It might be the first thing you reach for on Monday morning or it may be your pre-workout hydration of choice. Yep, today we’re talking about energy drinks.

As the name suggests, this category of functional beverages offers consumers a boost of “energy,” increasing their attentiveness and stamina in a few charged sips. Whether its studying for a difficult mid-term exam, sweating it up at the gym, or simply staying awake at your desk, energy drinks have justifyingly become an important part of many people’s busy lives.

But what is it about energy drinks that provides us with the juice we need to get through the day?

Well, energy drinks contain stimulant drugs, the most common of which is caffeine. The average amount of caffeine in most 250ml-sized cans is 80mg. Most energy drinks contain about the same amount of caffeine as is found in a cup of coffee, or twice as much as in the typical caffeinated soft drink. However, “extra-strength” products and energy shooters can contain as much as 200mg of caffeine, equivalent to half of the recommended daily limit of 400mg.

Most of the effects of energy drinks on cognitive performance, such as increased attention and reaction speed, are primarily due to the presence of higher caffeine doses. But there are several other common ingredients, each of which boast their own alleged functional benefits. Take a look at your can. Do you see any of these ingredients?

  • Ephedrine is a stimulant that works on the central nervous system. It is also a common ingredient in low blood pressure medications, weight-loss products, and decongestants.
  • Green tea extract and green coffee extract are two similar antioxidant stimulants thought to act as “fat burners” on the body. That’s why they’ve become popular additives for energy drinks marketing weight-loss and other fitness benefits.
  • Taurine is a natural amino acid produced by the body that helps regulate heartbeat and muscle contractions. Many health experts aren’t sure what effect it has as a drink additive, but some studies suggest that it may contribute to better athletic performance.
  • Ginseng is a root believed to have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties thought to reduce stress and boost energy levels.
  • B-vitamins – or B-complex vitamins – convert sugar to create energy, directly impacting brain function, cell metabolism, and muscle tone.
  • Guarana seed is a natural stimulant that comes from a small shrub native to Venezuela and Brazil. It is commonly used as an additive to enhance the effects of caffeine in energy drinks and other functional beverages.
  • Carnitine is an amino acid that plays a role in fatty acid metabolism, which is critical for energy production. It allows long-chain fatty acids to be transported into the mitochondria so they can be oxidized to create energy.
  • Creatine is an organic acid that helps supply energy for muscle contractions. It helps our bodies process adenosine triphosphate, known as “the energy currency of the cell” found primarily in muscle and brain tissue.
  • Inositol is a member of the B vitamin family used to relay messages within internal cells. Simply put, it helps balance certain chemicals in the body and promote a general feeling of wellbeing.
  • Ginkgo biloba, made from the seeds of the ginkgo biloba tree, is believed to enhance memory, increase blood circulation in the brain, and improve other cognitive functions.

In addition to some of the ingredients mentioned above, energy drinks may also be carbonated and contain sugar or other sweeteners, as well as herbal extracts, vitamins, minerals, and other amino acids.

While understood as a subset of a larger group of energy enhancing products – like granola, protein bars, and gels – energy drinks should not be mistaken for sports drinks, as they are distinctly different in their composition and intended purpose.

Sports drinks are functional beverages used to replaced water and electrolytes – like sodium, potassium, and magnesium – which are lost in sweat. They also provide carbohydrates in an amount and form that can help athletes who exercise intensely and on a regular basis prepare or recover from training.

While we can certainly enjoy the energetic effects caffeine and sugar provide, there is little evidence that the wide variety of other ingredients found in our energy drinks have any significant benefits for our physical or cognitive performance, particularly as it relates to promises of improved muscle strength and endurance.

Energy drinks are generally safe, but like most things, these beverages should be consumed in moderation. Because caffeine is a stimulant, consuming large amounts can make you feel jittery and irritable. If you’re not careful, it can also lead to heart palpitations, anxiety, and insomnia.

In any case, knowing what ingredients are found in the food and beverages you consume and how these ingredients may affect your body is an important step towards becoming a more informed consumer. Energy drinks, like all beverages, are meant to be enjoyed. And thanks to their functional design, energy drinks can enhance your life in a variety of ways, as long as you enjoy them responsibly.

Written on August 7, 2019.