Next time you’re feeling tired, imagine grabbing a drink and heading to your pantry to put 10-15 teaspoons of sugar in your drink. On the surface, such an act would make most people scratch their heads, but that’s the amount of sugar in most energy drinks.
Thanks to health trends and a movement to limit added sugars, healthier energy drinks have hit the market to help consumers feel better about their body’s energy. But what exactly constitutes a healthy energy drink and are these products even good for you? This blog will look at what you need to know about these natural options.
The problem with energy drinks
Beverages sweetened with added sugars are the main source of added sugars in the United States. In fact, Americans consume an average of 17 grams of added sugar, which is double the recommended amount for men and triple the recommended amount for women.
Energy Drink Nutrition Facts
Some traditional energy drinks contain more sugar than sodas. For example, a 16-ounce Rockstar energy drink contains 63 grams of added sugars, or 126% of the recommended daily value. To put that into visual perspective, 63 grams equals about 16 teaspoons of sugar. Two of the three main ingredients are sucrose and glucose, and the massive amount of sugar is 270 calories.
Similarly, a 12-ounce can of Red Bull has 38 grams of added sugars and 160 calories. A 16-ounce Monster energy drink has 54 grams of added sugars and 270 calories.
By now, the downside of consuming too many added sugars is well known. They offer no nutritional value (called empty calories). Added sugars also increase your risk of cardiovascular health problems, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, cholesterol, and a host of other diseases and types of cancer.
How much caffeine is too much?
The craving for caffeine, a central nervous stimulant that increases energy levels and alertness, is the main reason energy drinks were created. However, as more and more Americans are sleep deprived and constantly looking for ways to stay awake and productive, energy drink companies have responded by creating more caffeinated products for consumers.
And while common sources of caffeine are found naturally in coffee beans or tea leaves, many energy drinks contain synthetic caffeine. Synthetic caffeine, derived from chloroacetic and ureic acids, is absorbed faster than natural caffeine and can lead to greater energy spikes and crashes.
In general, the United States Food and Drug Administration recommends consuming no more than 400 mg of caffeine per day. Anything more can have negative effects.
Depending on the brand, a single 16-ounce energy drink typically contains around 160 or 170 mg of caffeine. Compared to a single cup of coffee with 95mg of caffeine, that’s almost double the amount of an energy drink.
Some drinks are two or three times more potent. For example, a 12-ounce can of Hyde Xtreme contains 400 mg of caffeine, which is equivalent to drinking four cups of coffee in one sitting.
Consuming too much caffeine can lead to side effects such as headaches, irritability, feeling jittery, frequent urination, and rapid heartbeat. Above all, excessive caffeine consumption can actually be counterproductive for people who consume caffeine to stay alert. Caffeine during the day can keep you awake at night and lead to insomnia.
Are artificial sweeteners bad for you?
To help appease people who want to reduce their intake of added sugars, energy drinks now offer low-calorie or zero-calorie alternatives.
Most of these energy drinks still retain their sweetness thanks to artificial sweeteners, also called non-nutritive sweeteners. These sugar substitutes, such as sucralose (sold as Splenda), add sweetness to energy drinks without adding extra calories or sugar.
Sucralose actually comes from the same table sugar used in cookies and other desserts. But it is chemically altered during the manufacturing process to make it calorie-free. To do this, they replace part of the sugar molecules with chlorine atoms.
People who drink energy drinks or zero-calorie sodas tend to eat more unhealthy foods because of the mindset in which they save calories from their drinks. In other words, you can drink a calorie-free energy drink just to eat a handful of cookies or a slice of cake full of added sugars.
Although sweeteners such as Splenda are FDA-approved, there are concerns about the following potential health risks associated with artificial sweeteners:
- Changes in gut bacteria
- Glucose intolerance (precursor to type 2 diabetes)
- Heart problems
- Weight gain
What about natural energy drinks?
In today’s world, most people think of natural energy drinks when discussing healthy energy drink options – many “healthy” energy drinks still contain artificial sweeteners or artificial colors.
Natural energy drinks are what they sound like – they’re made with natural ingredients (natural caffeine, fruit flavors, or natural extracts) and are free from artificial sweeteners and synthetic colors.
Here are some of the most common sources of caffeine found in natural energy drinks:
- Green tea: Made from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant, green tea leaves are steamed, pan-fried and dried. A cup of green tea contains about 28 mg of caffeine.
- Black tea: Also made from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant, black tea leaves differ from green tea and white tea in that they can oxidize during the production process. This gives black tea a stronger flavor and more caffeine – 47mg per cup.
- white tea: The leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant are harvested earlier than green or black tea, giving white tea a more delicate flavor. White tea contains 15-30 mg of caffeine per cup.
- coffee fruit extract: Coffee fruit is a red stone fruit that produces coffee seeds (beans) used to make coffee. Once the seed is harvested, the berry is then processed and extracted. It contains less caffeine than coffee beans.
- Guarana: This natural stimulant comes from the seeds of the guarana fruit native to South America. Guarana seeds contain four times more caffeine than coffee beans.
- Guayusa: This type of tea is made from the leaves of an evergreen tree native to South America.
- Matcha: This powder comes from green tea leaves. Matcha is different from green tea because it is shade grown and the veins of the plant are removed before processing.
- Yerba mate: This herbal tea comes from the leaves of the yerba mate plant native to South America.
When choosing natural energy drinks, look for as few ingredients as possible. Some brands simply combine a natural source of caffeine with a hint of natural fruit juice (like lemon or lime juice) to provide a subtle sweetness. Others combine sources of caffeine, such as blending yerba mate with green tea.
As long as you consume these products in moderation, there is nothing inherently unhealthy about them. Of course, consult your doctor to avoid any side effects with medications or other health issues.
Typically, natural energy drinks contain less caffeine than high-sugar energy drinks, ranging from 30 to 70 grams of caffeine. Other options can contain up to 170 grams of caffeine (equivalent to two cups of coffee).
And if you’re used to sugary drinks, there are natural energy drinks that use natural sweeteners like fruit juice, monk fruit, erythritol, or stevia. Although considered a natural sweetener, stevia is still heavily processed by extracting steviol glycosides from the leaves of the plant. However, it remains our dietitian’s #1 natural sweetener choice because it doesn’t impact your blood sugar.
Healthy alternatives to energy drinks
Outside of a cup of caffeinated coffee or tea, the healthiest alternatives to energy drinks include addressing the issues that lead to the need for energy in the first place. While a caffeine boost here and there isn’t problematic, you shouldn’t rely on energy drinks for energy. It may be a sign of a bigger problem, such as a health problem or chronic exhaustion from lack of sleep.
To combat fatigue, start with the basics of staying hydrated throughout the day and eating three meals a day to avoid blood sugar spikes. Add healthy snacks throughout the day when you feel hungry. If you eat well and supply your body with vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates and good fats, you will have enough energy to get through the day.
Finally, it’s important to get enough sleep each night – aim for six to eight hours of sleep. Restful sleep allows your body and mind to rest and recharge so you can face what lies ahead the next day.
If you feel constantly tired and seek out an energy drink several times a day, contact your doctor to check for any underlying health conditions that may be causing it. Common health conditions such as anemia, diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure can all lead to fatigue.