QUESTION: “Hey Dr. Neal, I listen to your podcast, as well as Optimal Living Daily every day, usually during my commute home from work. The information you share on this show has benefited my life in a lot of ways and I love sharing my favorite episodes with my wife. My wife loves coffee for her choice in caffeine, but I usually go with sugar free energy drinks.
I always hear that energy drinks are unhealthy, but it's usually followed up by saying because they have too much sugar. Are sugar free energy drinks unhealthy for other reasons? And is it healthier to switch to sugar free coffee? Thank you for all that you do.”
DR. NEAL: Thank you so much for your question and for your kind words. And thank you for sharing your favorite episodes!
Like your wife, I like me some coffee. A few weeks ago on this very podcast, I basically professed my love of coffee – it was like a love letter.
It sounds like your preferred caffeine sources are sugar-free energy drinks. So, let’s discuss the potential health effects of both.
First, energy drinks. It seems like energy drinks have been around for a while. But in the scientific community, they are still considered somewhat new.
I mean, think about how long coffee and tea have been around when compared to energy drinks: we’re talking thousands of years vs. less than a hundred. As a result, we have lots and lots of studies on the health effects of coffee and tea, but not as many on energy drinks.
And when new products are introduced into the marketplace, the science has to catch up. It had been a little while since I looked up the latest research on energy drinks. So, I appreciated your question, because I needed an excuse to revisit this topic.
I guess I should define what these drinks are. Unfortunately, I can’t. That’s because there isn’t an agreed-upon definition by regulatory agencies like the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) or the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
So for now, these drinks refer to beverages that contain caffeine in combination with other ingredients such as taurine, guarana, and B vitamins, and that claims to provide its consumers with extra energy. In fact, some energy drinks are classified as “liquid dietary supplements.”
Either way, examples of some of the more popular energy drinks are Red Bull, Monster and 5-Hour Energy.
The Research on Energy Drinks
About 3 years ago, I could confidently say that the research on energy drinks and their effects on our overall health was not good. Meaning, the large majority of published studies found that energy drinks increased disease risk.
But, again, science can change really quickly – what was once considered unhealthy may now be thought of as “not so bad after all.”
Well, when it comes to these drinks, that doesn’t seem to be the case. The news on energy drinks wasn’t good 3 years ago and it’s still not good now. Most health experts agree that the issue with energy drinks isn’t necessarily their caffeine, but the amount of added sugar they contain as well as some of the other added ingredients.
For example, like I mentioned before, some energy drinks add ingredients like taurine, guarana, and even L-carnitine. There are some problems with adding these types of ingredients – they aren’t regulated all that well and companies often underreport how much of these are actually found in their products.
In fact, extra L-carnitine can increase a person’s risk of developing cardiovascular disease. And it when it comes to studying the effects of energy drink consumption on health, there are concerns that drinking them regularly may increase risk for developing high blood pressure and even liver failure.
How Many Energy Drinks Can I Safely Consume?
So, right now, the recommendations are to limit how many servings of these drinks are consumed each day, even if they are sugar-free. ConsumerLab.com recommends that we limit ourselves to no more than:
- 2 cans of Red Bull per day, or
- 1 bottle of 5-hour Energy
If you consume either of these, it’s recommended that you avoid other caffeinated products or stimulants. Now, you might be wondering about other brands of energy drinks? What are the recommendations for those? Well, I can’t say. This is because other energy drink manufacturers don’t list their nutrient information, or what they do list is incorrect.
So, the bottom line when it comes to energy beverages is this: if you’re consuming sugar-free varieties, that’s an improvement. But it might be worthwhile to wean off of them entirely until we have more research to know whether there are any benefits to consuming them.
Health Benefits of Coffee
So that was obviously the not-so-good news. Let’s discuss something a bit more positive. Coffee.
Researchers have repeatedly found that 3-4 cups of plain coffee consumed each day, no sugar and no cream added, may protect against:
- Type 2 diabetes
- Colon cancer
- Liver cancer
- Parkinson’s Disease
- Cardiovascular disease
The following video from Health Magazine shares more health benefits of coffee:
And, if you want to improve your endurance during your next cardio session, consuming 1 cup of plain coffee an hour or two before the workout may help. Now, of course, drinking coffee is not for everyone.
For those with underlying conditions like heartburn, irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, and women that are pregnant or lactating may want to limit their coffee intake or stay away from it altogether. Others may be sensitive to the effects of caffeine in coffee.
So if you find you feel restless or can’t fall asleep after drinking coffee, then it may not be right for you. It’s always good to double-check these things with your doctor.
The Bottom Line
So, here’s the overall bottom line: if you can stand it, I would recommend switching from sugar-free energy drinks to plain, black coffee. Right now, it seems as though the health benefits of consuming plain coffee far outweigh any potential benefits and risks of consuming energy drinks, even the sugar-free ones.