So, that leads me, as the creator of Superhero Jacked, to be asked the question over and over: “Are Energy Drinks Bad For You?”.
Of course that question gets broken down into multiple other questions that I will also be answering during the course of this article, but we should start there.
Oh, but before we get too far ahead of ourselves I’d like to point out that the badass picture of the Ultra Red Monster (my favorite flavor) in the picture to the right was actually taken by me.
I know, pretty awesome.
Let’s start the same way we normally do when tackling longer in-depth articles.
Haven’t seen those?
What is an “Energy Drink”?
We’ll start with the basics.
How can I answer whether or not an energy drink is bad for you without first telling you what it is?
Here is what Google gives us for the definition of an “energy drink”:
any of various types of beverage that are considered a source of energy, especially a soft drink containing a high percentage of sugar and/or caffeine or other stimulant.
Let’s focus in on that caffeine aspect a bit.
I promise we’ll talk about the high percentage of sugar they have as well, but when I do it’ll make much more sense as to why I’m aiming the focus on the caffeine aspect.
All the energy drinks we’re going to be looking at have caffeine in them, and we’ll even be looking at their specific amounts later in the article (as well as their calories).
Some of the most popular brands of energy drinks are: Red Bull, Monster, Amp (by Mountain Dew), Rockstar, and NOS.
For the sake of this article being hosted on Superhero Jacked (a fitness AND nerd oriented website), I will also name Bang and GFuel as two other energy drink companies. Bang is a zero calorie energy drink that has been attempting to make some waves in the fitness realm, and GFuel is an energy drink formula geared towards eSports.
As I mentioned, we’ll be taking a look at all of these drinks different calorie and caffeine ranges, so I felt it was important to include those two as well.
And, while some people might make the argument that GFuel can be seen as a pre-workout, they actually gear themselves as more of an energy drink, neglecting a lot of the additives you would normally see within a typical pre-workout supplement.
But, okay. Now that we got that out of the way.
Let’s move on.
What Other Ingredients Do Energy Drinks Have In Them?
In an article by CNN.com titled “What your energy drink can do to your body”, they tell us some of the common ingredients in our popular energy drinks:
Most energy drinks typically contain large amounts of caffeine; added sugars; vitamins, such as B vitamins; and legal stimulants, such as guarana, a plant that grows in the Amazon; taurine, an amino acid that’s naturally found in meat and fish; and L-carnitine, a substance in our bodies that helps turn fat into energy.
They tell us a little bit about each one, but I’d like to break them down a bit more in depth.
An article by Lifehacker discussing this same topic helps us out, and I’ll be using their findings for the specific breakdown of each one of these ingredients we’re going to be talking about.
Ingredient One: Taurine
First and foremost, Google tells us taurine is:
a sulfur-containing amino acid important in the metabolism of fats.
Sounds pretty good to me, but I’m going to definitely need to know more before I make that assumption.
Although, I do like the metabolism of fats…
Taurine is a naturally occurring amino acid that plays many fundamental biological roles. If you’re a moderately healthy individual, you likely produce the taurine your body needs on your own. According to Katherine Zeratsky, R.D., L.D., at Mayo Clinic, an average energy drink will have about 1,000 milligrams of taurine per 8-ounce serving, which is considered safe by medical researchers. Zeratsky suggests that taurine may help with mental and physical performance, but there’s very little evidence to support it. It may, however, help your eyes if you look at a screen all day, according to Patel. One study, led by M. Zhang and published in Amino Acids, suggests that regular taurine supplementation helps reduce and alleviate visual fatigue commonly associated with visual display terminals.
Taurine Conclusion and Snippet:
The 1,000 milligrams of taurine generally found in an 8-ounce serving of energy drinks is considered safe, may even help with mental and physical performance (although not enough evidence to fully support this), and might even help your eyes if you’re generally looking at a screen all day long.
Well I’ll be damned.
Ingredient Two: Guarana
Next on the list is an ingredient called guarana.
Here’s what Google tells us:
a substance prepared from the seeds of a Brazilian shrub, used as a tonic or stimulant.
the shrub ( Paullinia cupana ) of the soapberry family that yields guarana.
Definitely not as cool as taurine so far, but I’m still cool with it.
Hell, my go-to drink when I’m out is vodka tonic.
Lifehacker breaks down guarana stating this:
Guarana is actually a plant that grows in the Amazon, and is commonly found in Brazil. It’s not the plant itself that you’re ingesting, however, it’s the seeds; which have been used by indigenous people of the Amazon to increase their energy and alertness for centuries. According to Erica Bub and Karla Shelnutt, PhD, RD, at the University of Florida, the chemical component of guarana that gives you energy is actually just naturally occurring caffeine. In fact, guarana has the highest caffeine content of any other plant out there. That means it’s effect on you is essentially the same as caffeine’s. Still, as Patel explains, there’s been a lot of research to see if guarana has any additional effects on people aside from its caffeine content. A recent study, published in the Journal of Negative Results in Biomedicine, suggests that commercial products containing guarana have no major effect on your mood, anxiety, or psychological well-being.
Well that one definitely took me for a loop.
Let’s break it down in the conclusion.
Guarana Conclusion and Snippet:
Guarana has been used by indigenous people of the Amazon to increase energy and alertness for centuries. It is said to be like a naturally occurring caffeine and will effect you essentially the same way BUT, a recent study shows that it does not give you any major effect on your mood, anxiety or psychological well-being.
I love me some caffeine.
And, don’t worry, we’ll talk about that major stimulant in a little bit.
Ingredient Three: Ginseng
Google gives us another double definition for this next ingredient:
- a plant tuber credited with various tonic and medicinal properties, especially in East Asia.
- the plant from which ginseng is obtained, native to eastern Asia and North America.
Did I mention my go-to drink when I’m out is a vodka tonic?
Yes, yes, I’m kidding. Well, I’m not, but kind of.
Lifehacker gives us a LARGE breakdown for this one, so I’m saying you’re welcome in advance for that conclusion and snippet I’ll be giving you.
Here’s what they tell us about it:
Ginseng is a medicinal herb that has long been thought to improve physical performance, focus, and memory (especially when taken in combination with another herb, ginkgo biloba). Patel says there is no overwhelming evidence of ginseng being harmful for most people, especially in the short term. In fact, Patel points out that there may be some potential benefits outside of getting energy fast:
“A recent meta-analysis presented preliminary evidence that Ginseng, a popular ingredient in energy drinks, could potentially have a positive effect (though modest) on fasting blood glucose levels in both people with and without type 2 diabetes. Two randomized controlled trials, which were published a year after the meta-analysis, provided further evidence in support of ginseng and its potential role in improving blood glucose regulation in individuals with impaired glucose tolerance or type 2 diabetes.”
That being said, the U.S. National Library of Medicine suggests that long-term use (more than 6 months of regular ingestion) may cause insomnia, and possibly interfere with proper drug action of certain medications such as insulin, oral hypoglycemic agents, blood thinners, and diuretics. But this all may be moot, because according to Bub and Shelnutt, the amount of ginseng commonly found in energy drinks is less than the amount traditionally considered to be beneficial anyway. We don’t really know enough about ginseng yet to say whether it’s good or bad, but if your only source of it is the occasional energy drink (rather than daily supplement pills), you’re probably fine.
Well, I’m not as happy about this one as I was about the others.
This kind of went in the other direction, and I’m not even going to hide it!
Let’s talk about what was said there.
Ginseng Conclusion and Snippet:
It started off pretty good, with ginseng coming in with some evidence that it may improve physical performance, memory, and focus – and even controlled trials that were published about it improving blood glucose regulation. However, larger amounts (and for long term use) could possibly cause insomnia and might even interfere with certain medications such as insulin, oral hypoglycemic agents, blood thinners, and diuretics. They finish off by letting us know that energy drinks likely don’t have enough ginseng content to cause these issues, and they don’t have enough information yet to say whether it’s good or bad – but this one goes down as a “probably fine”, which was also their last words.
Meh. Mark that one up as a loss, I’d say.
If it’s not a win, what else is it!?
Ingredient Four: B-Vitamins
Well, B-Vitamins is plural, so Google said no-go on the easy definition apparently.
So we’ll go with Wikipedia for this one:
B vitamins are a class of water-soluble vitamins that play important roles in cell metabolism. Though these vitamins share similar names, they are chemically distinct compounds which often coexist in the same foods. In general, dietary supplements containing all eight are referred to as a vitamin B complex. Individual B vitamin supplements are referred to by the specific number or name of each vitamin: B1 = thiamine, B2 = riboflavin, B3 = niacin, etc. Some are better known by name than number: niacin, pantothenic acid, biotin and folate.
Nope. Not nearly as cool as taurine.
I know, I know, but I swear they’re fine. Better than another one for the loss column, at least.
Let’s see what Lifehacker has to say:
In general, you’ll probably find at least four B vitamins listed on your energy drink’s nutritional facts; including vitamin B3 (niacin), vitamin B6 (pyridoxine), vitamin B12 (cobalamin), and vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid). Medical research shows that a deficiency in some B vitamins can lead to feeling fatigued, but according to the National Institutes of Health, supplying your body with more vitamin B than needed does not provide “extra energy.” When you ingest more vitamin B than your body needs, it merely gets lost in your urine. In fact, you probably already get most of the B vitamins your body needs from your diet, so the B vitamins in energy drinks are probably going in and out of you in no time. The NIH suggests that B vitamins are safe for consumption, even when your body doesn’t need them, but too much vitamin B6 can be dangerous. Fortunately, you’d need to consume nearly 50 servings of energy drinks to reach any dangerous numbers.
That was a lot of words for what could have been said much shorter, but I wanted to share it anyways for those of you who want all the information.
Hopefully you’re the type of person who likes having all the information, but if not, here’s your conclusion and snippet.
B-Vitamins Conclusion and Snippet:
Ingesting more vitamin B than your body needs just makes you pee it out, and you’d literally need to consume 50 servings of energy drinks to get to any dangerous levels.
We’ll mark that up as a win for anyone not getting their vitamin B, am I right!?
Okay fine, it’s a tie.
What About Caffeine and Sugar?
Of course the ingredients above are not the only ingredients you will find in energy drinks, but with the exception of caffeine and sugar, they are the only ones that would be considered the major players here.
I felt it made the most sense to talk about caffeine and sugar separately.
So far I’m leaning towards the side of energy drinks NOT being considered bad for you.
What about you?
Here’s where it can get tricky.
Let’s start with sugar being that I have strong feelings about liquid calories in general.
Is Sugar Bad For You?
This topic can be turned into an article within itself.
Ha! An article. It’s been turned into full books.
Here’s one for you to consider reading: The Case Against Sugar.
Gary Taubes writes that and a handful of other books as well that I have also read. I recommend his books to anyone interested in nutrition and the breakdown of calories and nutrients. He is absolutely brilliant, and if this is a topic you want to know more about, he is the man to learn it from.
That being said, we’ll still discuss it a bit here.
In an article in The New York Times discussing sugar they state:
Many nutrition experts say that sugar in moderation is fine for most people. But in excess it can lead to metabolic problems beyond its effects on weight gain. The reason, studies suggest, is fructose. Any fructose you eat is sent straight to your liver, which specializes in turning it into droplets of fat called triglycerides.
“When you ingest fructose, almost all of it is metabolized by the liver, and the liver is very good at taking that fructose and converting it to fat,” said Dr. Mark Herman, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard.
But, don’t get too scared.
The article found the answer to the question “Is Sugar Really Bad For You” to be “it depends”.
Sugar, in moderation, can be fine. In excess it could be addicting and extremely harmful in more ways than one.
And an argument can be made that an abundance of anything could be bad.
But let’s stay on track here.
My argument for sugar within energy drinks is simple: avoid it.
Same reason I would never drink liquid calories to begin with.
Let’s talk about that.
What Are “Liquid Calories” and Why Should You Avoid Them?
Liquid calories are any calories that you’re ingesting in a drink.
This can be alcohol, sugars in soda, or any other drink.
The one thing I’ll exclude is a protein shake. I support that if you need help getting your daily protein.
The main issue is that most people see drinks much differently than they see food. For example, you can go to Starbucks and get a drink that has well over 500 calories in it.
Are you using that as a full meal? Because my six egg whites have about 400 calories less than that…
Okay, you don’t see my point just yet?
Let me simplify it a bit more.
Here are some reasons why I’ll always order a diet soda, or buy a zero calorie energy drink as opposed to one containing calories:
- In my opinion it’s often a more satisfying alternative to water when eating food or sometimes during my fast.
- I am given 100% certainty that it won’t affect my weight in any way, shape, or form.
- I would MUCH RATHER utilize 300 calories on donuts or something I love than waste it on soda or an energy drink that I can just as easily order in diet form.
- I’ve drank enough of it to the point where I can’t even tell the damn difference…
If you still haven’t read our Official Guide to Calorie Counting that I linked to earlier in this article, now might be the time. This all might begin to make more sense.
What I’m saying is:
If I’m looking to stay in a caloric deficit to lose weight and looking to allocate my calories places throughout the day, why would I ever choose to waste hundreds on a drink when I can order an easy zero calorie alternative?
Is it kind of making sense now?
I hope so.
All our Academy Nutrition Classes (Monks, Samurais, Vikings, Hunter Gatherers, Spartans, SuperHumans, Greek Gods, Minimalists) revolve around finding the most sustainable diet for YOU, and our Superhero Programs use specific counts for each individual, so it’s extremely important to grasp this concept.
Another Fun Fact About Fasting and Liquid Calories
Before we move on I just want to include one more thing for you.
Sticking to diet and/or zero calorie drinks allows you to utilize them during your fasted state.
If you’ve been around SHJ at all, you know I’m a huge supporter of intermittent fasting.
Yeah, it’s getting serious.
And, lucky for you, if you can avoid liquid calories you can have these zero calorie energy drinks, diet sodas, or coffee (assuming you don’t add calories to it) during your fasted state!
Another win for energy drinks.
I swear I’m not supporting either side…
How Much Caffeine Is Too Much?
Remember when I said we’d be comparing caffeine and calorie facts for specific brands?
We’re getting their soon, I swear.
But first let’s talk about how much caffeine is too much caffeine – in this case specifically referring to a daily basis.
Mayo Clinic gives us a ton of good information on the subject:
Up to 400 milligrams (mg) of caffeine a day appears to be safe for most healthy adults. That’s roughly the amount of caffeine in four cups of brewed coffee, 10 cans of cola or two “energy shot” drinks. Keep in mind that the actual caffeine content in beverages varies widely, especially among energy drinks.
You may want to cut back if you’re drinking more than 4 cups of caffeinated coffee a day (or the equivalent) and you’re experiencing side effects such as:
- Migraine headache
- Frequent urination or inability to control urination
- Stomach upset
- Fast heartbeat
- Muscle tremors
Quite the list of possible issues…
To make this clear, we’re talking about caffeine in general right now. That means coffee drinks, you’re reading that right. It does say coffee, and yes we’re comparing coffee to energy drinks.
One of the possible dangers of energy drinks is the over consumption of caffeine, which also is a concern that can be said about coffee.
Crazy? I know.
But hey, the reaction you’re going to recieve from the caffeine you intake daily is not identical to how everyone else will react to it.
Mayo Clinic follows this up by telling us:
Some people are more sensitive to caffeine than are others. If you’re susceptible to the effects of caffeine, just small amounts — even one cup of coffee or tea — may prompt unwanted effects, such as restlessness and sleep problems.
How you react to caffeine may be determined in part by how much caffeine you’re used to drinking. People who don’t regularly drink caffeine tend to be more sensitive to its negative effects. Other factors may include genetics, body mass, age, medication use and health conditions, such as anxiety disorders.
For example, I can drink a lot more caffeine and feel much less effected than when my grandmother (who doesn’t drink caffeine at all and accidentally has some and is “up all night”) drinks some.
The last thing I want to say about caffeine before we get into the breakdown of their levels in each drink is that it can harm how much sleep you’re getting and severely affect your “gains” in the gym.
Yes, that means your muscle gains, or even your fat loss.
Mayo Clinic puts it in there own terms, which I’ll share below, but I also have an article on sleep right here on the site as well.
Chronically losing sleep — whether it’s from work, travel, stress or too much caffeine — results in sleep deprivation. Sleep loss is cumulative, and even small nightly decreases can add up and disturb your daytime alertness and performance.
I’m signing off by reminding men out there you can even increase your testosterone levels and other hugely important hormones just by getting an ample amount of sleep and recovery.
Alright alright, let’s get into our comparison.
How Much Calories and Caffeine In Each Brand? (A Comparison)
The time has come.
I’m making it clear now that I will be listing some major brands multiple times because some of them have zero calorie and zero sugar options.
That being said, I will also be listing the caffeine content of coffee, but be aware that I can’t tell you the calories you decide to put in your coffee after it’s made (I drink mine black).
Let’s start our list with coffee and go right to the major brands I mentioned earlier.
Caffeine and Calories per Eight Ounces:
- Calories: 0
- Caffeine: 95 mg
- Red Bull (8.4 ounces)
- Calories: 117
- Caffeine: 80 mg
- Sugar Free Red Bull (8.4 ounces)
- Calories: 10
- Caffeine: 80 mg
- Red Bull Total Zero (8.4 ounces)
- Calories: 15
- Caffeine: 80 mg
- Calories: 105
- Caffeine: 80 mg
- Monster Lo-Carb
- Calories: 5
- Caffeine: 70 mg
- Monster Ultra Zero
- Calories: 0
- Caffeine: 70 mg.
- Calories: 110
- Caffeine: 71 mg
- Calories: 130
- Caffeine: 80 mg
- Calories: 100
- Caffeine: 80 mg
- Calories: 0
- Caffeine: 178.5 mg
- Calories: 25
- Caffeine: 150 mg
The next thing I would like to point out is that the large majority (with the exception of Red Bull being labeled as 8.4, and GFuel being based on a scooper not ounces) of these energy drinks come in 16 oz cans.
That means these serving sizes are all doubled when you drink the entire can.
Oh, another thing that should be pointed out.
There is a decent amount of caffeine also in soda.
That includes diet.
Pepsi and Coke brands range from 25-60ish mg of caffeine in the majority of their drinks (in 8oz format).
Let’s keep going with this comparison though.
How about we talk Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts for a second?
I know some of you just gasped.
It was audible.
Here’s a large list of different sizes from Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts and Panera, including their caffeine intake (Source):
Coffees Serving Size Caffeine (mg) Starbucks Coffee, Blonde Roast venti, 20 oz. 475 Dunkin’ Donuts Coffee with Turbo Shot large, 20 oz. 398 Starbucks Coffee, Pike Place Roast grande, 16 oz. 310 Panera Coffee, Light Roast regular, 16 oz. 300 Starbucks Coffee, Pike Place Roast tall, 12 oz. 235 Dunkin’ Donuts Cappuccino large, 20 oz. 233 Starbucks Caffè Americano grande, 16 oz. 225 Dunkin’ Donuts Coffee medium, 14 oz. 210 Starbucks Iced Coffee grande, 16 oz. 190 Panera Frozen Mocha medium, 16 oz. 188 Starbucks Caffè Mocha grande, 16 oz. 175 Starbucks Iced Black Coffee, bottle 11 oz. 160
Okay, that’s some pretty crazy stuff, right?
I guess the main takeaway here is that if the caffeine in energy drinks is a major reason for concern, it should also be spoken of about all caffeinated drinks.
They’re all becoming more and more accessible.
I love Starbucks…I’m literally sitting in one right now as I type this…
A Final SHJ Conclusion
I think there are a lot of people who have a negative look on energy drinks.
But that can also be said about many things that can be abused quite easily.
The key is to knowing limits, the same with diets, the same with sugar, the same with video games, the same with a lot of things.
I also think there’s definitely a reason for you to think poorly of them, because caffeine is a drug, and it can be addicting.
But, that does not make them any worse for you than other things that are “bad” when abused.
People can be addicted to World of Warcraft, sugar, and a handful of other things that aren’t necessarily “bad” for them if done in a healthy moderation.
The same can be said about energy drinks.
Can energy drinks be dangerous and bad for you?
Are they bad for you?
Not unless you abuse them.
Be aware that your pre-workout, your sodas (including diet), your coffee (just in case this somehow wasn’t obvious), your chocolate (yes oh my god even chocolate!) and other things can include caffeine.
Take this into account when thinking of your daily intake.
When you’re looking at your diet it should be done in a daily perspective in most cases. When you’re planning what you’re having for breakfast (or lunch if you’re intermittent fasting like The SHJ Army), it’s probably smart to think about your intake for the entire day. I always have an idea of what I’ll be able to eat for dinner and snack on to be able to allow me to have all my macronutrients.
Yes, even if I break my fast with a stack of IHOP pancakes.
This same overlook on your day can be done for your caffeine intake as well.
Drink safe, SHJ Army.
SHJ’s Nick Fury
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