Energy drinks, as the name implies, are ready-to-drink (RTD) beverages designed to give you an instant, noticeable spike. Increasingly, old energy drinks are being replaced with healthier ‘clean energy’ alternatives that use natural caffeine and transparent ingredients.
But can consumers change their mindsets (and therefore their health) by looking at energy drinks in a new light?
When picturing an energy drink, you probably imagine a tall can branded with a high-octane name and stuffed with enough caffeine to keep you awake all night. Supplemented with ingredients you can’t pronounce but sound like laboratory creations, you may also think of the impending crash that follows. (See: jitters and anxiety.)
Researchers say there is “enough evidence to suggest the negative health consequences of drinking energy drinks outweigh any short-term benefits,” so why don’t we make a ‘clean’ swap. We still want products that significantly boost our energy, but can get them without compromising our health. This balance is found in clean, natural energy drinks.
What qualifications make an energy drink clean?
Refer back to nature. “Clean energy” comes from natural ingredients that are minimally combined with other natural ingredients.
Little known fact: a clean energy drink can be cold brew coffee, tea, or yerba mate. These plant-based products have single-source naturally-occurring caffeine and a dash of pure cane sugar or natural flavoring.
Some experts even consider coconut water a natural energy drink, since dehydration and electrolyte depletion masquerades as tiredness.
There is no official definition for what constitutes a “clean energy” drink, so we say use your noggin. Ask:
- Are the ingredients real?
- Is this naturally-occurring caffeine grown from the earth?
- Do I know that mixing these ingredients is safe?
That’s the simple equation for determining a clean energy drink.
What are the benefits of getting caffeine from a natural source?
Nature knows. Clean energy drinks like Jamaican cold brew coffee have been trusted over decades. Natural sources can impart the safest caffeine, and a healthful energy-boosting effect.
Synthetic caffeine used as an additive in some energy drinks and sodas, on the other hand, can be engineered with chemicals and made too powerful for our bodies to process. There is significantly more caffeine in a lab-made powder, and it’s absorbed at a very quick rate which can shock the body.
Unfamiliar ingredients can also prompt a negative bodily response. Meanwhile, your bod is already adapted to simple caffeine sources like tea or coffee.
Synthetic caffeine is, however, said to be largely safe and delivers a similar buzz to naturally-sourced. It comes down to what you want to allow in your body.
The real problem with so many traditional energy drinks isn’t necessarily the source of caffeine, but that too many types are present in one overflowing caffeine cocktail.
Multiple caffeine sources muddy the final dosage. This unclear caffeine listing can prove dangerous for consumers.
Are ingredients like Taurine, Guarana, and B Vitamins bad?
Taurine is not necessarily bad. Neither are B Vitamins. However, these popular energy drink ingredients have very little medical or scientific research on benefits and side effects- good or bad. In the end, experts say it’s the combination of these ingredients that could be concerning.
Researchers say the lack of regulatory oversight surrounding energy drink ingredients means some brands adopt aggressive marketing strategies, targeted primarily toward young males, for psychoactive, performance-enhancing, and stimulating effects.
Traditional energy drinks on the market likely have a mix of the following ingredients: caffeine, taurine, guarana, B vitamins, ginseng, artificial sugar, and gingko biloba-all naturally-occurring, but not necessarily recommended in combination, especially in high doses as energy drinks tend to be. By mixing ingredients, these energy drinks may be augmenting caffeine sources and adding way too much.
Do energy drinks have dangerous levels of caffeine?
Darn good question. For scale, doctors say 200-400 mg of caffeine a day is a good range. That’s 2-4 8oz cups of coffee or one heavy-handed energy drink.
One standard energy drink can have as much as 300-500 mg in a single serving. According to a paper in the International Journal of Health Sciences, doses of caffeine above 200 milligrams can be linked to caffeine intoxication- when the body ingests too much caffeine and symptoms such as dizziness, fever, trouble breathing, vomiting, and chest pains occur. Everyone has a bit of a different “caffeine threshold” where intoxicating and overdose occurs (more on that below.)
Even energy drinks that list a lower caffeine count- say 100 mg- may be strictly counting “caffeine” and including (or even know where to start finding) caffeine-equivalents inherent in other ingredients.
… Like guarana. This popular dietary supplement added to energy drinks can have twice the concentration of caffeine as coffee beans. Combined with other sources of caffeine like green tea extract or green coffee extract, you’ve got a lot of caffeine packed in a single serving.
Energy drink companies also say taurine has stimulant properties, although there’s no scientific evidence to affirm that.
Either way you mix it, combining different sources of caffeine and other stimulants is thought to be the source of many issues caused by energy drinks, like abnormal heartbeat, disrupted sleep, muscle twitching, restlessness, GI distress, and anxiety.
Add high levels of artificial sugar and sweeteners to the mix and you’re aggravating an already angry beast.
CNN reports, “Energy drinks may promise a boost, but experts are increasingly concerned that their cocktails of ingredients could have unintended health risks.” A study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association proved caffeinated energy drinks altered the heart’s electrical activity and raised blood pressure.
What’s the optimal amount of caffeine for a natural “clean energy” drink?
The Goldilocks mg will differ person-by-person (it’s called your ‘caffeine metabolism’), but roughly 180 mg of single-source or double-similar-sources of caffeine (like green tea + black tea) derived from plants should produce a noticeable buzz of energy with minimal side effects.
What kind of sugar is in natural energy drinks?
The natural kind, dude! Natural sweeteners derived from fruits, organic raw cane sugar, and honey. Anything else should be a red flag. Combining high doses of caffeine with high doses of sugar can be too heavy a load for your body, metabolism, and digestion.
WEIRD FACT: Most of us were introduced to caffeine and its energy-boosting traits when we were children by way of sugar. Namely, chocolate. Researchers found that caffeine intake starts in childhood in the form of chocolate bars and chocolate milk. As we get older, caffeine intake increases with sodas, coffee, and energy drinks.
Should there be added vitamins in my energy drink?
Given the American diet can be less than perfect, vitamin supplements provide us with missing puzzle piece nutrients. And that is cool. However, in the case of energy drinks, it may be better to leave the added vitamins out. B vitamins, for instance, are added to many standard energy drinks but in doses that can quickly tip the scale into overdose zone.
B vitamin toxicity may spike blood sugar levels and lead to vomiting, GI problems, and even liver damage. Plus, there are plenty of foods that deliver real B vitamins to the body, such as brown rice, red meat, fish, beans, milk, cheese, almonds, spinach, broccoli, avocado, bananas, and oranges.
Energy drinks that add vitamins do so because it sounds sexy. We’d like to think a canned energy drink will make up for a healthy diet-but it won’t. Clean energy drinks should supplement a healthy lifestyle… which includes real meals and whole foods.
What makes an energy drink organic?
There’s no need to overcomplicate things: organic energy drinks are certified by USDA standards and bear the green and white seal. To earn certification, all ingredients going into the energy drink must be grown organically. One example of a healthy organic energy drink is yerba mate ready-to-drink tea that comes from authentic, USDA organic yerba mate leaves.
This natural energy drink will have a dash of organic pure cane sugar as opposed to 14 spoons of synthetic or non-organic sugar noted in other energy drinks. (Imagine putting 14 spoons of sugar into your coffee…).
Yerba mate tea also has a steady 180 mg of caffeine that has been said to enhance focus and has no crash effect.
Where can you buy clean energy drinks?
The clean beverage landscape is lit. Healthier options have penetrated standard grocers, gas stations, and even convenience stores like 7-Eleven. Today, you can buy a clean energy drink on almost any street corner and across Amazon or direct from a company’s website.
The challenge isn’t finding a clean energy drink, it’s changing our mental framework on what counts as an energy drink.
Clean energy drinks should include low-sugar, low-carbohydrate, and real ingredients, like cold brew coffee or green tea with natural flavoring.
If the problem you’re looking to energy drinks to solve is low energy, other beverages like functional kombucha or coconut water may be the best solution. Our bodies can misinterpret low nutrients and hydration for low energy. Drink a bottle of non-caffeinated coconut water the next time you’re tired and see if the slump is resolved.