Are Energy Drinks Bad For You? The Pros and Cons

Energy drinks have exploded in popularity over the past two decades, especially among teenagers and young adults who want an instant energy and concentration boost. These beverages promise increased alertness, focus, reaction time, and endurance through combinations of ingredients like caffeine, sugars, vitamins, amino acids, herbal supplements and more.

However, concerns have also swollen around the safety and health impacts of pounding back these potent concoctions on a regular basis, particularly in excess. This article will dive deeper into illuminating what energy drinks actually are, their intended benefits, and the emerging research regarding the potential health risks frequent consumption may carry.

Energy Drinks

What are Energy Drinks?

Energy drinks are non-alcoholic caffeinated beverages marketed to provide a sudden energy boost, increased mental alertness and focus. They differ from sports drinks which aim to rehydrate athletes after training.

Most energy drinks range from 8 ounces to over 16 ounces per serving, packaged in attention-grabbing slim cans or large bottles. Flavors vary wildly, often sweet and fruity to appeal to young taste buds. Branding and packaging lean heavily toward edgy, exciting extreme sports themes to further cater to the target teen and young adult demographics.

The caffeine content per serving in popular energy drinks can range from about 80 milligrams to over 200 milligrams. In comparison, a typical 8 ounce cup of brewed coffee contains around 100 milligrams of caffeine. Some smaller energy “shot” style drinks can have as much as 350 milligrams condensed into just a couple ounces.

Beyond caffeine, other common energy drink ingredients include:

  • Sugars – Usually sucrose, glucose or high fructose corn syrup providing fast carbohydrate energy. Amounts can range from 21 grams to a whopping 54 grams per serving, comparable to many sodas.
  • B Vitamins – Ingredients like niacin, vitamin B6, vitamin B12 are included to purportedly help convert sugars to energy and reduce fatigue.
  • Taurine – An amino acid produced naturally in the human body that supports muscle function, metabolism and cardiovascular health. Taurine is added to many energy drinks in amounts from 500mg to 2000mg per serving.
  • Guarana Extract – Contains caffeine and related stimulant compounds like theobromine and theophylline. The caffeine from guarana and synthetic sources can combine to form very high total caffeine amounts.
  • Ginseng – An Asian herbal extract considered an “adaptogen” that supposedly helps the body cope with physical or mental fatigue and stress.
  • L-Carn itine, Inositol, Milk Thistleand other exotic botanical extracts are often included with claims about exercise performance, focus, liver health and antioxidant effects. Evidence is sparse regarding efficacy at amounts present in energy drinks.

Intended Effects and Benefits

There are several purported benefits that energy drink companies typically advertise to appeal to consumers:

  • Energy Boost – The primary effect stems mostly from caffeine and carbohydrates providing a jolt of wakefulness, stimulation and perceived energy. Sugars also supply short term blood glucose energy.
  • Increased Mental Alertness and Focus – Caffeine combined with vitamins and amino acids are claimed to reduce mental fatigue and cause increased concentration for tasks requiring extended focus like work projects or studying.
  • Enhanced Athletic Performance – Through compounds like caffeine and taurine, energy drinks allege benefits of quicker reaction time, increased endurance and power output during exercise. Rehydration is also touted through the beverages’ water content, though sports drinks with electrolytes are superior for this goal.

With luminous promises like these plastered all over vivid packaging, it’s no wonder energy drinks have become popular pick-me-ups promising to fuel fun, adventure and success for the young consumer base. But do they really deliver once you look past the flashy marketing?

Potential Downsides and Health Risks

Despite the meteoric rise of energy drinks, significant concerns have developed around the potential health risks associated with pounding them back regularly, especially in excess. Here are some of the emerging issues:

Caffeine and Sugar Content

Energy drinks contain substantial amounts of caffeine and sugar that may cause unpleasant symptoms in sensitive individuals, even at recommended serving sizes. Risks multiply rapidly with excessive intake:

  • Disrupted Sleep Cycles – The stimulant effects of caffeine can make falling asleep difficult if consumed too late in the day. Caffeine also impacts sleep quality for some. Insufficient sleep carries long term health and development impacts.
  • Caffeine Overdose – Excess caffeine intake over short periods brings side effects like headaches, jitteriness, rapid heartbeat, anxiety and dehydration. In larger doses it can induce vomiting, diarrhea, disorientation, seizures and even death, though this is rare.
  • Sugar Overload – High sugar amounts from multiple energy drink servings can quickly approach unhealthy levels, increasing risk for weight gain, tooth decay, and development of diabetes or metabolic disease.
  • Crash and Fatigue – The energy high inevitably wears off as caffeine is cleared from the bloodstream. This “crash” can leave the drinker more tired than before, setting up repeat consumption and worsening effects.

Effects in Children and Teens

Due to smaller body sizes, developing brains and potential reactions, health experts advise extreme caution regarding energy drinks for those under age 18. Adverse effects can be more pronounced in youths. Many energy drink brands have voluntarily enacted purchase quantity limits for minors as a safety precaution.

  • Neurological Effects – Young brains are still rapidly developing neurological pathways controlling mood, cognition, sleep cycles and motor functions until the mid 20’s. The stimulant effects of energy drinks may cause more disruption than in fully matured adult nervous systems. Research indicates mood disorders, reduced impulse control and mental health issues associated with childhood and adolescent caffeine intake.
  • Bedwetting – Caffeine is a bladder irritant and diuretic, increasing urgency and frequency of urination. Studies have specifically linked energy drink consumption to increased enuresis (bedwetting) in those up to age 15.
  • Dental Effects – The high sugar content risks permanent tooth enamel erosion and cavities from prolonged contact, especially concerning for those with braces.

Other Additives

While ingredients like taurine, ginseng extract and B vitamins are generally recognized as safe in normal food amounts, their effects in the higher doses added to energy drinks are less researched:

  • Taurine – Taurine itself is considered mostly harmless, even in 2000mg energy drink quantities. However, a few case reports have theorized links to heart problems like arrhythmias. Further study is needed before declaring it risk-free.
  • Ginseng – Suspected side effects of high dose ginseng like that found in energy drinks include insomnia, headaches, rapid heart rate, increased blood pressure, diarrhea, mood changes, and hypoglycemia. However the data is not yet conclusive.
  • B Vitamin Toxicity – While rare and usually reversible, excessively high doses of B vitamins over long periods can potentially cause nerve damage, liver problems and skin reactions. The sky-high vitamin content requires closer monitoring.

Alcohol Interactions

Combining energy drinks with alcohol has risks due to masking effects. The caffeine stimulant effects can counteract noticeable intoxication despite continued mental impairment and loss of coordination. This gives the impression of partying longer with less drunkenness, increasing alcohol-related injuries like car crashes. The combination also significantly increases dehydration and hangover severity.

Regulation Concerns

Globally, most energy drinks currently fall outside typical food regulations, instead classified as general dietary supplements. This designation receives far less legal oversight and restrictions compared to food and beverages in many countries.

With this leniency, the caffeine amounts, serving sizes, ingredient safety and accuracy of labeling on energy drinks is largely self-regulated by their producers. Standards can vary widely between brands and countries at this nascent stage of the industry’s development. Lawmakers are still playing catch-up to tighten regulations to match energy drinks’ rapidly growing popularity and health concerns.

  • Caffeine Measurement – International research has uncovered worrying inconsistencies in measured caffeine levels compared to amounts printed on labeling. Significant variations were found both between brands and batches of the same brand. Actual caffeine content ranged from 2% to 340% of the labeled quantity. Such variability makes it impossible for consumers to moderate intake and poses obvious health risks.
  • Safety Testing – Unlike pharmaceuticals, supplement manufacturers are not yet required to thoroughly test their products for safety or efficacy in human trials before public sale in most countries. The long term impacts of consuming the novel ingredients and ingredient combinations in energy drinks remains scientifically unknown and understudied.


When used responsibly in moderation by healthy adults, energy drinks can provide temporary benefits like improved energy, athletic performance, reaction time, and concentration. However, piling in caffeine, sugars and herbal stimulants inevitably carries risks, especially with excess intake among susceptible populations like children and teens. More research is urgently needed to investigate safety and optimal dosage ranges for youth and adults.

Until regulatory frameworks mature to match their surging popularity, energy drinks remain a potential public health concern in the making. Their negatives may outweigh potential benefits with irresponsible use. Moderation and caution is advised, especially when combined with medications, alcohol or strenuous activity. Parents would be wise to carefully limit access for minors. As with many things in nutrition and medicine, the dose makes the poison.