What’s in energy drinks?
The common ingredients of energy drinks are caffeine, taurine, and vitamins. Energy drinks can also contain further ingredients like glucuronolactone, flavourings, colourings and other additives, which are also permitted in soft drinks. The diversity in composition and taste has increased, so today, there are a large variety of energy drinks on the market.
Caffeine is naturally contained in a variety of plants, like coffee beans, tea leaves, cocoa beans, kola nuts, guarana and yerba mate plants. Caffeine can also be produced synthetically. There is no difference between natural and synthetic caffeine, both are safe to consume.
Caffeine is the characteristic ingredient in energy drinks which typically have a caffeine content of 32 mg per 100 ml. Its stimulating effect has been assessed by scientists for centuries. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) – which is the risk assessment body for food safety in the European Union – positively assessed health claims for caffeine relating to increased endurance performance, endurance capacity and reduction in the rated perceived exertion/effort during exercise.
In the European Union, provisions regarding the labelling of caffeine-containing beverages with a caffeine content of more than 150 mg per litre are in place (Food Information to Consumers Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011). According to this regulation, energy drinks must indicate on their label “High caffeine content. Not recommended for children or pregnant or breastfeeding women” followed by a quantitative indication of the products’ caffeine content expressed in mg per 100ml. These statements can be found on all energy drinks sold in the European Union.
Taurine is a sulphur-containing amino acid, which is not incorporated into proteins but does play a role in many important physiological functions, including retinal and neurological development, osmoregulation, modulation of cellular calcium levels and immune function.
Taurine is present in the daily diet and occurs naturally in food, especially in seafood and meat. Taurine is actively transported to all tissues and is the most abundant intracellular amino acid in the human body. Approximately 0.1 % of the total human body weight come from taurine. Taurine is excreted through urine and bile. The amount of taurine excreted daily varies from individual to individual, and in the same individual from day-to-day. In 1827, the German scientists Friedrich Tiedemann and Leopold Gmelin first isolated taurine from the bile of the ox (latin: Bos Taurus).
However, taurine does not come from bulls. It is synthetically produced and one of the main ingredients in energy drinks. In 2009, in line with numerous health authorities across the world, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) – which is the risk assessment body for food in the European Union – concluded that the exposure of taurine at levels presently used in energy drinks is not of a safety concern. This was confirmed by the EFSA in its scientific opinion on the safety of caffeine (2015).
Sugar is the world’s, predominant sweetener. Granulated sugar, which is often sucrose (also called “table sugar”), is widely used commercially and comes from the sugar cane plant or sugar beet (a root crop). Sucrose is broken down in the body into fructose and glucose.
Energy drinks can be sweetened with sugar or a range of intense sweeteners (e.g. aspartame). The amount of sugar used in energy drinks is comparable to the levels found in popular fruit juices.
Energy drinks can contain a variety of vitamins which have a beneficial effect on the human body. B-group vitamins like niacin, pantothenic acid, vitamin B6 and vitamin B12 are commonly added to energy drinks. They contribute to the normal energy-yielding metabolism and the reduction of tiredness and fatigue. Further, pantothenic acid contributes to mental performance. These functional properties have been confirmed by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) – which is the risk assessment body for food safety in the European Union.
Most energy drinks are fortified with synthetically produced vitamins. The actual vitamin levels of energy drinks are labelled in the nutrition facts section found on the back of each can.
Sugar and gluten-free energy drinks
Sugar-free energy drinks
Some energy drinks are sweetened with sugar (providing caloric energy), but there is also a variety of sugar-free options available. Sugar-free energy drinks may be a possible alternative for diabetics. Sugar-free energy drinks are commonly sweetened with non-nutritive intense sweeteners like aspartame. Sweeteners like aspartame, acesulfame K and sucralose are widely used as replacements for various types of sugar in food and beverage products such as energy drinks. Individuals with diabetes use products containing these sweeteners to control energy and carbohydrate intake.
Sugar-free energy drinks can contain one sweetener, or a combination of different sweeteners (e.g. aspartame, acesulfame K, sucralose). These sweeteners are among the most-tested and most-used sugar substitutes worldwide, and they all have an excellent safety profile. Numerous scientific studies demonstrate that these substances are safe for use as sweetening ingredients.
The safety of these sweeteners has been evaluated by regulatory institutions all over the world (e.g. the Food and Drug Administration in the US). Authorities rely on the safety evaluations of independent scientific advisory bodies such as the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the United States Food and Drug Administration (US FDA), and the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA).
However, energy drinks are classified as normal foodstuffs and marketed accordingly. Within the European Union there are no particular standards for the labeling of foods or beverages made for normal consumption with regard to their suitability for diabetics. Albeit, some energy drink producers voluntary label suitable for diabetics. For further information regarding the consumption of energy drinks related to diseases like diabetes, a medical doctor should be consulted.
Gluten-free energy drinks
Gluten is a protein found in wheat and related grain species. Due to its cohesive and viscoelastic properties, giving a chewy texture in the final product, it is used as an extender in processed foods and is also contained in cosmetics.
Individuals with celiac disease, a permanent intolerance to ingest gluten, show adverse reactions to gluten-containing foods. Affected individuals attempt to avoid all sources of wheat and grain products. A gluten-free diet also requires meticulous reading of the product labels to avoid exposure to hidden sources of gluten.
According to the Food Information to Consumers Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011, gluten has to be labelled if present in the final product. The same applies to energy drinks.