Behind the Buzz: How Much Caffeine is in Energy Drinks

Energy drinks: what’s real, what’s hype, what’s the problem?

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.

Next: Caffeine & Health »

“Caffeine is the most widely consumed drug in the world,” says Bruce Goldberger, Ph.D., a toxicologist at the University of Florida College of Medicine, who recently conducted a study that identified the high caffeine contents of energy drinks. “And it’s addictive,” he adds. While millions of people across the globe safely consume caffeine on a daily basis, Griffiths and Goldberger caution that it can cause health problems, especially in patients who suffer from anxiety or hypertensive disease. Caffeine can also present challenges to children who are extra sensitive to caffeine and cannot easily gauge their own reactions. For this reason, both scientists would like the Food and Drug Administration to require vendors to list the caffeine content on soft drinks.

The FDA has long suggested that soda makers limit caffeine to no more than 65 milligrams per 12-ounce serving. Yet energy drinks often have twice the amount of caffeine of a regular cola, Goldberger says (see box, above). A few brands do suggest a limit to the number of energy drinks any one person should consume in a day, and caution that pregnant women, children and people sensitive to caffeine should abstain.

Next: Caffeine & Athletes »

Both scientists also question the use of energy drinks to enhance performance in young athletes. “It’s a big mistake to program kids so young to think that they can take drugs to perform at a higher level than they can naturally,” Goldberger says. He notes that even the International Olympic Committee declares caffeine illegal at certain levels.

Tell that to Garrett Ruhland, who observed that when some of the water polo players from his school went to the Junior Olympic trials, sponsors everywhere handed them energy drinks.

At home, Ruhland and his friends convinced their school board to ban the sale of caffeinated drinks in their Anaheim high school. “My major hope is to get these drinks banned from all schools in the United States,” he says.

— Allison J. Cleary

Next: How Much Caffeine Is In Your Energy Drink? »

Caffeine Count
Red Bull 8.3 oz. (1 can) 80 mg 110
Rockstar 8 oz. (half a 16-oz. can) 75 mg 120
Amp 8.4 oz. (1 can) 75 mg 120
Coke Classic 12 oz. (1 can) 34 mg 140
Coffee 8 oz. (1 cup) 75 mg & up* 10
*Caffeine content of coffee varies widely depending on roasting and brewing methods.