It’s easy for a middle-aged woman like me to drift through life without paying much attention to energy drinks. All that changed when my son turned 13. A boy that age is an energy-drink consumer waiting to happen, and the people who market such beverages work hard to seal the deal.
My son had the brand Monster in mind for a while because several of his extreme-sports heroes had promoted it. As is our way with soda, we agreed he could enjoy an occasional energy drink as a treat.
Was this a good idea?
Mary Claire O’Brien, an associate professor of emergency medicine notes that all energy drinks feature the same basic components: caffeine, a stimulant that can come from several sources, including guarana or herba mate, and “some kind of sugar” — often glucose or sucrose.
Beyond that, she says, the drinks commonly contain an amino acid such as taurine or L-carnitine, herbs (ginkgo biloba, ginseng) and vitamins (particularly B vitamins).
O’Brien also says there’s little or no science to back claims that such ingredients perform any special function. Andrea Giancoli, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, observes that “like a lot of dietary supplements, they put in a small amount of an ingredient without a lot of research to show that it does anything.”
Both agree that one needs to come to terms with caffeine and sugar in energy drinks.Caffeine content varies among brands and can be difficult to calculate.
Red Bull, the first commercial energy drink to make it big in the United States in the late 1980s, lists 80 mg of caffeine in an 8.4-ounce can (238 ml) and 114 mg per 12 ounces (340 ml). Compare that with 34 mg in a 12-ounce Coke and 38 mg in Pepsi.
That’s a lot of caffeine
Monster drinks don’t break out the caffeine content separately, including it among a handful of ingredients labelled the “energy blend”, which counts for 2,500 mg altogether per eight-ounce serving (226 ml). I spoke with someone from Monster Beverage Co, who said a 16-ounce can has 160 mg of caffeine.
But all regular consumers get is an advisory on the can that warns them to limit themselves to three cans a day and notes that the beverage is “not recommended for children, pregnant women or people sensitive to caffeine.”
Why worry about caffeine? O’Brien explains that at high doses, it can cause anxiety, insomnia, nervousness, high blood pressure and heart palpitations. Even if the caffeine content in a drink is relatively low, if a kid isn’t already used to caffeine, that child may experience the stimulant effect more strongly.
Giancoli worries most about the sugar in energy drinks. “That’s exactly what ‘energy’ is: calories,” not caffeine, she says. Although some brands (including Monster) offer low-carb or diet varieties, a 16-ounce can or 473 ml of standard Monster contains 200 calories, which is comparable to the calories in Coke and Pepsi.
As O’Brien observes, mixing alcohol and caffeine has become common, particularly among college students and young adults. Was it OK to let my son enjoy an occasional energy drink? I sure hope so. Time will tell.
Caffeine and calories
Energy drinks deliver their jolt via caffeine and calories (in the form of sugar). Here’s a look at the calories each contains in 350 ml of the drink:
Red Bull: 114 mg caffeine and 160 calories.
Coca-Cola: 34 mg caffeine and 140 calories
Pepsi: 38 mg caffeine and 150 calories
Sources: Beverage companies