Do Energy Shots Actually Work?
By Leslie Bonci, RD
Energy shots are not going away anytime soon. Companies that produce them generate over $7 billion in annual revenue. You know the spiel:” Down a 2-oz energy shot and you’ll be greeted with a refreshing, sustained boost in energy and no unpleasant side effects.” The energy shots tremendous success speaks to its appeal, but where exactly does the “energy boost” promised come from? Let’s take a closer look at the ingredients to separate fact from fiction when it comes to this popular product.
What’s In a typical energy shot? Energy shots are compact. At just 1.93 fluid ounces, they can be downed within seconds. It’s important to know that energy shots are defined as “dietary supplements.” The government defines a product as a dietary supplement largely based off what they are not — namely, if they are consumed orally and are not conventional foods, medical foods, preservatives or pharmaceutical drugs, they’re usually defined as a dietary supplement.
So, we can’t think of these products the same way we do traditional food and drink — we must approach them as supplements. Like most dietary supplements, energy shots don’t offer much in terms of major nutrients. In fact, there’s no fat, carbohydrates, sugar, protein or fiber inside most energy shots. That’s why each bottle contains just four calories. But here’s what you will find in a typical energy shot:
- Niacin, 150% DV (recommended daily value)
- Vitamin, B6 2,000% DV
- Folic Acid, 100% DV
- Vitamin B12, 8,333% DV
- Energy Blend 1,870mg (includes 200mg of caffeine)
In terms of actual ingredients, here’s what you’re ingesting:
- Niacinamide (Niacin)
- Pyridoxine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B6)
- Folic Acid
- Cyanocobalamin (Vitamin B12)
- Purified Water
- Natural and Artificial Flavors
- Potassium Sorbate
- Sodium Benzoate
- Glucuronic Acid
- Malic Acid
- N-Acetyl L-Tyrosine
That’s upwards of 20 ingredients in a shot that contains fewer than 2 fluid ounces. What function do these ingredients have?
What Do the Ingredients in Energy Shots Do?
Let’s start with the B vitamins. Niacin is another name for Vitamin B3, and Folic Acid is another name for Vitamin B9, so you’re looking at very high amounts of four different B vitamins in each energy shot. B vitamins help your body turn food into usable energy, so they are incredibly important. If you’re severely deficient in B vitamins, you will indeed feel tired, because your body will have trouble executing the chemical reactions needed to turn carbs, fat and protein into energy. But B vitamin deficiencies are not common, especially if you eat a varied, well-balanced diet. If you have adequate levels of B vitamins, ingesting more of them won’t further boost your energy levels. And even if you are deficient, simply taking a shot with a ton of B vitamins in it isn’t going to magically make you feel energized. Addressing a significant vitamin deficiency takes time and consistent changes in your daily diet or supplementation.
While the extreme amounts of B vitamins (particularly B6 and B12) found in energy shots may be concerning at first glance, there seems to be little harm in consuming such amounts on an occasional basis (recent research) shows consuming high amounts on a regular basis for an extended period of time may put smokers at a higher risk of lung cancer, however). B vitamins are water-soluble, so the vast majority of B vitamins people ingest via an energy shot are going to end up in the toilet. That brings us to the “energy blend” found in each energy shot. It often consists of citicoline, tyrosine, phenylalanine, taurine, malic acid, glucuronolactone and caffeine. According to Examine, an independent site that collates scientific research and disseminates information on supplementation and nutrition, citicoline seems to have a minor positive effect on cognition. There’s little conclusive evidence it boosts energy. Same goes for tyrosine. L-Phenylalanine is an essential amino acid, meaning we must get it via diet or supplementation. It helps build protein inside our body. It’s commonly found in meat, fish, eggs and dairy products. It’s been found to be have anti-depressive qualities, but little is known about how it effects energy levels in healthy people.
Taurine is also an amino acid, but a non-essential one. This means our body naturally produces it. It may be helpful for reducing anxiety, but the evidence for its energy-boosting abilities is mixed at best. Malic acid, an organic compound, is the main acid in many fruits. Like B vitamins, it helps us convert food into energy. Per Examine, Glucuronolactone is “a molecule commonly found as a component of energy drink formulations with surprisingly minimal research on it; studies ‘disassembling’ the constituents of energy drinks suggest (it has) no significant contribution towards energy.”
So, the first six ingredients in most energy blends shouldn’t be expected to provide you with the instant energy boost energy shots promise in their marketing materials. That’s where the final ingredient of the blend comes in—caffeine. At 200mg per serving, your standard energy shot contains an amount of caffeine comparable to a Grande Starbucks Iced Coffee. While the other ingredients in the energy blend may have a small effect, caffeine is the real secret behind the energy boost people associate with energy shots.
Often referred to as the world’s most popular drug, caffeine is a “powerful stimulant that can be used to improve physical strength and endurance.” Caffeine promotes alertness by attaching to the same receptors that uptake adenosine, a compound responsible for making us sleepy. By blocking that adenosine, the number of excitatory neurotransmitters in our brain increases. Thus, we feel less tired and more energized.
While caffeine’s stimulating abilities are quite well-known, it also has some powerful benefits for athletes. Studies have found a comparable amount of caffeine to that contained in most energy shots can help reduce pain during exercise, reduce perceived pain after exercise and delay exhaustion.
According to Ryan Andrews, RD and nutrition coach at Precision Nutrition, “Caffeine, studied in its isolated form, has been found to be one of the most tried and true performance enhancing substances of all time. It can basically just help you get that extra push you need during an athletic performance.”
A 200mg dose of caffeine has also been found to enhance “memory consolidation” (essentially the process of turning a short-term memory into a long-term memory). The noticeable effects of caffeine typically last four to six hours.
While pre-workout caffeine supplementation certainly has some benefit for athletes, they should not fall into the trap of believing an energy shot is a sufficient pre-workout snack. Your body needs carbs to fuel exercise, and most energy shots don’t contain any. If your body doesn’t have sufficient carbs to fuel your activity, you’ll feel sluggish and out of sorts. “Human bodies don’t necessarily stop when they run out of carbs, but they do slow down,” says Roberta Anding, Sports Dietitian for the Houston Astros. Energy shots cannot replace the crucial role real food plays in performance nutrition.
The remaining ingredients inside energy shots are purified water, natural and artificial flavors, sucraclose (a no-calorie artificial sweetener), and a host of common food additives that are generally considered safe (potassium sorbate, sodium benzoate and EDTA).
Are Energy Shots Safe? While the ingredients are all relatively safe, is there any potential danger in consuming most energy shots?
Most say that woman who are pregnant or nursing and children should avoid the product, but that’s standard procedure for any product that contains significant amounts of caffeine. People diagnosed with phenylketonuria, a condition where the body cannot adequately metabolize phenylalanine, should keep away, as well. They also warn you should check with a doctor before taking the product if you’re currently on any prescription medications or have a medical condition.
Additionally, most companies warn against taking more than two bottles daily. And if you do take two bottles, they should be consumed several hours apart. The compact nature of energy shots means they can be downed in mere seconds, making them more susceptible to abuse than a steaming cup of hot coffee, so this is wise advice. Although 400 mg of caffeine per day is generally considered safe for healthy adults, and 2.5mg per kg of body weight is generally considered safe for healthy adolescents, consuming too much caffeine too fast can bring about side effects like rapid heartbeat, agitation and nausea. Ingesting extreme amounts of caffeine during a short period of time can even lead to death.
But for healthy people who are not overly sensitive to caffeine, could energy shots pose any other risks?
Apparently a “niacin flush” is a common enough side effect to earn several mentions on the company’s official website. A niacin flush occurs in some people after they ingest high amounts of niacin in a short period of time. The high amounts of niacin cause increased blood flow around the skin, resulting in red skin (most commonly on the face) accompanied by a burning or itching sensation. While a “niacin flush” can be a frightening experience, it’s ultimately harmless and typically resolves itself within an hour or two. Marketing says taking half a bottle of an energy shot at a time is an easy way to avoid this side effect.
For most people, taking an energy shot now and again is largely harmless. You’d likely receive much more benefit from a cup of coffee thanks to its abundance of organic acids and antioxidants, but if you’re in a pinch and need a pick-me-up, an energy shot will suffice. However, if you are new to the product, we recommend first attempting it in a low-risk environment so you can monitor any side effects you may have.
While energy shots can help give you a “boost” of energy the same way a cup of joe can, the best way to keep your energy levels high throughout the day is by eating a varied, well-balanced diet. If you find yourself constantly relying on energy shots to get through the day, you should examine your lifestyle and diet choices to try to pinpoint the cause of your consistent fatigue.
Nutritional supplements and functional foods that have not been certified under the NSF Certified for Sport program cannot be made available to MLB or MiLB players.
For information on energy drinks…http://baseballstrength.org/energy-drinks-before-practice-and-games/
Leslie Bonci, MPH, RD, LDN, CSSD is a Sports Dietitian who has worked with numerous professional, collegiate and Olympic teams. For more information on sports nutrition, please see her book, Bonci, Leslie. Sport Nutrition for Coaches, Human Kinetics, 2009