Brands Are Trying to Make ‘Healthy’ Energy Drinks a Thing—but This Expert Isn’t Totally Convinced

Photo: Getty Images/Eric Audras
Energy drinks have traditionally been seen as the beverage version of whipping out a cigarette—you just don't expect them among the healthy, yoga-doing, green-juice-sipping wellness set.

So you'll understand my surprise at seeing a crop of new energy drinks marketing themselves as better-for-you options. These new options tout natural, herbal benefits, and are enriched with electrolytes, B vitamins, and other science-backed ingredients. The latest on the market is 7-Eleven's Quake, which has "electrolytes, creatine, COQ10 and branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs)," according to a press release. That ingredient list, at face value, sounds a lot like what's being added into souped-up protein powders and nootropic supplements. Which begs the question: Can energy drinks ever double as health tonics?

How brands are switching their energy-boosting ingredients

While in years past, energy drinks consisted primarily of carbonated water, artificial colors, and a ton of caffeine, more brands are incorporating herbs into their beverages for an energy boost. MatchaBar's Hustle, for example, using ceremonial grade matcha and green tea extract, while Mati uses organic dried guayusa leaves.

Registered dietitian and performance nutrition expert Shawn Wells, RD, is a major energy drink skeptic, but he does say he prefers these herbal caffeine sources over synthetic caffeine. "The vast majority of energy drinks use synthetic caffeine, which isn't necessarily bad, but it's pure caffeine," he says, adding that it's cheap and readily available. "Some brands use green tea extract or other herbs, but very minuscule amounts, only doing it so they can put it on the label," he says. Wells' pro tip: read the ingredients list to see if caffeine is listed as an ingredient along with the herbs. (For the record, neither MatchaBar Hustle or Mati use synthetic caffeine.)

As for the herbs in general, Wells says they can have a powerful effect. Green tea extract is a common one, and he says guayusa leaves from the Amazon have been used in energy supplements for the past 15 years. Revive Energy Supplement uses a blend of d-ribose (a unique sugar linked to improving heart health), ubidecarenone (a coenzyme linked to mitochondria health), and carnitine (linked to brain health). "I like that this brand gives full transparency about the doses they are using, and the doses are actually legitimate, study-based doses, which I respect."

Of course herbal energy sources aren't the only ingredients you'll find on the label. Take the aforementioned 7-Eleven's Quake, which includes electrolytes, creatine (linked to athletic performance), COQ10 (a coenzyme that may lower blood pressure), and BCAAs (amino acids linked to boosting muscle growth and athletic performance). Wells doesn't take issue with any of these ingredients ("they may or may not be beneficial, but they are innocuous," he says), but he does point out another ingredient that is controversial: sucralose (aka Splenda). "We don't know a whole lot about it," he says, although some research has found links between artificial sweeteners and weight gain, increased hunger, and disrupted gut health.

This, he says, is a major point he wants to make about energy drinks: They may have nutrients linked to being beneficial to the body, but often, they include other ingredients that are actually inflammatory, too. "You also don't know how much of the nutrients are in these drinks because the brands almost never share the dosage," he says.

Surprisingly, Wells was somewhat impressed by Red Bull's sugar-free and organic options. ("Though it would be cool if they had an organic, sugar-free drink," he says.) "The caffeine dose is actually moderate [it has 80 milligrams compared to MatchaBar Hustle's 120 milligrams], and contains taurine, which is an ingredient I really like because it's an amino acid shown to benefit brain and heart health," Wells says. However, the sugar-free version uses aspartame and acesulfame K, artificial sweeteners that Wells says can cause negative effects like too much hyperactivity and increased hunger. So this option isn't perfect, either.

Can energy drinks ever be healthy?

While it's clear that some energy drinks are definitely using healthier ingredients, Wells says it really comes down to how they're used. "If someone is having one on a rare day where they're feeling fatigued and need to power though the day, that's one thing. But if someone is relying on energy drinks everyday, it's masking the issue of poor sleep hygiene, which is really the bigger issue," he says.

As for those days when you really do need a lift, Wells' advice is to go for an energy drink with a more moderate level of caffeine (around 80 milligrams) or one that doesn't have caffeine at all, like the Revive powder. Do your label reading and go for one that's low in sugar, void of controversial sugar substitutes like sucralose and aspartame, and seek out a brand that offers transparency on the dosages of their nutrients. With these guidelines in mind, you can feel pretty good—at least better—about what you're putting in your body, and (bonus!) you'll actually have the energy to appreciate it.

Even the Four Loko founder has undergone a healthy makeover. And here's the deal on if coffee is good for you.  

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