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Drink to your health

July 23, 2011
By GLYNIS VALENTI - Staff Writer ( , Times Leader

It's hot. You're sweating. Maybe you've been working in the yard, or maybe you're sprawled out in the hammock. You reach for a nice, cold, refreshing

What? What (non-alcoholic) beverage do you use to quench your thirst? Do you power up with energy drinks during the day? Do you drink diet sodas to dodge calories and sugar? The myths are mighty when it comes to the beverage industry. The hype, marketing and profits are even mightier.

The Coca-Cola Company ( boasts "800 low and no-calorie beverages" in their portfolio. Fifty-one percent ($30.6 billion, yes, billion) of PepsiCo's revenue comes from their beverages. That's a lot of Nutra-Sweet, Splenda and high fructose corn syrup. Additionally, the energy drink industry alone (i.e. Rockstar, Monster, Red Bull) expects to rake in about $9 billion.

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Energy drinks like Rockstar contain concentrations of caffeine and sugar to enhance alertness and combat fatigue, but should be used sparingly.

Pepsi's corporate website,, oddly enough rivals their counterpart's "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing" aura, touting their sustainability practices and diversity awards, and both companies assure their customers that all sweeteners used are approved by the FDA. It's really about money and telling their customers what their customers want to hear. Nowhere is this more apparent than on Monster Energy's site ( ) where "products" is the next to the last item on the site list after Sports, Athletes, Bands & Music, Celebrities and Monster Girls.

A look at terminology and the whole story will help you make intelligent decisions for your health and your family's health. For this article's purpose, the focus will be on energy drinks, carbonated sodas and sports drinks in bottle sizes as noted.

First, carbonated sodas and sports drinks are classified differently than energy drinks. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) places Coke, Pepsi, Powerade and Snapple in "foods and beverages," whereas Red Bull, Rockstar and the like are viewed as "dietary supplements." Their differences in this case lie not so much with calories or sugar content, but in the caffeine. Most carbonated sodas contain similar amounts of caffeine to a cup of coffee-around 100 mg-and sports drinks contain no caffeine since it dehydrates the body.

Of the most popular energy drinks, Coca-Cola-owned Full Throttle seems to be the most modest with about 200 mg of caffeine per 16 ounce can. In the case of Monster Energy, Monster Absolutely Zero, Loca Moca and Vanilla Lite there is an "energy blend" of 5000 mg consisting of L-Carnitine, caffeine, Glucuronolactone, Inositol, guarana seed extract and Maltodextrin. While most of the blend includes sugar-related energy boosters, guarana is a seed that contains two to four times the caffeine of the coffee bean. Because the drinks have different regulations, Monster is not obligated to list specific amount content. Using Rockstar's Original as a comparable drink, it has a similar energy blend but at 2700 mg, and lists the caffeine content as 160 mg and guarana seed extract at 50 mg per 16 ounce can. The nutrition labels, by the way, list ingredients based on an eight ounce serving, or half a can. When was the last time you drank only half a can? This means that in one 16 ounce Monster drink, you could be taking in 296 mg of caffeine and 92.5 mg of guarana seed extract (with more caffeine)-the equivalent of four cups of coffee.

Jokes about needing morning coffee aside, the effects of caffeine addiction and over-consumption are serious. Too much of this drug can create insomnia, headaches, anxiety, fatigue, seizures, acid reflux, peptic ulcers and hormonal imbalances. An overdose may cause euphoria, disorientation, rapid heart rate, vomiting, hallucinations and cardiac arrest.

The health community is very concerned about teens appearing in emergency rooms having overdosed on these drinks. They are especially harmful to youth with ADHD, diabetes and heart issues. The Rockstar website says "not recommended for children," yet is full of items about music, extreme sports and gaming. Monster's site blatantly promotes the "things you care about" including "action sports, punk rock music, partying, hangin' with the girls and living life on the edge." They all know who buys the products.

Right now, the food industry is working on a set of marketing standards specifically geared toward children which may or may not include the energy drink segment. Pushed into this project when Congress and the Federal Trade Commission came up with suggested guidelines, companies banded together to come up with their own, less stringent rules. Even so, some may need to change some of their recipes to decrease fats and sugars in order to advertise the products, but most likely the green clovers in Lucky Charms will not be made from spinach. Though a plan is expected by the end of the year, there are already murmurs of Republicans in the House delaying the passage of the standards with a feasibility study on industry costs and impacts.

Doctors speculate that part of the issue with energy drinks is confusion about the difference between energy drinks and sports drinks. When you need a quick boost to get through a deadline or fight fatigue in the short-term, energy drinks are designed for that. Sports drinks, made popular by athletes, help the body replenish fluids and nutrients lost mainly from sweating.

Experts agree that the best way to hydrate the body is by drinking water-plain, simple, effective. Generally speaking, for every hour of exercise, you should be drinking 32 ounces to keep the body processes going and replenish fluid lost. Some people are more likely to drink fluids that are flavored, though, so new "waters" and sports drinks were created.

The classic Gatorade (then a mixture of water, sugar, sodium, potassium, phosphate and lemon juice) was created in 1965 at the University of Florida for their athletes. Now owned by PepsiCo, there are three product lines for before, during and after exercise. Obviously there are other companies making their own sports drinks in various flavors with similar ingredients. Used as they are intended, they are safe and satisfying for those who prefer flavor with their workouts.

Concern arises, again, that the drinks are sugary substitutes for healthier beverages. Sports drink nutrition is geared to those expending energy and sweating, rather than those watching television. The most popular bottle size is 32 ounces-four servings, according to the labels. Though the sugar and sodium content is relatively low, the argument is that there is so little nutritional value for sedentary users, why waste the calories and add useless dietary sugar?

The message here is to use the products sparingly or in moderation and with some discretion. Pounding two or three energy or sports drinks down every day is not just nutritionally unwise, but could be the root of severe health issues in a relatively short time of use.

In the next article in this two-part series, artificial sweeteners and carbonated sodas will be in the spotlight.

Valenti can be reached at gvalenti



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