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How Safe are Energy Drinks like Red Bull?

After writing a post titled “The Dangers of Red Bull,” I got all kinds of comments from readers ranging from supportive to downright nasty. It quickly dawned on me that there’s much more to energy drinks than just the drink itself. The marketing departments at these companies have managed to create an entire lifestyle around their products that include, at least in the case of Red Bull, jet airplanes, race cars, event sponsorships, sport teams, celebrity endorsements, music events and video games. The end result is that when anyone questions the safety of these types of beverages, people take it personally and the response tends to be loud and immediate.

looool said: / I also think your full of shit.

Still, the growing popularity of energy drinks such as Red Bull, Full Throttle, Monster and others requires that consumers understand their effects and potential risks – especially since they’re being marketed to young adults and children.

Red Bull and Other Energy Drinks

So what are “energy drinks” anyway? Energy drinks are what the beverage industry call a “functional drink.” These are drinks that are designed to beneficially affect one or more target functions in the body (like increasing energy, for example) beyond what is achieved by a normal diet.

Although there are no regulations actually defining functional drinks, they typically contain the following types of beverages:

  •  Sports Drinks such as Gatorade, Powerade, or All Sport. Sports drinks are “hydration boosters” designed to prevent dehydration as well as supply the body with electrolytes and carbohydrates that are lost during hard work or exercise. They do not usually contain caffeine since caffeine’s diuretic properties run counter to the sport drinks’ goal of improving hydration.
  • Nutraceutical Drinks. These include any beverages that are designed to promote and enhance health through the addition of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, or extracts from teas, herbs, fruits, or vegetables. Examples include evoLv, vitaminwater, and Acai Immune Booster. Nutraceuticals do not normally contain caffeine as an added ingredient although many herb and tea extracts contain various amounts of caffeine naturally.
  • Energy Drinks. These are beverages designed to increase “energy” and contain various levels of caffeine in combination with other “energy-enhancing” ingredients such as herbal extracts, taurine, and B vitamins, among others. I’ve placed the word “energy” in quotes to denote the fact that in the context that we’re using it, “energy” is not a single physical attribute but a number of characteristics including alertness, clarity, physical endurance, drive, and so on.

There are other types of functional beverages but these three make up the lion’s share of the category with energy drinks dominating the other two. Globally, energy drinks compose more than 47% of the overall market share for functional beverages. In the US, the percentage is even higher at close to 63%.

As you can imagine, these types of quantities translate into big bucks for manufacturers. According to a 2008 Datamonitor report, the US energy drink market – this is for energy drinks only – is projected to more than double over 2008 figures and reach $19 billion by 2013. $19 BILLION!!

This market has attracted more and more manufacturers increasing consumer choice and fueling market growth even further. Here in the US for example, there are currently more than 300 varieties of energy drinks representing more than 200 brands being sold everywhere from brightly lit supermarket shelves to dark, seedy mini-marts where the cashier sits behind bulletproof glass. With market figures this large, everyone wants to jump in and get a piece of the action.

As large as the energy drink market is, almost 80% of it is dominated by 5 major brands: Red Bull at 43%, Monster at 14%, Rockstar at 11%, Coca-Cola’s Full Throttle at 7%, and PepsiCo’s Amp at 4%. As the clear market leader, the Red Bull name tends to be used to describe energy drinks in general, no matter who the manufacturer.

“Red Bull Marketing”

Athletes looking to enhance their physical performance used to be the primary source of energy drink consumers. However, the performance gains tended to be overshadowed by the increased dehydration caused by the caffeine. Also, several sports associations, at one time including the NCAA and the International Olympic Committee, classified caffeine as a banned substance. Although many of these banns were eventually lifted, by then most athletes especially body builders, had moved on to functional beverages that included creatine or other muscle-building ingredients instead of caffeine.

Today, the majority of energy drinks are marketed in a totally different way. Instead of targeting athletes, a relatively small market anyway, marketers focused on a much larger part of the population: young adults aged 19 to 30. Rather than emphasizing athletic performance, manufacturers began to advance energy drinks as the answer to being able to manage today’s young adult modern lifestyle composed of college, careers, late night video games, weekend parties, and budding relationships.

Crystal said:  / we don’t need you to drink it because people who drink RED BULL are winners and you were born a loser all the way so you don’t need it moron.

“Life is fast. How do you keep pace with it all? Easy! Pop open a can of Red Bull…” Its been reported that as much as one half of all college students drink at least one energy drink per month seeking to increase their energy level and compensate for lack of sleep or to give alcohol an extra boost. The use of energy drinks have become commonplace on most American colleges.

Energy drink manufactures know exactly what motivates their target group and they spend millions of dollars sponsoring sports teams, creating branded clothing and other merchandise, and hosting “extreme sport” activities such as BMX motocross, snow and skate boarding, and windsurfing to name a few. Red Bull in particular is active in everything from Formula 1 racing to stunt flying. What better way to appeal to the young, especially young males, than with sleek and sexy cars, planes, helicopters, and extreme sport competitions?

Manufacturers also host or sponsor music festivals, celebrity concerts, and break-dancing competitions – all done to make sure their products are associated with what the young consider cool and trendy. And it works.

It works so well in fact that most young adults nowadays simply consider energy drinks a normal part of who they are. As a result, any attempt to question the safety or potential misuse of energy drinks is seen by many young adults as a direct attack on their lifestyle, a result that I’m sure has manufacturers smiling in their board rooms. It’s also why my previous post on Red Bull gets strong emotional comments like the ones I’ve listed throughout this post.

C_herenandez said:  / -the best reason i give you is don’t mess with red bull.

The “Magic Mix” – Energy Drink Ingredients

What makes energy drinks so “potent” – and I’ve put this in quotes because it’s another one of those words that has both negative as well as positive connotations – is the combination of ingredients they contain. Although there are a number of different energy drinks on the market, they all tend to include the same basic ingredients designed to give you an initial energy boost as well as to maintain that energy for as long as possible.

Front and center in all energy drinks and responsible for most of the energy boost is caffeine, taurine, and sugar. Manufacturers can also add other ingredients such as B-vitamins, ginseng, guarana, yerba mate, and green tea extracts in order to enhance the overall flavor, the amount of energy and its duration, or to satisfy any health claims. Although the actual concentration of each ingredient is usually proprietary, the list of ingredients in your favorite energy drink is usually pretty easy to find.

But Do They Actually Work?

Do they work? Does Red Bull really “give you wings?” Do energy drinks really increase your energy? In a word, yes. Study after study, some of the sponsored by Red Bull, consistently find that energy drinks increase concentration, reaction time, alertness, as well as physical performance and endurance. They do help you stay alert and perform at peak levels for longer times. Energy drinks do in fact work – one of the reasons that professional and amateur athletes were originally attracted their use.

Jason said:  / I can appreciate the viewpoint of staying free of stimulants, but they aren’t inherently bad either.

So if energy drinks do in fact work, why aren’t we all chugging them one after another? Why doesn’t every employer in the world supply energy drinks to all of their workers in order to increase production? Well, it turns out there are some risks, which is why many of the sports associations, and some countries, originally banned their use. Although most of these bans have been reversed or overturned, that doesn’t mean the risks went away. They’re still there and if you routinely drink energy drinks, you need to know what they are.

The Down Side – Potential Risks

One characteristic of Americans is our belief that if a little bit of something is good, then a whole lot must be better. It’s not always true, especially when it comes to energy drinks. Since the main active ingredient in energy drinks is caffeine, drinking too much can easily result in the “jitters” as well as nervousness, headaches, insomnia and nausea. However, this varies greatly from one individual to another since some people have a greater caffeine tolerance than others.

A more serious risk is the potential association between the consumption of energy drinks and cardiovascular events such as increased blood pressure, increase heart rates, and in some cases, cardiac arrest and death. Although the supporting data and research is very limited, there have been enough documented cases to raise some serious questions.


The response from the energy drink manufacturers is that their products usually contain less caffeine than a typical cup of coffee. This is a true statement but there’s more to it than that. You’ve got to consider the context as well as the fact that coffee does not contain ingredients designed to sustain the energy boost. Most people don’t drink one or two cups of coffee while they’re playing a sport like basketball but many young adults will chug one or two cans of an energy drink without even thinking about it. This creates two problems. The first is a potential caffeine overdose (of the 5,448 US caffeine overdoses reported in 2007, 46% occurred in those younger than 19) and the second is the dehydrating effect caffeine creates.

 Mustapha said:  /  I drink Red Bull 4 times a week or so, not for energy, I just enjoy it! Is that dangerous??

You also need to keep in mind that in the US, energy drink manufacturers do not have to list the total amount of caffeine in their product. They only have to list that it contains caffeine and in most cases, this only means added caffeine. They don’t have to identify other sources of caffeine and list them as caffeine. For example, many energy drinks like Amp, Monster, and Rockstar contain guaranine, an ingredient that comes from an Amazon plant long used by the natives to increase awareness and energy. Guaranine’s active ingredient? Caffeine.

Apart from the physical health risks are some that are behavioral. Several studies have associated energy drink consumption with increased risk-taking behaviors. Although I don’t doubt the research, you have to consider the fact that we’re talking about a population (19 to 30 year olds) that’s already prone towards risk-taking behaviors. However, it might be that a little bit of extra energy is enough to increase those behaviors.

A final behavioral risk is the common practice of mixing alcohol with energy drinks, especially among college students. One study found that almost 25% of all college drinkers mix energy drinks with alcohol. This is a very dangerous habit since several studies have shown that the boost in energy from the energy drink tends to mask the effects of intoxication leading the drinker to believe that they’re totally OK to drive home.

Braden said:  / red bull is the bomb u guys need to chill nothin is goin to happen

 Whether you think these potential risks are valid or not, please pay particular attention to the following points:

1. It’s difficult to determine the actual amount of caffeine in a drink. Although manufacturers are required to list ingredients on the label, they are not required to list actual quantities or concentrations. Yes, you can get an idea of relative amounts by the order the ingredients are listed in but this not the same as knowing exactly how much of each ingredient is present. This makes it difficult to determine exactly how much caffeine is actually in the drink. Also, pay attention to the serving size. Many drinks list the amount of caffeine on a “per serving” basis while the can or bottle contains more than one serving.

2. Despite the research, no one knows for sure. Although caffeine is one of the most studied and researched chemicals in the list of energy drink ingredients, the others are not. Very little is known about some of the individual ingredients and even less is known about what, if anything, changes when they’re combined in various proportions.

3. No upper limit on caffeine. In the US, there is no upper limit on how much caffeine can be in an energy drink so you can be getting more caffeine than you think, especially when you take into account the caffeine that’s naturally part of some of the other ingredients (such as guaranine or guaranine seed extract). Interestingly, the FDA does place an upper limit on the amount of caffeine that goes into cola’s. Go figure.

4. Confusion with Sports Drinks. Energy drinks are often sold next to, or in relation with, sports drinks making many consumers think that they are both similar products. They are definitely not the same. As already pointed out, energy drinks should not be taken when exercising or performing physical labor due to their dehydration effects.

5. Effects on the heart. Energy drinks do increase your heart rate and your blood pressure. Yes, so does coffee but coffee doesn’t contain the same ingredients designed to boost and sustain the energy so it’s not a valid comparison. The increase in heart rate and blood pressure is probably not a big deal for healthy individuals (check with your doctor if you have doubts) but it should be obvious that energy drinks should not be consumed by people with hypertension or by women who are pregnant.

 My Best Energy Drink Recommendations

After reading more research papers than I really cared to, I found that there were some recommendations that they all seemed to agree on. These include:

  •  Energy drinks should not be consumed before or during exercise or manual labor.
  • Energy drinks are not a substitute for water or sports drinks for hydration.
  • Monitor your kids. Children or adolescents should not consume energy drinks.
  • Do not mix energy drinks with alcohol. Period.
  • Do not drink energy drinks if you have hypertension, have an underlying medical condition, or are taking any kind of prescription medication.
  • Do not drink energy drinks if you’re pregnant.
  • Do not exceed the recommended daily allowance (usually one can per day).
  • Know the signs of too much caffeine (jitters, restlessness, fidgeting, anxiety, excitement, insomnia, flushing of the face, increased urination, gastrointestinal disturbance, muscle twitching, a rambling flow of thought and speech, irritability, irregular or rapid heart beat)

References and Recommended Reading

This article relied heavily on the following sources which are very readable and recommended:

“Energy Drinks: An Assessment of Their Market Size, Consumer Demographics, Ingredient Profile, Functionality, and Regulations in the United States” By M.A. Heckman, K. Sherry, and E. Gonzalez de Mejia published in: Vol. 9, 2010—COMPREHENSIVE REVIEWS IN FOOD SCIENCE AND FOOD SAFETY

“Energy Beverages: Content and Safety”  by Higgins JP, Tuttle TD, Higgins CL. And published in the Nov 2010 issue of the Mayo Clinic Proceedings.

“Energy Drinks – a Nutrition and Health Info Sheet” By K. Heneman, S. Zindenberg-Cherr and published by the University of California

What’s Your Take?

If you fall into the “Red Bull” demographic, I’m sure you’ve got a strong opinion on this topic.  Scroll down to the comments and lay it on me!

Certified Fitness Nutrition Coach andPersonal Fitness Trainer (NESTA)

P.S.  Be sure to get my latest Fitness Blueprint called “Little Things That Improve Your Health.”  This ebook is packed with loads of helpful information on how to build a better body and you can get it FREE – no email, no cookies, no catch.  Download and enjoy!

Email Me:  Hiram Perez   

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  1. There is nothing good in Red Bull, Monster or any other of these energy drinks. My son – a helicopter pilot – also drank Red Bull and Monster and as a result had a grandmal seizure. The result – he cannot ever fly again. His life long dream shattered and that at the age of 23. I will warn every person against it. What happened to our family do not need to happen to anyone. It is a killer.

    • I am sorry about your son. On average, how many energy drinks was he drinking on a daily or weekly basis?


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