Are Healthy Energy Drinks Really Healthy?


The next time you feel tired, imagine grabbing a glass and heading over to your pantry to put 10 to 15 teaspoons of sugar in your drink. On the surface, such an act would make most people scratch their head, but that’s how much sugar is in most energy drinks.

Thanks to health trends and a movement limiting added sugars, toward healthier energy drinks have hit the market to help consumers feel better about energizing their bodies. But what exactly constitutes a healthy energy drink, and are these products even good for you? This blog will examine what you need to know about these natural options.

The problem with energy drinks

Beverages sweetened with added sugars are the top source of added sugars in the United State. In fact, Americans eat 17 grams of added sugar on average, which is twice the recommended amount for men and three times the recommended amount for women.

Energy drink nutrition facts

Some traditional energy drinks have more sugar than sodas. For example, a 16-ounce Rockstar energy drink has a whopping 63 grams of added sugars, which is 126 percent of the daily recommended value. To visually put that in perspective, 63 grams is the equivalent of about 16 teaspoons of sugar. Two of the three main ingredients are sucrose and glucose, and the massive amount of sugar accounts for 270 calories.

Likewise, a 12-ounce can of Red Bull has 38 grams of added sugars and 160 calories. A 16-ounce Monster energy drink has 54 grams of added sugars and 270 calories.

By now, the downside of consuming too many added sugars is well known. They offer no nutritional value (referred to as empty calories). Added sugars also increase your risk of cardiovascular health problems, dementia, Alezheimer’s disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, cholesterol and a host of other diseases and types of cancer.

How much caffeine is too much?

The need for caffeine, a central nervous stimulant that boosts energy levels and alertness, is the primary reason energy drinks were created. However, as more Americans have become sleep deprived and are in a constant search for ways to stay awake and productive, energy drink companies have responded by creating more caffeinated products for consumers.

And while common sources of caffeine occur naturally in coffee beans or tea leaves, many energy drinks contain synthetic caffeine. Synthetic caffeine, derived from chloroacetic and urea acids, are absorbed faster than natural caffeine and can lead to greater spikes and crashes of energy.

In general, the US Food and Drug Administration recommends consuming no more than 400 mg of caffeine per day. Anything more can have negative effects.

Depending on the brand, a single 16-ounce energy drink typically has around 160 or 170 mg of caffeine. Compared to a single cup of coffee that has 95 mg of caffeine, that’s nearly double the amount of one energy drink.

Some drinks are two or three times more potent. For example, a 12-ounce can of Hyde Xtreme packs in 400 mg of caffeine, which is equivalent to drinking four cups of coffee in one sitting.

Consuming too much headache can lead to side effects such as ass, irritability, feeling jittery, frequent urination and increased heart rate. Most of all, excessive caffeine consumption can actually be counterproductive for those people who consume caffeine to stay alert. Caffeine during the day can keep you up at night and lead to insomnia.

Are artificial sweeteners bad for you?

To help appease people who want to cut back on added sugars, energy drinks now feature low-calorie or zero-calorie alternatives.

Most of these energy drinks still retain their sweetness through artificial sweeteners, also called non-nutritive sweeteners. These sugar alternatives, such as sucralose (sold as Splenda), add sweetness to energy drinks without adding extra calories or sugars.

Sucralose actually comes from the same table sugar used in cookies and other desserts. But it is chemically altered during the manufacturing process to make it calorie-free. To do so, they swap out part of the sugar molecules with chlorine atoms.

People who consume zero-calorie energy drinks or sodas have a tendency to eat more unhealthy foods due to the mindset they are saving calories from their beverages. In other words, you may drink a zero-calorie energy drink only to eat a handful of cookies or a slice of cake full of added sugars.

While sweeteners such as Splenda are FDA-approved, there is a concern of the following potential health risks associated with artificial sweeteners:

  • Changes in gut bacteria
  • Glucose intolerance (a precursor to Type 2 diabetes)
  • Heart problems
  • Weight gain

What about natural energy drinks?

In today’s world, natural energy drinks are what most people think of when discussing healthy energy drink options – many “healthy” energy drinks still contain artificial sweeteners or artificial colors.

Natural energy drinks are what they sound like – they’re made from natural ingredients (natural caffeine, fruit flavors or natural extracts) and are free of artificial sweeteners and synthetic colorings.

Here are some of the most common sources of caffeine found in natural energy drinks:

  • green tea: Made from leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant, green tea leaves are steamed, pan fried and dried. A cup of green tea contains about 28 mg of caffeine.
  • black tea: Also made from leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant, black tea leaves differ from green and white tea in that they’re allowed to oxidize during the production process. This gives black tea a stronger flavor and more caffeine – 47 mg per cup.
  • White tea: Leaves from the Camellia sinensis plant are harvested earlier than green or black tea, giving white tea a more delicate flavor. White tea contains 15 to 30 mg of caffeine per cup.
  • Coffee fruit extract: Coffee fruit is a red stone fruit that produces coffee seeds (beans) used to make coffee. Once the seed is harvested, the berry is then processed and extracted. It has less caffeine than coffee beans.
  • Guarana: This natural stimulant comes from the seeds of the guarana fruit native to South America. Guarana seeds have four times the amount of caffeine than coffee beans.
  • Guayusa: This type of tea is made from the leaves of an evergreen tree native to South America.
  • Matcha: This powder comes from green tea leaves. Matcha is different from green tea because it’s grown in the shade and the veins of the plant are removed before processing.
  • Yerba mate: This herbal tea comes from the leaves of the yerba mate plant native to South America.

When selecting natural energy drinks, look for as few ingredients as possible. Some brands simply combine a natural caffeine source with a hint of natural fruit juice (such as lemon or lime juice) to provide a subtle sweetness. Others combine caffeine sources, such as mixing yerba mate with green tea.

As long as you consume these products in moderation, there is nothing unhealthy about them, per se. Of course, check with your primary care physician to avoid any side effects with medications or other health conditions.

Typically, natural energy drinks have less caffeine than sugar-laden energy drinks, ranging from 30 to 70 grams of caffeine. Other options can have as much as 170 grams of caffeine (equivalent to two cups of coffee).

And if you’re used to sweetened beverages, there are natural energy drinks that use natural sweeteners such as fruit juice, monk fruit, erythritol or stevia. While considered a natural sweetener, stevia is still highly processed by extracting steviol glycosides from the plant leaves. However, it remains our dietician’s top natural sweetener choice because it doesn’t impact your blood sugar.

Healthy alternatives to energy drinks

Outside of a cup of caffeinated coffee or tea, the healthiest alternatives to energy drinks include solving the problems that lead to the need for energy in the first place. While a caffeine boost here and there isn’t problematic, you shouldn’t rely on energy drinks for energy. It may be a sign of a larger problem, such as a health condition or chronic exhaustion from not getting enough sleep.

To help with fatigue, start with the basics of staying hydrated throughout the day and eating three meals a day to prevent spikes in blood sugar. Add in healthy snacks throughout the day when you feel hungry. If you eat right and fuel your body with vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates and good fats, you’ll have enough energy to get you through the day.

Lastly, it’s important to get enough sleep each night – strive for six to eight hours. Restorative sleep allows your body and mind to rest and recharge so it can tackle what lies ahead the following day.

If you find yourself constantly tired and reaching for an energy drink several times a day, contact your doctor to check for any underlying health issues that may be the culprit. Common health conditions such as anemia, diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure can all lead to fatigue.

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