Filed under: Sports drinks
Most energy drinks are now labeled with Nutrition Facts instead of Supplement Facts, but that doesn’t automatically make them safe. The most popular energy drinks contain about 80–120 mg of caffeine per serving (8 oz.)—about the same amount of caffeine in an 8-ounce coffee. Caffeine isn’t necessarily a bad thing. When used appropriately, caffeine can boost mental and physical performance. But each energy drink can or bottle often contains more than one serving, making it easier to consume larger amounts of caffeine, especially if you drink more than one per day. Too much caffeine (>400 mg) can cause nervousness, shakiness, rapid heart rate, and trouble sleeping.
In addition to caffeine, energy drinks commonly contain amino acids, vitamins, and plant-based ingredients such as guarana (which also contains caffeine) and ginseng. Although these ingredients are generally safe, there still isn’t enough reliable information about their long-term safety or how combinations of these ingredients might interact in the body.
If you drink energy drinks, here are some things to keep in mind:
- Be aware of how much caffeine (from all sources) is in each can or bottle, and limit the number you drink each day.
- Avoid caffeinated foods, beverages, and medications while using energy drinks. You may be consuming more caffeine than you realize.
- Don’t mistake energy drinks for sports drinks. Unlike energy drinks, sports drinks are designed to fuel and hydrate you during long workouts.
- Don’t mix energy drinks with alcohol. Energy drinks can mask the feeling of intoxication but still leave you impaired.
- Find other ways to energize yourself. It’s best to get the sleep your body needs, but you can try other ways to stay alert, such as exercising or listening to upbeat music.
It’s cause for concern: Approximately 30% of teens consume energy drinks on a regular basis. Energy drinks provide no nutritional benefit and can actually pose health risks to adolescents, including increased heart rate, high blood pressure, anxiety, digestive problems, sleep disturbances, dehydration, and even death. Teens who consume energy drinks are also more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors such as drinking more sugar-sweetened beverages, smoking cigarettes, and using drugs and alcohol.
Many of the negative effects associated with energy drinks are due to the large amounts of stimulants in these beverages. Their caffeine content can range from 50 to more than 500 mg per can or bottle. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children and teens:
- consume no more than 100 mg of caffeine per day (equal to about 2 cans of caffeine-containing soda or one 8 oz. cup of coffee) and
- avoid energy drinks altogether.
However, the amount of caffeine teens consume from energy drinks is trending upwards, in part due to heavy marketing with celebrity athletes. Be sure to talk to your teens about the potential problems associated with energy drinks, and make sure they don’t confuse them with sports drinks.
Sports drinks that contain electrolytes and carbohydrates can be essential to performance by replenishing what is lost during activity, mostly through sweat. For activities less than 60 minutes, water is the best drink to replace lost fluids. If your exercise session or mission exceeds 60 minutes, then sports drinks can be helpful. Follow HPRC’s guidelines for maintaining important nutrients such as fluid, carbohydrates, sodium, and potassium during activity to keep well hydrated and on top of your game. Read more here.
Coconut water, the flavorful liquid found in young green coconuts, has become a popular drink. It is often promoted for a variety of ailments—from curing bad skin to resolving hangovers. But coconut water is also touted as a fluid replacement alternative. For this reason, some Warfighters choose coconut water over sports beverages because coconut water is “natural” and contains carbohydrates and key electrolytes such as sodium and potassium. However, not all brands of coconut water are created equal. In fact, they can vary considerably in terms of their nutrient content, so read product labels to be sure you’re getting the right amounts of nutrients you need for optimal performance. In addition, many kinds of coconut water contain fruit juice for flavor, which can increase the sugar and calorie content of the drink.
One of the biggest appeals of coconut water is its naturally high potassium content. While the potassium content is high, the amounts of carbohydrate and sodium in coconut water are sometimes very low, and individuals who participate in prolonged, vigorous exercise (longer than an hour) may need more carbohydrate and sodium for proper hydration. For more information about hydration needs, see HPRC’s infosheet on fluids and exercise.
For periods of exercise less than one hour, water is always your best choice—about 3–8 ounces every 15–20 minutes. But for longer periods of exercise, sports beverages are a good choice because they are specially formulated to replenish carbohydrate, sodium, and potassium lost during extended and/or vigorous physical activity. If you choose sports beverages, drink 3–8 ounces every 15–20 minutes to stay hydrated. Again, be sure to read the product label to make sure your drink has what you need, and nothing more. For more information about proper fueling, read An Athlete’s Guide to Nutrient Timing.
And what about that coconut water? There simply isn’t enough evidence to support the use of coconut water as a remedy for any condition. And although it’s a tasty beverage, know what’s in it so you can replenish what your body needs—no more, no less.
HPRC has written several articles about energy drinks, their ingredients, and their potential harmful effects, especially for adolescents. They continue to be the topic of news articles, with another recent death of a teen who apparently consumed several energy drinks while on vacation and then died from cardiac arrest. The American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC) urges the public to use caution when consuming energy drinks and lists many potential harmful reactions. Read more on this AAPCC web page, including statistics on reports of “exposures” to energy drinks.
HPRC has an Infosheet on energy drinks, highlighting the ingredients you may find on labels,and their potential stimulant effects. Be aware of the potential dangers, especially for children and teens, as outlined by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
The dietary supplement and fitness industries are filled with sport drinks, powders, bars, pills, gels, footwear, clothing, and an array of devices all claiming to provide you with a competitive advantage, whether it be improved performance or enhanced recovery. With the ever-growing popularity of team and individual sports, professional and recreational athletes of all ages are an easy target for these claims. But how many of these claims are backed by evidence-based research?
A recent report now reviews the quality of evidence behind the claims of improved sports performance made by advertisers for a wide range of sports-related products, including sport drinks, supplements, footwear, and clothing. The team identified 431 performance-enhancing claims for 104 products advertised in more than 100 general, sport, and fitness magazines in the UK and U.S. for a single month in 2012. They found that more than half of the advertisements and their associated websites provided no evidence to support the claims of enhanced sports performance. Only 146 references were found, and only 74 of these met basic criteria for research quality and almost all of the 74 were found likely to be biased or lacking scientific objectivity. Only three studies were rated as “high” quality and probably unbiased. Such lack of evidence makes it very difficult for consumers to make well-informed decisions about using performance-enhancing sports products.
This review makes it clear that many of the claims made for sports and fitness products lack reliable evidence to support them and that more and better studies are needed to help inform consumers. In the meantime, consumers should be cautious when reading claims of enhanced performance and recovery and always remember that “true” evidence-based results mean that a substantial number of independent research studies have been performed, with findings that clearly support the claims made by advertisers. Presently, there is still no substitute for sound physical conditioning and nutrition practices.
For more information on dietary supplements and how to choose supplements safely, please visit Operation Supplement Safety (OPSS). For information on physical fitness and conditioning, please explore HPRC’s Physical Fitness domain. The original British Medical Journal open-access article is available online.