Do energy drinks give you a boost?

How to be the best consumer you can be.
Sept. 20 2005 5:54 AM

Booster Shot

How well do those energy drinks work?

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In spring of last year, some dudes in the park began passing out samples of Red Bull, the omnipresent energy drink, while I was playing football. I chugged a can. Immediately, I felt giddy and off-kilter. I started running around. Some guy with John Elway's arm and Kordell Stewart's aim passed the ball my way. I turned, reached for it, and felt my pinky dislocate at the middle joint. My finger did its impression of a clock face at 2:30 until an ER doctor wrangled it back into place. It took six weeks of physical therapy before I could make a proper fist.

I've had about two-thirds of a Red Bull since. That is, until about half an hour ago, when I cracked open a can. My feet have begun wiggling, unbidden. The TV seems too loud. But, whoa, do my fingers scamper along this keyboard! Red Bull, like most of its energy-drink ilk, claims to perk you up and keep you there—"gives you wings," its ads intone. It must provide something: The company reports that people worldwide consumed almost 2 billion cans of Red Bull in 2004.

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Red Bull claims nearly half of the swiftly expanding U.S. energy-drink racket—the industry grew 74 percent last year. John Sicher, editor and publisher of Beverage Digest, attributes the drinks' tremendous growth to "consumers' growing interest in functional foods." A can of Coke keeps you awake, gives that sugar rush, rots your teeth, weakens your bones, softens your love handles. Black coffee has so little measurable nutritional value that the FDA doesn't require it to carry a label.

Most energy drinks, on the other hand, provide some combination of B vitamins (which help convert sugar to energy and help regulate red blood cells, which deliver oxygen), amino acids (e.g., taurine), antioxidants (milk thistle, vitamin C), and stimulants, ranging from the reliable (caffeine, guarana) to the alleged (horny goat weed). Unfortunately, they also deliver rafts of sugar in the form of maltodextrin, fructose, and glucose. And the citric acid that pervades the drinks isn't a friend of your teeth. Taste is hit or miss (it ranges from fruity to mediciney)—yet hardly critical. You almost want it to taste crappy, because that could mean it's good for you.

But can these energy drinks live up to their pronouncements? Do they improve "performance" and "reaction speed"? To determine this, I bought a slew and evaluated them over several weeks on three factors. First, do they taste like something a person would want to consume, or like chewable aspirin? Second, how do they affect my mental state, including focus, alertness, mood, and ability to play an electronic version of the board game Boggle? Third, how do they affect the way my body feels, both in terms of physical harmony and strenuous activities such as swimming, running, pickup basketball, push-ups, and coin-op arcade basketball? In other words, are these truly "performance" drinks?

The cashier at Food Store gasped when I approached the counter with three separate armloads of cans. "Goddamn," she said. "Can't you buy those cheaper at the grocery store?" Not really, unless you buy in bulk, and after imbibing about four gallons of energy drinks over the last month, I declare that prospect unlikely. But I was pleased to find that not all fizzy, fortified syrups are lousy. Herewith, the results, from worst to first.

8.4 oz./120 calories
Touts: Vitamins B-6 and B-12, ginseng, taurine, guarana, caffeine.
Warns: "Not recommended for children."
Tastes: Like orangey Mountain Dew with a bitter, toned-down edge.
Effects: I drink a can to keep from nodding off while reading a novel. Immediately I perk up, start tapping my fingers on the book cover, bouncing my foot. No jitters, but a slight headache develops above my left ear. It's hard to focus. Boggle's not much better: In the final game, I find only three words on the board. Twenty minutes later, I'm physically and mentally wrung-out, and my stomach aches as though I might vomit unless I eat or drink something. A later sampling does not produce such a nasty reaction, but the flavor does not improve.

Verdict: The warning should be abbreviated to, "Not recommended." Definitely the worst of the lot.