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Published: Tuesday, 2/8/2011

Intrepid food editor takes the plunge into popular energy shots

Jesse Lazear allowed himself to be bitten by a mosquito carrying yellow fever. Max von Pettenkofer drank water with cholera bacteria in it. Norman Bethune collapsed his own lung when he had tuberculosis.

They have nothing on me. I intentionally drank several of those 2-ounce energy drinks. Not all at the same time, though. That would be ridiculous.

The ads for these energy shots are ubiquitous, especially on late-night television. Typically, attractive young people talk about how bedraggled they feel in mid-afternoon, then they take a sip from an energy drink, and then they smile.

They actually smile. Which only proves they aren't truly drinking the stuff.

Let's ignore, for a moment, the drinks' stated intention of providing a boost of energy, and talk instead about the taste.

I've tried berry flavor. I've tried orange. I've tried whatever Red Bull is supposed to be. But it all tastes like parts of New Jersey.

An astringent, super-sweet taste floods over the tongue, but it's not nearly enough to cover up the metallic, chemical aftertaste. It's medicinal, sort of like Kool-Aid-flavored cough syrup.

The problem is that while caffeine has no taste of its own, it stimulates the bitter receptors on the taste buds. Energy drinks are primarily caffeine delivery systems, and something intensely, gut-churningly sweet has to be added to mask that bitterness. And they don't even use sugar, because the 2-ounce size shots are all sugar-free.

Why sugar-free? That's one of the drinks' main selling points. Sugar provides a surge of energy, but when it wears off it causes your energy level to drop. These drinks avoid that sudden blood-sugar crash by using the artificial sweetener sucralose, which is what is found in Splenda .

"Hours of energy now — No crash later!" is what it says on the bottles of 5-Hour Energy, which is the most aggressive advertiser of the drinks. The company sells 7 million of the bottles a week, according to spokesman Elaine Lutz.

"There's a broad range of busy, active, or working adults who use our product when they are looking for an energy boost to help them when they are experiencing an afternoon lull (i.e. the 2:30 feeling), having a hectic morning and don't have time for that cup of coffee, or just want an extra boost," Ms. Lutz wrote in an e-mail. Representatives from Red Bull did not return phone calls and e-mails requesting comments for this story.

I tried a regular 5-Hour Energy, an Extra-Strength 5-Hour Energy, and a Red Bull Sugarfree Shot. None of them caused the dreaded energy crash. But did they deliver on their promise of boosting energy and alertness?

Well, yes. To a degree.

Red Bull says it "Vitalizes body and mind." The logo for 5-Hour Energy shows a man bounding up a mountain. But that may be overstating it a bit.

Red Bull clearly states on the label, though in fairly small type, that it "contains caffeine comparable to a cup of premium coffee." 5-Hour Energy, in a similar-sized type, makes the same claim, though with the phrase "leading premium coffee." The Extra-Strength version "contains caffeine comparable to 12 ounces of the leading premium coffee." It doesn't state what the leading premium coffee is, but it's a good bet it rhymes with "Warbucks."

So for all that hype about "helping you recapture the bright, alert feeling you need to power through your day," the result is just about the same as drinking a cup or a cup and a half of coffee at Warbucks. The difference is that you drink it fast, all at once. It "takes just seconds to take, so it gets in your system fast," according to the 5-Hour Energy Web site.

When I drank each bottle, I became slightly aware of the blood pulsing in the back of my head. It wasn't a headache at all, but more like the feeling you get when your blood pressure rises. The sensation lasted no more than a minute or two. When I drank the 5-Hour Energy drink, my face felt a little flushed as well, probably for less than a minute. And the 5-Hour Energy drinks both noticeably made me salivate, and not in a good way — it was like my mouth was trying to flush out the flavor.

Did I feel a rush of energy? Perhaps slightly, at first. Was I more alert and aware? Maybe just a little. Did it make me feel more awake?

No. But I didn't feel sleepy, either, and I tried each one at the drowsiest time of mid-afternoon.

In other words, it was basically like drinking a cup of coffee. But it costs more — at $2.99 a shot, it is more expensive than coffee even at those fancy shops.

Energy drinks can cause a problem, said Jennifer Christner of the University of Michigan Health System, because caffeine can cause a problem. It can lead to "trouble sleeping, insomnia, jitteriness, nervousness, headaches. You can even get headaches from withdrawal or from chronic caffeine consumption," she said.

In addition, she said, it can lead to an increased heart rate or blood pressure.

Dr. Christner, who is a pediatrician, said that "in children or adolescents, there is no reason I would ever endorse drinking any caffeine." It is safer for adults, she said. While she noted that everyone has a different sensitivity to caffeine, and that tolerance to it can be affected by how much one has consumed in the past, most adults who are not pregnant and do not have heart conditions can safely consume anywhere from 100-300 mg of caffeine a day.

"If you go over that, there can be some negative effects on the body," she said.

A 2-ounce Red Bull Sugarfree Shot contains 80 mg of caffeine — which, as noted, is about the same as a cup of ordinary brewed coffee (drip coffee has more). Ms. Lutz said the amount of caffeine in 5-Hour Energy is "a proprietary trade secret," but said it is about the same as a cup of premium coffee. In comparison, a No-Doz caffeine caplet, long favored by truck drivers and college students, contains 200 mg of caffeine.

The 5-Hour Energy label reads "Do not exceed two bottles daily, consumed several hours apart," and recommends that newcomers drink just half a bottle, 1 ounce, at a time. The Red Bull Web site says that the number of shots one can consume in a day "depends on your tolerance of its caffeine content."

The energy drinks all also contain other ingredients that they claim also boost energy, though most of these claims have not been substantiated by the Food and Drug Administration. Taurine, an amino acid, is in them, along with Glucuronolactone, which is a carbohydrate, and Vitamin B6 and B12, among others. The companies state that Taurine and Glucuronolactone are naturally found in the human body and are in many fruits and vegetables, and that they help eliminate toxic substances from the body.

Dr. Christner disagrees. "The nutritional value of the supplements added are of questionable benefit," she said.

One problem that Dr. Christner finds is that some adolescents and young adults in particular are combining energy drinks with alcohol as a way to counter alcohol's tendency to make the over-consumer feel sleepy.

"When they take energy drinks, they don't feel as impaired, although there are studies that show they are just as impaired," she said.

Indeed, when I told a friend I was working on this story, she suggested I should mix Red Bull with vodka.

"Well, that would certainly dilute the taste," I said.

Contact Daniel Neman at:

dneman@theblade.com

or 419-724-6155.



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