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.

16 oz./220 calories
Touts: Vitamins B-3, B-6, and B-12, taurine, ginseng, carnitine, guarana, caffeine.
Warns: Of nothing.
Tastes: Tart and vaguely fruity. Like Alka-Seltzer in Kool-Aid.
Effects: I guzzle a can on the way to take an 8-year-old boy to play in the park. I quickly realize that 16 ounces of anything fizzy is a lot to ask a moving stomach to digest. Other than bloat, I discern no effect, as I'm run ragged in no time. I do play Hoop Fever at the nearest arcade and score a ridiculous 74 points, besting the day's previous mark by 29 points.

Verdict: My concentration and shooting groove were great. As for energy, well, there wasn't much. Sicher predicts that in a few years, only drinks from the larger beverage companies (Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Red Bull, Hansen's) will emerge from the current glut. It'll be a shame if that's the case, considering the mediocre offerings from Pepsi and Coke.

8.3 oz./110 calories
Touts: Vitamins B-3, B-5, B-6, and B-12, taurine.
Claims: The farm. "Improves performance, especially during times of increased stress or strain, increases concentration and improves reaction time, stimulates the metabolism."
Warns: "Avoid while playing potentially harmful contact sports." No, I made that up.
Tastes: Sweet, fizzy, acrid. "Like corn syrup that burns" is one friend's accurate assessment.
Effects: Endows me with some verve that, per usual, dissipates when I start the push-ups. There's no endurance in these cans. To test the claim of "increased stress" I play Boggle while watching Family Guy and emerge with wildly varying scores. My stomach feels sour and a headache brews.

Verdict: Beats a trip to the emergency room, but I'm surprised this little can holds half the domestic market, considering how blah it is. The taste, while distinct, isn't exactly pleasant, and the energy it provides is fleeting.

16 oz./200 calories
Touts: Vitamins B-3, B-6, B-12, and C, taurine, ginseng, inositol, caffeine, L-carnitine.
Warns: "Consume responsibly—limit 3 cans per day. Not recommended for children, pregnant women or people sensitive to caffeine."
Tastes: Like subdued Mountain Dew, with a now-familiar vitaminy edge.
Effects: I see this everywhere, so I assume it's popular—but it has almost no noticeable effect on me. When I do push-ups, my body protests early, as when it's asked to run on too much sugar. In playing pickup basketball, I melt quickly. The thought hits me that perhaps I've acquired a resistance to vitamins and sugar water. On the other hand, the Boggle scores are among the best of any drink tested.

Verdict: A moderate disappointment, considering the bitchin' claw marks on the can. I can't figure out why I seem immune to this, and two other drinks called Energy Pro and Hansen's—all the spawn of Hansen's, the second-largest U.S. energy-drink manufacturer. I recently met an Iraq war veteran (who knows from stimulants) who buys this stuff by the case. Me, I can't see it, although a fair flavor and a lack of ill effects make it a borderline drink.

16 oz./260 calories
Touts: Vitamins B-6, B-12, and C, folic acid, selenium, zinc, taurine, inositol, ginseng, guarana, creatine, grape seed extract, L-carnitine, L-arginine, caffeine.
Claims: "Super energy supplement."
Warns: "Not recommended for children, pregnant women or people sensitive to caffeine."
Tastes: Sweet, mildly fizzy, with a hint of grapefruit.
Effects: It does offer some extra kick first thing in the morning: My arms move faster even when drying myself off after a shower. When I type, my fingers move quickly and with precision. My heart seems to pound too hard during push-ups. I feel alert but distractible. Boggle scores are high; Hoop Fever scores disappointingly mediocre.

Verdict: What I'd reach for if falling asleep at the wheel. Not ideal if you need focus or fine motor skills.

8.3 oz./130 calories
Touts: Vitamins B-5, B-6, and B-12, taurine, caffeine, D-ribose, L-carnitine, ginseng, inositol, milk thistle, guarana.
Warns: "Not recommended for children, pregnant women or persons sensitive to caffeine."
Tastes: Like sweet tea with a dash of cough syrup. The only drink aside from Rock Star Cola that isn't completely overwhelmed with the strong citric acid.
Effects: No ill effects. I have strong Boggle scores and two bang-up games of Hoop Fever on this bad baby, scoring 63 and 64 points. Importantly, when I drink a can on an empty stomach, I get neither a headache nor tummy ache.

Verdict: Decent flavor, and the small dose kept me from feeling like I had the attention span of a terrier. One of the better finds. What I'd recommend for people who dislike energy drinks.

8.3 oz./140 calories
Touts: Vitamins A, B-3, B-5, B-6, and B-12, caffeine, inositol, taurine.
Claims: "Improves performance, increases concentration, improves reaction speed, increases metabolism."
Warns: "One serving contains about as much caffeine as a cup of coffee. Not intended for young children and persons sensitive to stimulants such as caffeine, or for use with products that may contain stimulants such as medications for allergy, asthma, cough/cold, decongestants, or certain pain relief products. Do not use if pregnant or lactating."
Tastes: Like fizzy, sweet grapefruit juice. Pleasant.
Effects: Boggle scores are mediocre, and after a few minutes, I notice my handwriting deteriorate. But it does sit well when called into duty: I drink it just before playing basketball but after I've imbibed a pint of beer and a happy-hour whiskey. My stomach feels hot with the drink as soon as I start running, and I experience a moment of wooziness. But I recover and hit clutch shots in a game of three-on-three, with enough stamina to hustle on defense at the end.

Verdict: A nice flavor, and it earns plaudits for its slim size; 16 ounces of anything carbonated is too much before a run. Given the apparent boost it gave me in basketball, this drink is what I'd reach for if feeling sluggish before a jog.

16 oz./240 calories
Touts: Vitamins B-2, B-3, B-5, B-6, B-12, and C, caffeine, taurine, guarana, inositol, milk thistle.
Claims: "Party like a rockstar."
Warns: "Not recommended for children or those sensitive to caffeine."
Tastes: Pleasantly metallic. Like a cross between Coke and pennies.
Effects: I drink a can while on deadline. I'm keenly focused, and I'm typing sentences almost too quickly, spitting them out before I finish evaluating them in my head. Meanwhile, my foot bounces on the floor. With a little more verve than usual, I drop to the floor and pound out 15 push-ups in the time usually required to do five. The Boggle scores are on the low side, but no vitamin or caffeine headache accompany this beverage. In fact, it's kind of fun.

Verdict: Better for you than a can of Coke, and it doesn't leave that squeaky residue on your teeth. Out of the dozens of cans I mowed through, Rockstar Cola is the only drink that offers that feeling of physical exuberance you expect from an energy drink. And it's the only one I'd actually want to consume again anytime soon. To me, coffee remains king for a pick-me-up, but among this group, Rockstar rolls.

Sam Eifling is an itinerant freelance writer and editor.

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