Since their rise to prominence in grocery store and gas station shelves in the late 1990s, energy drinks such as Red Bull became the quick energy boost favorite of young bar-goers, workaholics and procrastinating students. But their quick energy fix might come at a cost, some health experts say--and contrary to popular belief, the key health risk may not be from caffeine.
Caffeine Amounts and Effect On Health
An 8.3-oz can of Red Bull contains approximately 80mg of caffeine. But larger serving sizes appear to be the new norm in the energy drink industry, with drinks such as Rockstar that come in standard 16-oz. cans with 160mg of caffeine. An average 8 oz. of coffee is comparable with about 200mg of caffeine per 12-oz. serving, and a 12-oz. cup of tea has about 80mg of caffeine.
According to the Mayo Clinic, moderate amounts of caffeine--usually between 200mg to 300mg--isn't enough to cause harm, although massive amounts of caffeine (500mg to 600mg daily) can cause insomnia, restlessness, tremors and irritability. Its effect on high blood pressure, however, is less clear. Although some studies have shown caffeine causing a short-term spike in blood pressure, another study showed a decrease in blood pressure in a woman who consumed 6 cups of caffeinated coffee a day. Some research also suggests regular caffeine consumption may lead to the development of a tolerance to increased blood pressure.
That said, with only 80mg to 160 mg in typical servings of energy drinks, it would take 2 to 4 cans of drinks to reach a "moderate" level of intake--which, as the evidence above suggests, isn't too concerning for a healthy individual.
American Heart Association Warning
Regardless of the mixed results in other studies, the American Heart Association advises limited amounts of caffeine and energy drink consumption for those predisposed to or already exhibiting symptoms of hypertension. The association bases this concern on a 2007 Wayne State University study in which 15 healthy young participants were monitored while consuming an energy drink each day for 7 days. The study showed an average 7.6 percent heart rate increase on Day 1 and 11.6 percent on Day 7. This study was enough for the AHA to issue caution, though the head researcher admitted "the increases in heart rate and blood pressure weren’t enough for something to happen acutely, but a person on hypertension medication or who has cardiovascular disease may not respond as well."
Health Effects Unknown
Unlike coffee or tea, almost all energy drinks contain other ingredients claimed to increase energy and alertness, including taurine. Most of these claims are unfounded scientifically and overall lack hard research in understanding their potential positive and negative effects. Energy drink companies tend to hype the potential positive effects while ignoring any potential side effects.
Taurine is known to strengthen cardiac contractility and help regulate heartbeat-- though if true, altering the regularity with those predisposed to cardiovascular problems may not be desirable. Other ingredients contained in energy drinks such as ginseng, niacin, inositil and glucuronolactone have effects that are unclear or appear in such small quantities that their known positive health effects are nonexistent.
The common mixture of alcohol and energy drinks is also cause for concern for many health experts. Though the role of its effect on blood pressure and health in general is not yet well documented, most health experts agree that overall, it's probably not good.
Probably the largest undisputed health concern in consuming moderate amounts of energy drinks--much like the energy provided by its cousin, cola--is the amount of sugar in each drink. Though an energy drink on occasion for a healthy individual is probably not hazardous, consuming large amounts of sugar over time can lead to tooth decay, weight problems and diabetes, among other adverse health conditions.
What It Means
If there is one thing to learn from the often-conflicted energy drink research, it's that moderation is crucial. The AHA says that if you're predisposed to health issues, it's best to abstain or indulge lightly and be wary of how it may affect your health.