We Found Out If Energy Drinks Are Actually Bad For You

Is it really worth the wings?

Everyone has their favourite way of boosting their energy on a long, tiring day. For some it's four cups of double-shot coffee or a delicious sweet treat, and for others it's a can (or three) of energy drink.

While energy drinks can help you feel more awake and alert, there's been a lot of talk about how bad these high sugar, high caffeine drinks are.

To find out whether -- and why -- energy drinks are really bad for you, The Huffington Post Australia spoke to two health experts.

Energy drink lovers out there, we're afraid the news isn't good.

"Energy drinks are not a healthy drink choice. They are essentially soft drinks with added caffeine," Kate Gudorf, accredited practising dietitian and spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia, told HuffPost Australia.

Energy drinks have about the same amount of caffeine as a cup of coffee. But unlike coffee, a 350ml bottle of energy drink may contain 9-10 teaspoons of added sugar, which is a lot.

"Some have added vitamins, taurine and guarana, which claims to aid with energy production and concentration. But sprinkling some vitamins in an otherwise nutritionally void energy drink does not make the drink healthier. Energy drinks are not a healthy product and in fact may cause some health problems."

Dietitian Robbie Clark agrees, saying there are much better ways to optimise your energy than reach for energy drinks.

"The consumption of energy drinks is definitely something I do not recommend in my practice," Clark said. "Not only do these beverages have a high sugar and moderate-to-high caffeine content, they can also be addictive.

"The fact that they have 'natural' ingredients and additional vitamins is somehow a justification that they are fit for consumption. This, in my mind, is absolutely incorrect and it should be known that there are much better ways to optimise your energy than reach for a Red Bull to give you wings."

It's better to stick to coffee.
It's better to stick to coffee.
Geri Lavrov

Sorry, folks. Here are the reasons why energy drinks are bad for you.

1. They're high in sugar

A standard can of Red Bull contains 37 grams of sugar -- that's 12 grams over the recommended amount of 25 grams of sugar per day. And that just in one drink alone.

"The main reason why energy drinks are so bad for you is due to their high sugar content, which is similar to other soft drinks and is known to contribute to a myriad of health problems," Clark told HuffPost Australia.

"Adverse reactions and toxicity from high energy drinks stem primarily from their caffeine content. This may be worse for young adults and adolescents who are particularly attracted to energy drinks because of effective product marketing, peer influence and a lack of knowledge of the potential harmful effects.

"Since there is currently no age restriction on the sale of these drinks, frequent and high consumption of energy drinks for younger people can cause a number of health problems."

Sugar content of popular energy drinks and soft drinks

Drink, Serving size, Grams of sugar (per serve):

  • Coca Cola 375ml -- 40g
  • Coca Cola 600ml --64g
  • Sprite 600ml -- 61g
  • Fanta 375ml -- 42g
  • Solo 600ml -- 72.6g
  • V Energy Drink 250ml -- 26.5g
  • V Energy Drink 500ml -- 53g
  • V Energy Drink 710ml -- 75.3g
  • Red Bull 250ml -- 27g
  • Red Bull 473ml -- 52g
  • Mother 500ml -- 52g
  • Gatorade: Fierce Grape flavour 600ml -- 36g
  • Powerade: Mountain Blast flavour 600ml -- 34g

Instead of opting for sugar-loaded energy drinks, Gudorf recommends sticking to plain old coffee.

"Energy drinks have about the same amount of caffeine as a cup of coffee. But unlike coffee, a 350ml bottle of energy drink may contain 9-10 teaspoons of added sugar, which is a lot," Gudorf said.

"Unless you are adding sugar to your daily cup of joe, a black cup of brewed or instant coffee has no added sugar. A milky cup of coffee (like a flat white) has only the naturally occurring sugar found in the milk, lactose."

"The problem lies in the fact that energy drink manufacturers are now making larger serving sizes (in can and bottle sizes), which can see the sugar content double compared to their generic 250ml can," Clark added.

Energy drinks contain the same amount of sugar as soft drinks, if not more.
Energy drinks contain the same amount of sugar as soft drinks, if not more.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

2. They can contain too much caffeine

While the caffeine content per 100ml is typically the same as coffee, the cans and bottles of energy drink are much larger than the standard coffee cup, meaning you're consuming way more caffeine than you need or that's recommended.

"By law, energy drinks (or 'formulated caffeinated beverages') must contain no more than 32mg of caffeine per 100ml," Clark explained.

"In practice, this means a standard 250ml can of energy drink has no more than 80mg which is equivalent to a 250ml cup of instant coffee or espresso shot. However, manufacturers of energy drinks are now making 'double shot' versions of the original, which can see the caffeine content double."

Caffeine content of coffee and energy drinks

  • A 250ml cup of brewed coffee has about 60-80mg of caffeine.
  • A shot of espresso has about 107mg of caffeine.
  • A prepared café coffee has 113–282mg caffeine per 250ml cup.
  • An energy drink has 80mg of caffeine in 250ml but many energy drinks are packaged in 350ml containers, which would make the total caffeine content more like 112mg of caffeine per serve.

3. They often replace meals

Being a constantly busy and rushed society, many people nowadays substitute their breakfast for an energy drink, thinking it will speed up metabolism and assist with weight loss. According to Clark, this doesn't work.

"All of a sudden they experience an energy crash a couple of hours later and reach for another energy drink, wondering why they're so tired," he explained. "A better solution is to consume a proper breakfast as the best fuel source for our brain and body is food."

4. They're easy to over-consume

Because energy drinks taste sweet and give us a quick burst of energy, it's easy to consume many energy drinks throughout the whole day.

"The problem is that these drinks are readily available and over-consumed," Clark told HuffPost Australia.

"Energy drinks are also commonly consumed at bars and night clubs, which usually require sustained energy for prolonged activity into late hours."

Because of its addictive sweetness, it's easy to go overboard with energy drinks.
Because of its addictive sweetness, it's easy to go overboard with energy drinks.
JGI/Jamie Grill

4. They have potential negative long-term effects

"While the occasional (certainly not every day and probably less than once per week) energy drink will not harm an otherwise healthy diet, having energy drinks regularly could cause some potential problems," Gudorf told HuffPost Australia.

"Because energy drinks have added energy (kilojoules) and sugar, they may contribute to weight gain and tooth decay. There is some concern about the high levels of vitamins, herbal ingredients and taurine in energy drinks, as the physiological effects are unknown and there may be potential interactions."

Gudorf has also found that people who drink energy drinks regularly can become "hooked" on the experience, which could lead to "needing" the drinks more frequently to feel alert.

"Energy drinks are not recommended for children, pregnant or breastfeeding women and anyone sensitive to caffeine," Gudorf said.

The short term effects of energy drink consumption can include:

  • Feeling more alert and active
  • Need to urinate more frequently
  • Rise in body temperature
  • Increased heart rate
  • Stimulation of the brain and nervous system

The long term effects of energy drink consumption can include:

  • Insomnia
  • Nervousness
  • Headaches and migraines
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Heart palpitations
  • Increased anxiety
  • Hormone imbalance
  • Obesity
  • Poor dental health (e.g. dental caries)

"The bottom line is that energy drinks are full of stimulants that can provide immediate spikes in energy and mental alertness," Clark said. "However, these energy 'highs' may not last long and their ingredients, especially caffeine and sugar, threaten long term harm to the body.

"I think the important take home message is, if you are going to consume energy drinks, it's all about moderation. Australian energy drink manufacturers include a daily maximum usage of 500ml on their labels."

What to do if you're reliant on energy drinks

Here are a few tips from Gudorf and Clark on how to wean yourself off energy drinks:

1. Cut out one can of energy drink each day

"This is best achieved on a weekend or on holidays when you won't be under pressure or stress," Clark said.

"Start by dropping an afternoon or evening drink. Plan to have your last by 4pm so the caffeine won't affect your sleep. Do this for a week to get your body used to having less."

To avoid a caffeine headache, reduce the energy drinks one at a time.
To avoid a caffeine headache, reduce the energy drinks one at a time.
Getty Images

2. Then cut your overall intake by half

"Aim to cut your overall intake by half in the long term -- or until you have reached a level you're comfortable with and don't have symptoms associated with caffeine toxicity or withdrawal. This will vary depending on your sensitivity," Clark said.

"Aim for a goal to keep cutting back until you drink no more than approximately 200mg of caffeine a day."

3. Switch to low caffeine and caffeine-free drinks

To avoid strong caffeine withdrawal symptoms like headaches, Gudorf recommends gradually reducing caffeine by switching to low caffeine drinks, followed by caffeine-free options.

"You may try swapping your energy drink for tea or black coffee to avoid caffeine withdrawal symptoms. Swapping to tea or coffee can also help you reduce the amount of added sugar from the energy drinks," Gudorf said.

Mmm, coffee.
Mmm, coffee.

Low caffeine and caffeine-free options include:

  • Decaf coffee
  • Decaf tea
  • Herbal infusions/tisane, especially after dinner
  • Coffee substitutes (made from roasted barley, chicory or dandelion root) -- for example, Caro or Dandelion tea.
  • Other carbonated drinks that are lower in sugar -- for example, mineral or soda water, real lemon squash or ginger beer

4. Eat balanced meals

"To feel alert and fuelled for the day, eat regular meals that include protein and low GI carbohydrates," Gudorf added. "This will help you avoid 'brain fog' caused by dropping blood sugar levels."

Examples of protein and low GI carb rich meals include a low-sugar muesli with Greek yoghurt for breakfast, and a tuna and salad sandwich on whole grain bread for lunch.

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