The new millennium has ushered in a wave of synthetic, high-energy drinks targeted at the youth market. Over the past ten years, the consumption of caffeinated beverages intended to “energise” has increased significantly. Increasingly, toxicity from caffeine overdose is being reported to hospitals and poisons centres.
The intended effects of energy drinks are to provide sustenance and improve performance, concentration and endurance. Manufacturers pitch their product to athletes, students and people in professions that require sustained alertness.
The main active constituents of energy drinks include varying amounts of caffeine, guarana extract, taurine and ginseng. But what makes these man-made energy drinks so much more appealing than naturally caffeinated drinks like coffee?
The things that are most attractive about energy drinks are the other ingredients other than caffeine, which tea and coffee do not contain. But what do guarana extract, taurine and ginseng really do?
As it turns out, these things all pretty much do the same thing as caffeine. Each of the ingredients are stimulants that cause activity in the central nervous system to increase. Guarana extract is actually just another source of caffeine itself, just another plant like coffee that naturally contains caffeine. Due to the laws restricting caffeine levels in synthetic beverages, guarana extract in energy drinks actually does not increase the caffeine levels, it is just coming from a different source.
Taurine is slightly more interesting. It is produced by the body in low levels and is found in fish and meat. Early research suggests that taking taurine plus caffeine or a combination product containing taurine, caffeine, glucuronolactone, and B vitamins (such as in the Red Bull Energy Drink) reduces sleepiness and improves reaction time in people who are sleep deprived. However, there is a lack of evidence to sufficiently support this hypothesis.
Different varieties of ginseng root have been used as treatments in Asia and North America for centuries. Ginseng is one of the most popular herbal medicines in the world. There is some early evidence that ginseng might temporarily - and modestly - improve concentration and learning. In some studies of mental performance, ginseng has been combined with ginkgo. While these studies are intriguing, many experts feel that we need more evidence.
While energy drinks may seem like they have some magical ingredient that keeps you awake, there is insufficient evidence to support that either taurine or ginseng increase alertness and concentration at all. It is more likely just the combination of the maximum caffeine content and high levels of sugar that are stopping you from falling asleep, so you would be just as good having a strong cup of coffee.