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Energy drinks pack a punch, but is it too much?

Energy drinks typically contain as much caffeine as a cup of coffee  


By Elizabeth Cohen
CNN Medical Unit

ATLANTA (CNN) -- So-called "energy drinks" with names like Red Bull, Adrenaline Rush, and 180 have become big hits in bars, dance clubs and even Wal-Mart. But critics worry the drinks can cause problems both for athletes and for people who mix them with alcohol.

Tracie Rosado, managing partner of The Martini Club in Atlanta, said it is no mystery why "energy drinks" are best sellers. "If I'm tired I just grab a can and I'm good to go," she said. "It just makes me feel alert, awake."

The drinks contain vitamins, amino acids, a large dose of sugar and about as much caffeine as a cup of coffee. It's a formula that concerns people like Liz Applegate, a sports nutritionist at the University of California at Davis.

"These cans of energy drinks have some enticing, very sexy-sounding claims -- that they lift you up, that they give you more energy," Applegate said. "Frankly, they're nothing much more than caffeine in a can with a lot of sugar."

Kim Peterson, a spokeswoman for Red Bull, said the beverage is uplifting because it contains vitamins and amino acids, such as taurine. On its Web site, the company says taurine "acts as a metabolic transmitter and additionally has a detoxifying effect and strengthens cardiac contractility." However, its effects are disputed in the scientific community.

Applegate maintains the boost comes mainly from caffeine. And that, she says makes energy drinks a bad idea for athletes.

"Even though they're labeled 'energy drinks,' they should not be consumed during exercise," she said. "They have caffeine, and they're too concentrated in sugar. That's going to slow the body's ability to absorb water."

In a prepared statement, Peterson said the beverage "vitalizes body and mind" but "is not a 'thirst quencher' or fluid replenishment drink."

The company's Web site, however, recommends Red Bull as an "ideal energy drink ... prior to demanding athletic activities, or in a performance drop during a game."

At the Martini Club, the patrons didn't seem to care much about athletic performance. They mixed their Red Bull with vodka, sometimes downing one drink after another. This worries some cardiologists, who say large amounts of either caffeine or alcohol could be dangerous to the heart.

"If they were to drink multiple glasses of this mixture or concoction, I think there'd be a potential for significant danger -- danger such as a racing heart beat, elevation of blood pressure and even potentially a heart attack," said Dr. Laurence Sperling, a cardiologist at the Emory University School of Medicine.

In her statement, Peterson said that "Red Bull does not actively market itself as a mixer for alcohol drinks."

But on the question-and-answer page on its Web site, the company gives that practice a whole-hearted endorsement: "Can you mix Red Bull with alcohol? Yes!"

The Web site states that a "medical report by the 'Institute for Legal Medicine' of the University of Munich" confirms that Red Bull has no effect on the alcohol metabolism."

But Applegate said she is worried that people who ingest a lot of caffeine, a stimulant, along with a lot of alcohol, which has a tranquilizing effect, won't realize how drunk they really are.

"I'm concerned that they may drink more than they would have without the caffeine, because of that alert feeling, and perhaps go out and drive a car," she said.

Still, Applegate added that she doesn't think the drinks are necessarily unhealthy, so long as they are consumed without alcohol. But she also said that while they might be energizing, they are no more so than anything else with the same amount of caffeine.

• National Association of Sports Nutrition
• USDA Food & Nutrition Information Center
• The World of Red Bull

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