The Real Dangers of Energy Drinks

By , Registered and Licensed Dietitian
Recently my teenage son and I found ourselves killing time at the grocery store while waiting for the pharmacy to fill a prescription.  Surrounded by an array of protein supplements and energy drinks, my typical "tell mom only what is absolutely necessary" son was full of questions and comments.
Our discussion about energy drinks was interesting--and somewhat disturbing--on several levels. As any mom knows, it is important to not pass judgment or show signs of shock if you want the conversation to continue. This little discussion led me to the following conclusions:
  • Energy drinks are very popular with teens and young adults (no surprise there)
  • It is a generational thing: I have my coffee; they have their energy drinks.
  • Shop-lifting the energy shots (the small, concentrated bottles, including 5 Hour Energy, which I've written about in the past) is common. Some stores are placing these under lock and key.
  • Savvy marketers have convinced our teens and young adults that energy drinks can provide them with a mental and physical edge.  Therefore they are being used in large quantities both on a daily basis and before academic testing and sporting events. 
All this got me thinking again about the energy drink phenomenon. This fast-growing beverage category now reaches more than $10 billion annuallyBut what is the impact on the health of adults, teens and children? 

We don’t know the complete health implications of energy drinks. It probably depends on your specific health conditions and the amount you consume. Last year, the US Food and Drug Administration began investigating reports of several deaths linked to the use of these type energy drinks.  Caffeine, a stimulant and the most active ingredient in these energy concoctions, provides the energy-boost that one experiences. Caffeine has been shown to improve mental focus, alertness, anaerobic performance, and/or endurance performance. 

The Caffeine Connection: Who really knows how much caffeine is in that bottle or can, and we often don't know exactly what else is in there, either.  Most energy drinks don’t include this information on the label.   Caffeine, a substance that is generally recognized as safe (GRAS) is not considered to be a food additive, and can therefore be added to foods without FDA approval.  Even when brands do list caffeine content, that information is questionable: Consumer Reports found that many drinks contain more caffeine than listed. 

Not knowing the amount of caffeine can be dangerous!  There is the risk of caffeine toxicity, the symptoms of which include jitteriness, sleeplessness, nervousness, rapid pulse, abnormal heart rhythms, increased blood pressure, even seizures and death. As a dietitian, I tell people to read the label, but if the label is not reporting or inaccurately reporting the info, that’s really no help. Don’t you feel you have the right to know how much of the active ingredient is actually in your energy drink?  I do!

The Other Stuff:  The other ingredients in these secret concoctions can include:
  • Sugar: a source of quick energy but also a source of additional, often unwanted, calories.
  • Taurine: a derivative of the amino acid cysteine. Taurine is added to make people believe it's an important protein, but adequate amounts are easily obtained through meat and seafood sources in the diet.  The substance was first discovered in the bile of an ox in 1827.
  • Guarana: a plant with seeds that contain a concentrated source of caffeine.
  • B-vitamins: a grouping of water-soluble vitamins with many bodily functions such as the digestion of food, production of energy in body cells, functioning of enzymes. B vitamins are added for better access of energy from food, but healthy adults can easily obtain adequate amounts through food intake.
If you believe the marketing, these added ingredients have magical powers.  Detoxifying agent,  no crash later, stimulates metabolism, improves overall wellness… these are just a few of the health claims made by the companies manufacturing energy drinks.  However, a 2012 review of the scientific literature published in Nutrition Reviews evaluated the various ingredients in energy drinks and found no evidence to support these type claims.  Only the ingredients providing caffeine (guarana) and the sugar (carbohydrates) can be backed by scientific research.  
Bottom Line:  While you may consider energy drinks to be a harmless pick-me-up, they can be a source of excessive caffeine and calories. 
  • An occasional energy drink is probably fine for most adults. But do apply common sense and take a moderation approach--no more than 1 a day.  Safe daily caffeine consumption has been studied; a healthy adult can consume up to 400 milligrams per day, the amount in about 3 cups of coffee
  • Adults should always consult with their doctor before consuming energy drinks—especially people with conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, liver disease, or neurological disorders. There could be ingredient-medication interactions, or the ingredients could make your condition worse. If pregnant or thinking of becoming pregnant, talk to your doctor about the use of energy drinks.
  • Never mix alcohol with energy drinks, for the results can be dangerous as reported in the French journal Archives de Pédiatrie.
  • The American Academy of Pediatrics states that energy drinks are not appropriate for children or teenagers, and should never be consumed. This mom agrees.
Above all, manufacturers should be required to list the amount of caffeine on all product labels. Come on--if you have nothing to hide, why are you so unwilling to give it to me straight and reveal the exact amount of caffeine that my body is receiving from a shot or can.
Do you consume energy drinks? Do you believe that they are dangerous?

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LEANJEAN6 9/11/2020
I had a very bad allergic reaction to one of these drinks--- Report
MAREE1953 8/26/2020
Based on the newer comments, it appears the ingredients are listed now, which is good. Personally, I wouldn't consume them. Too careful with what I put in my body. Report
NIKO27 3/30/2020
Great Article
GEORGE815 3/22/2020
Thanks Report
SPINECCO 3/19/2020
Great information. Report
NENEBFIT 3/19/2020
Never tried one. Always sad when reading about someone dying from drinking too many. Read lots of articles where these can be addicting. Report
RO2BENT 2/25/2020
They are bad on so many levels Report
Great information. Report
Thanks Report
GEORGE815 1/6/2020
Thanks Report
FRAN0426 11/29/2019
No I don't drink energy drinks ever Report
KHALIA2 10/27/2019
Thanks for sharing this one. Report
DEE107 10/18/2019
thanks for sharing Report
thanks Report
My energy comes from coffee. Years ago I was on the Red Bull band wagon but it really only made me jittery. Now with all the negative side effects I do not encourage anyone to drink them. Report
Yes, I use energy drinks...sometimes. Not regularly, but when I need a "pick-me-up," e.g. after doing barn chores in 90-degree heat. Never had a problem with them. Some points: 1) They do NOT all contain sugar; Rock Star, for instance, has several with 0 sugar and 0 calories. 2) Most of them DO list the ingredients, INCLUDING caffeine. There are plenty out there that contain 200 mg. or fewer -- about the same as a large cup of coffee. 3) When guzzed ice-cold, many of the flavors are refreshing. You're not supposed to sip and savor them like fine wine! 4) As for children and caffeine consumption -- I started drinking coffee when I was 8 years old. I grew up to be tall, strong, and healthy; today I am fitter and slimmer than many people my age. So I believe that MODERATE consumption is OK for most people. Report
I dont. Id say its just something people use to get more energy, but what theyre really getting is a sugar/caffine high. Not good... Report
I used to drink an energy drink every now and then but I found the aftertaste very off putting. So I stopped drinking them all together. Glad I did. Report
I drink coffee. Once I drank an energy drink. It made me nauseous and my heart raced. Nope, never again Report
thanks Report
Better to get more energy from healthy living. Report
Not worth the health risks. Report
The family members that use energy drinks act nervous and on edge, there BP is elevated. It's not worth the risk. Report
Their taste is the worst. It's true about them being mostly generational, we have our coffee, the younger folks get the energy drinks. I think HOW they're used is what makes them so dangerous. Report
Good article-- as a thought, perhaps those who are prone to chemical addictions should also steer clear. Report
I don't do energy drinks, they make me a little nervous. Report
Do not due energy drinks due to stomuch issues Report
I loved the Monster energy drinks when I was in college. Drink one during the day and have enough energy to pull an all night study session. Theres a few points to remember if you drink energy drinks. Stick to the recommended amount and do not chug a bottle for a quick pick me up. Instead sip it. I watered mine down to make the effects last longer. One monster sipped over an 8 hour time period. Too much will cause the jitters and rapid pulse similar to other stimulants. Drink plenty of water as well. Caffiene is a diruetic. It dehydrates you and not being propery hydrated overtime is the link between energy drinks and kidney stones. Also I learned in college that a store can be held accountable if they sell a product to children that specifically says not intended for children. Yes energy drinks are not healthy but they are widely consumed and people need to be aware that theres a safer way to consume them and never mix with alcohol.
Energy drinks have too much sugar in them and being borderline diabetic that is not good for me. plus a lot of them have down crashes Report
My husband - a regular energy boost drinker - had kidney stones a while back. The doctor linked the type of kidney stone he had with his consumption of energy drinks (2-3 a day). No more energy drinks, no more kidney stones. Report
One day last year, on a day off work, I was sitting at my sewing machine almost nodding off mid-project. I had got plenty of sleep, plenty of water, my vitamins for the day, proper food... and yet I couldn't keep my eyes open. Boyfriend had a Monster Nitrous SuperDry in the fridge and told me to give it a try. This skinny little Fresca-flavored drink had me feeling normal after about 15 minutes. Not jittery, not anxious, not wired, not hyper. Just... normal. I was once again awake, alert, and finished my project no problem. I keep a couple in my fridge for those days when I can't flog myself alert, and only drink them as a last-ditch effort.

Has anyone ever tried the Neuro line of beverages? I like NeuroSleep and NeuroBliss. I thought NeuroGasm was hilarious, but I must have been the only one because it was quickly pulled off shelves. Report
I actually discovered a non-GMO energy drink that has a decent list of ingredients. My partner drinks energy drinks daily, so if I can get him to drink something less evil I am all for it. Check out Golazo from Seattle. It lists its ingredients as: Carbonated water, cane sugar, glucose, citric acid, sodium citrate, potassium citrate, caffeine, stevia leaf extracts, yerba mate, and natural flavor. It also lists caffeine as 100 mg/12 fl oz. Although I am not a fan of the citric acid or the citrates, the rest of the ingredients are pretty much normal. I do love that it does not have any coloring in it. The beverage is naturally colored. They have three flavors and although I prefer coffee they do not leave me feeling buzzed or give me a headache. So for those who are totally going to drink an energy drink, this one imho is the best by far. They also make rehydration drinks from coconut water. I really love that there is finally a company out there that considers a better way of doing things. If only they would use glass bottles instead of plastic :( Report
Help support my petition to stop energy drink sales to children in Florida. Please pass along as well. We need at least 100 signatures...just need 31 more!
I drink Monster quite often. I know it's not especially healthy, but it's never given me any of the problems listed above. I limit myself to one a day and I'm fine. Report
Took Vivarin once during my freshman year of college. That was the first and LAST time. Never again. Never touched any of those other "energy" drinks or pills either, and never will. Report
When I am on a long drive back to my hometown I will down one 5hr energy around noon because that is typically when I start feeling sleepy...I do notice that about a half hour or so I feel more alert. I dont notice any other issues, but Im not drinking these things on a regular basis most it is 2 within one week and that might happen 5 times a year. I worked a Nascar race last August and the 5hr Energy Team gave my partner and I each a box of 12. I still have them... Report
Any drink or food that is dangerous should come with a warning sign much like the warnings on medications and cigarettes. Report
Since I can't have caffeine, these energy drinks don't entice me at all. Report
My adult children use these energy drinks (Red Bull) and I tell them it is a waste of money. Buy a bottle of "Jet" which is just caffeine pills for about $3 if you MUST have this stuff, and make them last a couple of weeks and drink a can of cola. That five hour energy drink is just a waste of money. Report
glad i don't go in for this stuff water is the best drink i think Report
Even when I was the age most energy-drinkers are, I stuck to water, milk, tea, and coffee (with an occasional beer or glass of wine). Soda was a rare beverage in my diet b/c I didn't like the way it made me feel.

Haven't changed much. I don't have a personal desire to overstimulate my life, and when I do, I'll go for chocolate. Report
That's the way I felt with prescribed diet pills in the late 60s. Can't remember what they were. Stayed wired all day, and also felt like I had spiders crawling up and down my back. Can't believe I survived those pills and the VERY low calorie diet he prescribed.

It is so scary that we are becoming the society of the science fiction movies I grew up with where everyone survived on those spaceships with manufactured "food" and "drink," and we think it's okay, even wonderful.
I remember that when I was a young adult that our fix was the caffeine pill magnums (I think that was what they were called.) I tried them once while working grave yard shift at a hospital and thought my skin was crawling and I was going to jump right out of my skin. My heart was beating out of my chest, i had cold sweats and I couldn't sit still! I surely didn't think it helped my concentration or brain functions! I never understood why anyone want to take those things. I don't understand the energy drinks now. Report
Getting your energy out of a can or bottle. ****NO**** not the way to go! Report
I've never had an energy drink and have no desire to try one. I agree that if the caffeine amount is going to be listed on the label it should be accurate. As Becky wrote, what do the manufacturers have to hide? Report
I watched a young girl get sky-high and then collapse after consuming an energy drink. I've seen others become totally addicted. I think they are dangerous! Report
I rarely have an energy drink, but on a 100-Mile "Century" last year they had the little 5-hour energy drinks at one of the rest stops. I had one of them, and I could feel the boost of energy within minutes. Given we still had 60 or more miles to go, I'm sure it didn't hurt me, and it probably helped. But I would not have such energy drinks in other situations. On this particular ride, the temperature rose above 100 degrees in the last 15 miles of our ride. I did wonder if the energy drink made me even hotter than I would have been?!? Report
These have always looked a little suspicious to me. The article was very informative and confirmed what I thought: energy drinks are an unhealthy, unnecessary scam. A cup of coffee will do for me, but I only drink it once a week on Saturday mornings to help me get the chores done. Too bouncy for me to drink more often. An energy drink would have me in the ER with cardiac issues! Report
I think they are a waste of money and have never tried one. Report
Because of the high sugar and in some cases ultra high caffeine content, I won't touch the energy drinks. I personally feel they do more damage to the body than regular soda.

One thing this article doesn't mention is how many people mix these energy drinks with alcohol. I believe Red Bull and vodka is a popular drink these days. Mixing alcohol and these energy drinks is dangerous and yet people continue to do it because they love the buzz they get.

Even without the alcohol many people enjoy the rush. There really are healthy ways to increase your energy without these drinks. Too many people are relying on these for energy and that's not healthy. Report