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Behind the buzz

Energy drinks with caffeine and sugar pack a punch, but at what cost?

August 23, 2004|Alice Lesch Kelly | 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.

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