Cutting the "Bull": the High Speed World of Energy Drinks

Photo courtesy of Family Guy/Fox Inc.

They come in colorful cans and bear catchy slogans about unleashing beasts and getting wings. They also have been accused of causing heart problems, and in some cases, death.

Enjoyed by a wide range of consumers from college student to office workers, energy drinks have grown from an underground sensation to a several hundred billion dollar industry. Packing grocery stores, gas stations, and school cafeterias, the presence of these beverages is everywhere.

But what makes them so sinister in the eyes of medical science, and is the drink the villain, or perhaps the victim of consumes unaware of its contents and potential hazards? Here we cut the "Bull" to understand the high speed world of energy drinks.


At the core of nearly every energy drink is caffeine, and plenty of it. While the average can of name brand cola contains roughly 30 to 65 milligrams per serving depending on bottle/can size, energy drinks can easily double or triple that amount in just half a can.

To put that into perspective, a 20 ounce bottle of Pepsi contains 63 milligrams of caffeine in the entire bottle, while a 16 ounce can of Monster packs about 80 milligrams per serving, equaling no less than 160 milligrams in total. More extreme drinks designed for bodybuilders and athletes break the 200, and in some cases 300, milligram per can or bottle threshold.

As astounding as these numbers are, it is important to note that flagship lines from Monster, NOS, and Red Bull do not contain much more caffeine per 8 ounce serving than a typical cup of coffee. The difference is that coffee is relatively pure in its chemical composition, not including added sweeteners or espresso shots; energy drinks on the other hand can come with a variety of additional ingredients.

The "Other Guys":

One look at the ingredient listings on a can of any energy drink, and one may be inclined to break out a medical dictionary to try to figure out what exactly half the things listed are. Part of the reason is because of the tongue twisting complexity of the words themselves (glucurono...what?,) but also because many of the ingredients tend to be unfamiliar to consumers.

Vitamin C, sodium, potassium - these are easy, household vitamins and minerals with little need for further explanation. Beyond these common names, lesser known ingredients such as taurine, panax ginseng, niacin, and L-carnatine are used by different parts of the body, but for the most part, serve as additional stimulants.

Panax ginseng and guarana are alternative forms of caffeine and are used to boost the effects of the already highly caffeinated beverages. L-carnatine, niacin, and taurine target metabolism to produce energy by burning the body's natural fuel resources. Sugar is also a plentiful ingredient in energy drinks, whether in its normal listing, or as an artificial additive such as sucralose or aspartame.

Side effects:

Over the last decade, energy drinks have made the news as a possible cause of death and health hazards among consumers. Stories of cardiac arrest and caffeine overdoses raised concern about the safety of the beverages. This is not including the horror stories of alcoholic energy drinks that ended with similar fates.

Energy drink companies stamp a warning about the potential side effects of excess consumption of their product on every can and bottle. The companies are outspoken about their product not meant for children or anyone sensitive to its contents.

A closer look at the hospitalizations and deaths thought to be caused by energy drinks reveal that some of them may have been due to preexisting medical conditions, or environmental combinations such as excess heat and illicit drugs as seen in one death at the Ozzfest concert in 2007.

Reports from the Mayo Clinic state that most people can afford an energy drink periodically, so long as it is consumed responsibly, much like alcohol. As with any caffeinated beverage, common side effects include jitters and potential "crashes" and headaches as the effect wears out.

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