“The goal [of functional energy drinks] is to add nutrients that may help with energy, focus, hydration, and/or immunity,” says registered dietitian Jessica Isaacs, RD, a board-certified specialist in sports dietetics who focuses on performance nutrition for competitive athletes and high-performing recreational athletes. Over the past few years, the focus for energy drink brands changed from boosting your energy to also supporting your health goals and complementing a healthy, active lifestyle.
That being said, if those claims sound pretty vague to you, you're not alone. Is the new wave of functional energy drinks actually any better for you than options like Red Bull and Rockstar, or is the marketing for each brand just really good (I mean, who isn't exhausted and in search of a simple way to boost their energy, immunity, and so on right now)? Let’s see what a sports registered dietitian has to say on the topic.
How functional and conventional energy drinks compare, according to a sports dietitian
1. Caffeine source
Both functional and conventional energy drinks contain caffeine that can help you feel more alert and active throughout the day. Functional energy drinks brands like Celcius and ZOA place a very intentional emphasis on their drinks containing natural caffeine (or “clean caffeine”—whatever that means) that’s naturally extracted from plant products, unlike synthetic caffeine that’s produced in a lab.
While natural caffeine may seem like a better option than synthetic when it comes to energy drinks, Isaacs says that your body actually recognizes both forms of caffeine as the same thing since they have identical chemical structures. “There's been some research on whether or not synthetic caffeine has a faster rate of absorption [in the body], but there hasn’t been any conclusive evidence that it does absorb much faster or have a different response in the body [than natural caffeine],” she adds. So really, the main distinction between the two is the sourcing method for caffeine.
2. Vitamin and mineral content
Up until the creation of functional energy drinks, most of us probably didn’t turn to Red Bull or Monster to get certain vitamins or minerals. But brands like ZOA, Starbucks Baya, Celsius, A SHOC, and OCA quickly piqued people’s interest once discovering one can contains 80 to 100 percent of the recommended daily intake for certain vitamins and minerals. ZOA is one example of a functional energy drink that’s “packed with immune-promoting vitamin C” while Starbucks Baya is “crafted with antioxidant vitamin C for immune support,” making it very clear that this new wave of drinks is looking to offer energy-boosting drinks that make it easier to get your vitamins in. But are there any benefits to getting your daily intake of vitamin C and other vitamins from an energy drink?
According to Isaacs, it depends. “If you're not meeting your vitamin C needs through your diet, there may be a benefit there, but there are plenty of other whole food sources of these vitamins,” she says. Consuming energy drinks with high amounts of vitamins could also leave you at risk of over-supplementing and taking too much of them. If you’re a huge fan of C4, an energy drink that contains 190 percent of the recommended daily intake of niacin (also known as vitamin B3 that helps your body convert food into energy), this can cause skin flushing and redness in the face if consumed in higher amounts than what your body needs.
Isaacs emphasizes there can be value in the vitamins and minerals found in these energy drinks, but excess amounts are probably going to be excreted out in your urine if you’re not deficient. “We shouldn't really be looking for an energy drink to get in these nutrients ideally, especially because our body doesn't [fully] absorb the vitamins and different nutrients they contain.” For some people, there may be a time and a place for supplemental forms of these vitamins, but pounding these beverages to do so might not be the best method, Isaacs says.
3. Safety regulation
Despite the marketing claims that functional energy drinks are healthier alternatives to options like Red Bull, this may not always be the case. Energy drinks can have either a nutrition label or supplement facts label depending on the manufacturer—and both options of which have different levels of safety regulation.
“Depending on if the energy drink is labeled with supplement facts or nutrition facts, [there's a varying chance] that the information is accurate,” Isaacs says. “A nutrition facts label is going to carry a lot more scrutiny from the FDA as far as what the ingredients are and what's going in it, but energy drinks—which are considered supplements—are not as well-regulated as other food items.”
For example, Celsius heavily advertises their MetaPlus blend—that consists of ginger root, guarana seed extract, chromium, vitamins, green tree extract, and epigallocatechin gallate—which they claim has been found to boost your metabolism. These various ingredients do indeed offer some health benefits, but as Isaacs adds, “there is no regulation requiring them to provide information as to how much of each ingredient this blend contains or if it’s even a beneficial amount.”
She elaborates that some drinks may also include banned substances for competitive athletes, like guarana seed extract, which is currently banned by the NCAA, which is something to keep in mind if you’re an athlete. The good news, however, is that some options are third-party tested for safety and NSF Certified for Sport like C4 and Red Bull. “I appreciate when a brand does that, because it allows me to calm some of the claims concerns I would initially jump out at,” Isaacs says. She recommends choosing options that are third-party tested for label accuracy and meeting certain safety conditions, especially if a functional or conventional energy drink is categorized as a supplement.
4. Muscle growth support
The main purpose of conventional energy drinks is to provide energy and not much else, but brands like ZOA—which is created by the Rock, arguably one of the most popular celebrities in the fitness industry—claim that their drinks support muscle growth by offering branched-chain amino acids (BCAA) and electrolytes to keep you hydrated. “Branched-chain amino acids are the building blocks to protein and there are several amino acids—some of which we can make in our bodies and some we have to get through our diet,” Isaacs says. “If you’re getting enough protein in your diet, [then] you don’t need to be getting extra BCAAs [from an energy drink] for muscle growth.”
But what if I struggle to get enough protein through my diet? Well, energy drinks still may not support muscle growth considering you need around five to seven grams of branched-chain amino acids to see any real benefits and ZOA only offers about 250 milligrams [or 0.25 grams], points out Isaacs.
5. Thermogenic properties
Supplements or energy drinks that are considered thermogenic claim to generate heat in the body, which naturally happens when your body burns calories. “Energy drinks with thermogenic properties claim to accelerate your metabolism and burn body fat, but research shows that it's unlikely to produce any meaningful change in metabolism or body fat burning on its own,” says Isaacs. “Perhaps in combination with dietary changes and exercise [this might help], but energy drinks claiming to be able to do it alone are not going to do much or yield many benefits.”
Even if a drink contains certain blends specifically formulated to turn on thermogenesis (the dissipation of energy through the production of heat), Isaacs explains that “it’s unclear how much of each ingredient in the blend is in the product to begin with, so it’s hard to say that this drink alone is going to do these things.”
6. Sugar content
There’s tons of science-backed information that highlights how consuming too much sugar can negatively impact your health—and considering how sugary energy drinks can be, many people have shifted towards options that are either low in sugar or sugar-free. Most brands in the most recent wave of energy drinks take pride in just how little to no sugar they contain, or use natural sources of sugar rather than high fructose corn syrup.
While it is important to be mindful of how much added sugar we’re consuming, Isaacs does believe there could be times where it may be appropriate to have an energy drink with added sugars compared to sugar-free options. “I will regularly have my athletes consume foods that have added sugars around the time of energy expenditure because they're going to be simple forms of sugar that our body can convert into energy really quickly,” she says. “And sometimes those products that have the additional added sugars are easier to consume and can be easier on the stomach [compared to zero calorie sweeteners], so there's time and a place for it.” Everything in moderation, as they say.
So, are functional energy drinks actually better for you than conventional options?
According to Isaacs, it all depends on which you like the most and how often in a day you’re consuming energy drinks (which the FDA advises not exceeding more than 400 milligrams per day or four to five cups of coffee). “If you’re regularly drinking them to get nutrients out of them or drinking them because you’re always tired, then we need to pull back and look at some other things that are going on,” Isaacs says. “But overall, they're probably all okay in moderation and have a similar impact on athletic performance.” Just keep an eye out for certain brands that include banned substances if you’re a competitive athlete.
You may also want to be mindful when you’re consuming energy drinks, especially if you’re working out on an empty stomach in the morning (eek). “It's typically better to wait a couple of hours before getting your caffeine fix in the morning, because it allows your body's natural cortisol levels to peak and allows you to naturally kind of wake up and get going,” Isaacs says. “When you consume caffeine at that two-hour mark [after waking up], it allows your body to do what it does naturally without disrupting your cortisol levels.” Cortisol is a stress hormone that influences your fight-or-flight response during certain situations.
Isaacs also suggests checking out other ways to boost your energy that can help enhance athletic performance. “Fruit [before a workout] would be a great option since it has that natural sugar and vitamins these energy drinks are advertising, but from the whole food source,” she says. “Whole food options are going to provide calories and carbohydrates your body can convert into actual energy, versus caffeine which is a stimulant and performance enhancer.”
Some examples of pre-workout snacks she suggests are fresh fruit, dried fruit, fruit leathers, fruit chews, applesauce packets, bread, or energy waffles.
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