You've seen 'em -- those crazy, criminally priced energy drinks in those trendy little 250ml cans cluttering up the specialty drink section of your local supermarket or convenience store. What's the deal? And what's with those goofy claims -- "Vitalizes body and mind," "Highly vitalizing," "Revitalizes attitude and restores faith in mankind" -- is there anything to it, or are these things just overpriced sugar water? With the following taste-and-effect test, we hope to shed a little light on the subject and provide you thrill seekers with a guide.
Energy drinks such as Red Bull are basically central nervous system stimulant delivery systems -- sugar cocktails doped with various exotic-sounding ingredients and lots of good old caffeine. Most also contain B vitamins (which regulate energy metabolism) and various metabolism enhancers and detoxifiers. But it's the caffeine that gives you the rush you're craving. While some health experts are concerned over the drink's widespread popularity (especially among teens), in most cases these products contain only about as much caffeine as you would find in a freshly brewed cup of coffee. Our advice? As with anything else that artificially alters your mood, the rule to live by is moderation. And keep in mind that energy drinks are a pretty expensive way to cop a buzz (about $2 per puny little can). Over-the-counter stimulants like Vivarin are cheaper and way more effective.
In addition to caffeine and sugar (usually high fructose corn syrup), energy drinks may also contain these exotic substances:
Guarana -- a plant indigenous to the Amazon region of Brazil. The seeds are a rich source of natural caffeine.
Taurine -- an amino acid found in the brain, heart and central nervous system. Present in meat products. Claimed to be a detoxifier, an antioxidant, mental and and a physical performance enhancer.
Ginseng -- a substance derived from plants around world. Health claims include increased vitality and coping with stress.
L-Carnitine -- a vitamin-like compound that is readily synthesized in the body. Supplementation is claimed to improve fat metabolism, reduce triglyceride and cholesterol levels and improve endurance.
Maltodextrin -- a complex carbohydrate that provides energy for physical activity and muscle exertion.
Glucuronolactone -- a compound formed in the liver when glucose is metabolized. Claimed to stimulate metabolism and aid in the elimination of toxic substances.
What's in it: sugar, caffeine, B vitamins, vitamin C
Taste: Very fruity and sweet. Not bad -- not great either.
Effect: Yes! I'm waking up to Red Devil.
Comments: We liked the prominent but ambiguous warning label ("Warning! For kids, pregnant women and caffeine-sensitive persons. Do not use in large amounts.") and the can graphics (with the handsome devil superhero). Alarming deep amber color stains everything bright yellow when spilled (whoops). More sugar (38g) than most.
What's in it: sugar, caffeine
Taste: Yum! Coffee-flavored cola that's sweet but not overly so with a slightly smoky and bitter caffeine edge. Similar to the no longer available Bibicaffe. Just the right amount of fizziness.
Effect: Oh yes (you'd have to be dead to not feel this one). Before: dragging, yawning. After: Returning calls, taking notes, answering e-mails, in essence, focusing on my job.
Comments: You spilled coffee in my coke. No, you spilled coke in my coffee. Two great tastes that taste great together? Well, yeah. Leave it to the folks at Jolt to take two of the most infamous caffeine-laced beverages and blend them into one stimulating concoction. With 120mg of caffeine in every 250ml can, Jolt Espresso lives up to its claim as "The World's Strongest Beverage."
What's in it: sugar, taurine, L-Carnitine, ginseng, Vitamin C, caffeine, B vitamins, guarana, glucuronolactone
Taste: Sweet, tangy fake-fruit flavor. Very grape-like despite the "wild berry" designation.
Effect: Slight but definite increase in alertness. On a scale from one to five, a 2.5 -- about the same as Coke.
Comments: Blue Energy bills itself as a "natural" energy drink ("using only natural flavors" and "natural caffeine"). It's natural all right -- with 27 grams of "natural" sugars and a whopping 200mg of "natural" sodium.
What's in it: sugar, taurine, royal jelly, guarana, ginseng, caffeine, B vitamins.
Taste: Smells (and looks) like urine but tastes okay. Citrus-flavored. Very sweet, smooth and slightly tart.
Effect: Very minor lift. So minor, it might just be wishful thinking.
Comments: Points for name, irony (the cans say: "The last thing the world needs is another energy drink, so here's one more") and those frisky Anime kid + Imperial Japan "Rising Sun" graphics on the can. Did not, however, whoop my ass in the least.
What's in it: sugar, guarana, caffeine, taurine, ginseng, B vitamins
Taste: Familiar to Mountain Dew drinkers. Syrupy, fruity, tangy. Pretty decent.
Effect: I'm not seeing pretty colors or anything, but my upper lip is sweating and I'm more alert than I was a few minutes ago.
Comments: Throws in one complex carbohydrate (maltodextrine) along with the usual heavy sugar load. Made by the people who brought you Mountain Dew -- and it tastes like it. And with 75mg of caffeine, it's like two Dews in one feisty little package.
What's in it: sugar, taurine, glucuronolactone, caffeine, B vitamins
Taste: Like seawater -- sugary, tangy, metallic seawater. Not good.
Effect: Yep, it's there -- a slight revitalization of both body and mind. Nothing drastic, and nothing in the way of wings. But a definite clearing of my normally foggy mid-morning faculties.
Comments: The undisputed king of energy drinks (the result of effective marketing more than anything else), Red Bull delivers 80mg of caffeine along with a surprisingly high level (200mg!) of sodium. Worst-tasting of the lot.