The world of energy drinks is a mystifying one. The connoisseurs swear by them. Detractors try their best to warn people of their possible side effects. The average person on the street tends to not have too much of a clue either way. Let’s take a look at the evidence behind the safety of energy drinks and whether they have any specific damaging effect on the kidneys. I will let the reader come to their own conclusions.
If you do not include coffee, (which technically might be considered one of the first popular energy drinks to be mass consumed), Coca-Cola or Coke might have been the first modern energy/stimulant drink. And that’s not just due to the caffeine content, but also because it contained cocaine as an ingredient. It was finally removed in 1903 (I thought that was an urban legend but turns out it’s actually true!).
Today, energy drinks are ubiquitous and sales have surged. It only takes a quick visit to the neighborhood gas station to figure out how popular they are. Their use has dramatically increased across most age groups. Which, obviously raises questions about these energy drinks’ health effects.
In order to understand the effects, it’s best to take a quick look at the common ingredients that most energy drinks have. Here are some common “energy” ingredients:
Let’s talk about these ingredients briefly. Caffeine is perhaps the most well known of the above. An 8.3 oz can of Red Bull energy drink has about 80 mg of caffeine per serving. A 16 oz can of Rockstar energy drink has about 160 mg. To give you a perspective, 1 oz of an espresso has anywhere between 47-75 mg of caffeine. I have already talked about the effects of caffeine on the kidneys in another post.
The average amount of caffeine consumed by the average American is about 300 mg per day. The number does not seem to have changed much over the last decade. For all the bad rap that teenagers and young adults get about consuming copious amounts of energy drinks, an FDA report found that they consumed one-third the amount of caffeine as adults or about 100 mg per day. Only a small portion of this caffeine actually came from energy drinks.
An interesting fact to bear in mind is that in the US, a manufacturer is not required to mention the amount of caffeine on a food label. This is largely because of a technicality. The nutrition info panel that we see on food labels is required to mention information only for nutrients. Since caffeine is not considered a nutrient, manufacturers are under no obligation to mention its amount.
Taurine is an amino acid. It is something that you would naturally find in many natural sources of protein including milk, meat, fish etc. It is a common ingredient in sports supplements and supposedly enhances athletic ability. However, high levels of taurine in the blood can have damaging consequences and this is especially likely to happen in people with chronic kidney disease (CKD). Symptoms from such accumulation have been reported in the literature before. It is debatable however if ingesting taurine found in a typical single serving of most energy drinks enough to cause serious harm to most people with normal kidneys.
Many energy drinks, like sodas, contain a notoriously high amount of empty calories that come from their sugar content. We are well aware of the downsides of excessive sugar consumption. 8 ounces of Rockstar energy drink has about 30 grams of sugar. Remember, a 16-ounce can is 2 servings, so if you drink the whole thing, expect to have consumed 60 grams of sugar, or about 12 teaspoons!
The FDA’s Stand
It is important to appreciate that none of the energy drinks are regulated by the FDA. Therefore there is no regulation as to what ingredients can be put in them and no manufacturer is under obligation to prove any statement about the product’s efficacy. However, deaths from excessive energy drink consumption have been reported, and the FDA is one of the federal organizations that will investigate any reported death or illness which might be apparently linked to an energy drink.
Effects on the Kidneys
Besides the harmful effects reported from taurine accumulation with excess intake, data exist which have associated varying effects ranging from acute renal failure from excessive Red Bull consumption, increase in systolic and diastolic blood pressure as well as heart rate, and even reduced blood supply to the brain. A recent abstract presented at the American Heart Association/American College of Cardiology meeting showed that young healthy adults consuming commercially available Rockstar energy drink had a significant increase in their resting blood pressure which could predispose to cardiovascular events (heart attack, chest pain, stroke).
The Energy-Drink Manufacturers Stand
Currently, most manufacturers participate in voluntary and mandatory reporting on adverse effects of their respective energy drinks. The current official line from the manufacturers seems to be that, well, insufficient data exist with regards to most ingredients found in major energy drinks and therefore, a cause and effect relationship between any energy drink and death/illness cannot be conclusively established.
Safe? Not safe? Maybe a bit of both depending on how much you drink? I’ll let you be the judge!