some extent, there is also a belief amongst consumers, potentially created through the manufacturers themselves, that energy drinks are more beneficial than other soft drinks such as Pepsi, Coca Cola and Sprite. Again, this viewpoint can be misleading; findings suggest that the caffeine and sugar content in energy drinks is the same as, if not more so, than that of these soft drinks (Clauson et al. 2008).
If that didn’t already rub salt in the wounds of unsuspecting consumers, then the fact that you pay significantly more for a can of energy drink than you do for a regular soft drink should ultimately seal the deal.
To say at this stage that there is a shortage of research investigations demonstrating beneficial effects of energy drinks would be a huge understatement. In some respects, undertaking exercise and consuming an energy drink can be considered at completely opposite ends of the health spectrum.
The primary issue identified with the commercially available energy drinks is that the key natural ingredients they include to bring about the various reported benefits are not included in quantities that are likely to result in any positive effects. Couple this with the fact that the caffeine and sugar content is likely to be sky high, and the numerous adverse effects previously linked to the consumption of energy drinks – such as seizures, obesity, dental health and other psychiatric effects – and their appeal almost instantly vanishes (Clauson et al. 2008).
At the end of the day, the decision to consume or not to consume energy drinks is largely down to personal preference. Some individuals wouldn’t touch them with a barge pole, whilst others believe an enhanced sporting performance can be achieved as a result of them.
If you do fall into the latter category, then the important take home message involves judging each energy drink on its own merits. Before purchasing, why not undertake a little background research into the content of your chosen energy drink and its actual ingredients? Most brands have their own websites where this information is readily available to view.
From a personal viewpoint, although I have utilised energy drinks in the past to try and get through a gruelling gym session, these days the associated health risks far outweigh the potential benefits on offer. With all of the above in mind, I’d rather simply order a black coffee.
Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below…