One of my forum users recently told me she was drinking a caffeine- and vitamin-laced energy drink to keep her regular.
Consequently, I decided to investigate the nutrient contents and ingredients of these energy drinks and whether they can be used indiscriminately for purposes like the prevention of constipation.
Keep in mind that these drinks are not sports drinks, which are often used by athletes and recreational sportsmen and women to boost their carbohydrate and electrolyte intakes. These are drinks designed to give you a massive boost of energy.
Our supermarkets stock an amazing variety of energy drinks with the weirdest names: V Guarana, Power Play, Monster Energy, Spike, Red Bull, and my all-time favourite for over-the-top advertising, Stripped Battery!
The first thing that struck me about these energy drinks is that they're expressly designed to mislead consumers. Misinformation is presented in various clever ways:
a) Dark colours and illegible text
Most of the cans are in dark colours (black or midnight blue) and small lettering is used, which makes it difficult to read the nutritional and other information displayed.
Most consumers will probably not go to the trouble of trying to decipher the text on these cans and will, therefore, drink the contents while being blissfully unaware that they're ingesting massive amounts of sugar and caffeine and totally excessive quantities of certain vitamins.
b) Misrepresentation of volumes
According to food labelling regulations, the nutritive content of a foodstuff should be listed per 100g or 100ml and also per serving in gram or ml. The purpose of this regulation is to make it possible for the public to compare different products with a similar content by looking at the 100g/100ml column. The "Per Serving" column is intended to show you, the consumer, how much of each nutrient you will consume if you have a serving.
For some of these energy drinks the "Per Serving" column lists the same volume as of a whole can, which is the logical thing to do. However, a number of the products, especially the massive cans which may contain up to 473ml (Monster Energy - a “monster" of a can indeed!), list their "Serving" as 240ml or half the contents of the can.
While it is feasible that some people may buy a large can of energy drink and only use half the contents per day, I am sure that the majority of users open the can and drink the entire contents! If they checked the nutritive content on the can they would be mislead into thinking that they have only had half the caffeine and other ingredients, which would of course not be true.
Some of these energy drinks display warnings on the can, such as “High caffeine content” or “Avoid drinking before sleeping. Not suitable for children, expectant mothers or persons allergic to caffeine.” Once again it is highly unlikely that casual users will ever get to see these Warnings thanks to the clever way they are displayed against a dark background in illegible lettering. Manufacturers are, therefore, protecting themselves against being blamed for overdosing the public with caffeine and vitamins by displaying warnings, but they do this in such a way that the public will not easily become aware of this information.
Warnings also include instructions or recommendations such as “Do not drink more than 3 cans a day” or “Consumer Responsibility - Limit to 3 cans per day”. This statement appears on the Monster Energy can. In the latter case, this would mean that a consumer would have close to 500 mg of caffeine and B vitamin intakes exceeding 1000% of the RDA by being “responsible”.
Excessive caffeine, sugar and vitamin intakes
Anyone drinking only one can of such energy drinks will ingest between 75mg of caffeine (Red Bull, 250ml can) to 166mg of caffeine (Monster Energy, 473ml can). Seventy-five milligrams of caffeine a day on its own is not regarded as potentially harmful, as most international experts agree that the majority of people can have about 300mg of caffeine a day without suffering negative side-effects or developing serious caffeine addiction.
But a person drinking one of the larger energy drink cans, like the Monster Energy product, will have more than 50% of his or her caffeine allowance in one go. Having three cans a day could push up your caffeine intake to 500mg per day, which is 1.5 times more than the recommended amount. The potential for developing side-effects which include rapid, irregular heartbeats, restlessness, irritability, anxiety, insomnia, tremors, headaches, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting and even ulcers, plus addiction, is high if you overindulge in energy drinks.
For slimmers it is also important to keep track of your energy drink intake because those products that are not artificially sweetened, contain about 50g of sugar and provide up to 867kJ per can (e.g. Power Play). This is a lot of energy (about 14% of your daily requirement if you are slimming), which could hamper weight loss.
And then there are the added vitamins! While we all need to have small quantities of B vitamins every day to keep us healthy, drinking products that contain massive doses (e.g. 1320% of the RDA for pantothenic acid in Stripped Battery), is not a good idea.
Just because small quantities of a nutrient are beneficial, does not mean that you should overdose on vitamins. Excessive vitamin intake has been identified as potentially harmful and should be avoided.
How to handle energy drinks
Recent research has indicated that foodstuffs and beverages containing caffeine can help to reduce fatigue, or help you stay awake and remain alert in situations where you need to concentrate.
So, if you have the occasional energy drink when you're feeling tired and washed out, it will probably not do you any harm.
Don't drink these beverages every day
Select the smaller cans to keep your intake within reasonable bounds
Don't have more than one can at a time, especially if you purchase one of those mega-cans that contain 400ml or more
Be aware of the danger of addiction and be careful not to get hook on them
Don't use these drinks in the place of a balanced, high-fibre diet to keep you regular, or as a vitamin supplement.
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Any questions? Ask DietDoc
Dr Ingrid van Heerden is a registered dietician and holds a doctoral degree in Nutrition and Biochemistry. She believes that "we are what we eat" and offers free nutrition and weight loss advice via her DietDoc service on Health24.com. Read more of her articles.