Garrett Ruhland—electrode wires across his chest, his arm in a blood pressure cuff and two friends at his side—looks like a very young cardiac patient. In fact, he is a California freshman high school student conducting an experiment. He guzzles a 16-ounce “energy” drink and within 30 minutes his heart rate is up and his blood pressure is “all over the map.” An hour later, the buzz has passed but Ruhland has difficulty sleeping that night.
Although touting “natural” ingredients like the amino acids arginine, taurine and creatine, or B vitamins and exotic extracts like guarana and ginseng, the “energy” in these drinks, scientists suspect, comes instead from a very familiar source. “The underlying pharmacological mechanism is caffeine, pure and simple,” says Roland Griffiths, Ph.D, a professor in the psychiatry and neuroscience departments at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. “There’s no scientific basis to believing that [other] additives are integral to the stimulating effects of the energy drinks.”
Energy drinks are taking the soft-drink industry by storm; sales are expected to reach $275 million this year. With bold packaging and names like Full Throttle, Amp, Monster, Rockstar and No Fear, these drinks, according to Business Week, are aimed at “mostly male teenagers and 20-somethings,” and are often targeted to such “niche” consumers as extreme-sports enthusiasts, video gamers and hip-hop aficionados. But a number of scientists are questioning whether they are safe for everyone.