Toxicity Profile: REDBULL

redbullcanAnyone who knows me knows that I LOVE drinking RED BULL energy drinks. I drink them all the time, mostly because I love the flavor, but really they also give me wings! Seriously, they keep me alert and help me stay focused and energized. The only thing I hate about it, is when someone sees me drinking one and says something about how bad they are for me. When this happens, I generally tend to ask why they think that, and the answers I usually get are because they are “basically liquid pixie sticks” or that they are “just not safe”.

Generally people assume the energy boost comes from having a high sugar content or that they are unsafe because they contain caffeine. However, this really makes no sense because soft drinks contain lots of sugar and caffeine yet most people drink those more often than water, and get neither an energy boost or immediate harmful side – effects. Truly, some people do experience jitters or a racing heart when they consume energy drinks, so what really makes these drinks different from other drinks with similar content; like soda or coffee? What I have gathered is that most people just don’t know what’s even in an energy drink and how or why those ingredients give the effect that they do.

Energy Drinks

Most of us probably would say energy drinks are very popular and controversial right now. Yet, they are not that new, Red Bull was introduced in the U.S. back in 1997! There are currently hundreds of different brands of energy drinks on the market in the U.S. , of which the most well-known are Red Bull, Monster, Rockstar, and  Full Throttle. The FDA defines an energy drink as a “class of products in liquid form that typically contains caffeine, with or without other added ingredients”.  The caffeine content varies by brand, but they can contain upwards of 500mg per serving. Common additive ingredients in energy drinks are vitamin B’s, taurine, ginkgo, guarana, and other extracts. These ingredients are not common to all, and may vary by brand in combination and quantity. So,  the major active ingredient behind energy drinks is caffeine.

In toxicology , we use the phrase “the dose makes the poison”, this really sums up what makes a substance toxic or non-toxic, because really even water can kill you. The amount of caffeine in caffeinated soda ranges from approximately 30 mg/can  to as much as 75mg/can. Coffee varies depending on type of brew and bean used but, can range from 70mg/6oz to 100mg/6oz of caffeine. The difference between the caffeine present in soda and coffee and that present in energy drinks is the amount. Energy drinks can  have as much as  3 to 5 times more caffeine on average.

Caffeine

Caffeine is part of a group of natural chemicals known as methylxanthines, commonly found in cocoa beans, coffee beans, and tea. Caffeine has multiple purposes, and is used as a stimulant, flavoring, and colorant in foods and medications. In addition to being found in popular drinks including hot chocolate and chocolate milk, it can also be found in over-the-counter medications such as pain killers , decongestants, antihistamines, diet pills, and cough and cold syrups.

It is scientifically well established that coffee improves attention, alertness, and physical performance. Surprisingly, it is such a performance enhancer  that its use is closely monitored by the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the International Olympic Committee.

The effect of caffeine varies from person to person, this is the reason some people report feeling “bad” after drinking energy drinks and some people have no symptoms of jitteriness, fast heart beat, or insomnia. Personally, I started drinking Red Bull because coffee never kept me awake. Oddly enough I’d drink coffee and feel even more tired than before. Weight, gender, and individual sensitivity to caffeine all determine how much caffeine you can tolerate.

Caffeine has antioxidant effects when consumed in moderation but high amounts can cause heart palpitations, insomnia, anxiety, a rapid heart beat, and even seizures in cases of overdose. Chronic, frequent use in those who drink a lot of caffeine over a long period of time (years) has been associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease, but this finding is controversial.

Red Bull

Red Bull contains Caffeine, taurine (an amino acid), Vitamin B’s, and sugar (sucrose & glucose) among its main ingredients. The regular 8.4 oz can contains 100% niacin, 250% vitamin B6, 80% Vitamin B12, 50 % Pantathenic Acid; these are all different kinds of Vitamin B’s (vitamin B is actually a group or complex of several distinct compounds).  Since, Red Bull contains so much vitamin B I think it only makes sense to look into these vitamins some more.

Niacin – (nicotinic acid/niacinamide) A water-soluble vitamin that plays an important role in the metabolism of carbohydrates, proteins, and lipids. Basically it contributes to the formation of high energy substances and has the ability to improve cholesterol/fatty acid content.  This component may be where the notion that energy drinks can help you lose weight comes from.

Vitamin B6 – (pyridoxine) Essential to the metabolism of glycogen(storage carbohydrate in the liver and muscles) to glucose, the metabolism of  amino acids, and the synthesis of amines that act as neurotransmitters and hormones.

Intake of in excess of 1 gram per day of  Vitamin B6 can result in nerve damage known as peripheral sensory neuropathy, caused by damage to the outer wrapping of nerves and degeneration of nerves. The daily requirement for this vitamin is about 1.2 to 2.0 mg per day, Red Bull supplies 250% of this. That means you’re getting a maximum of about 5 mg a serving (8.4oz can),  which is very much lower than the amount that could be harmful. Up to 10mg/day of vitamin B6 may be old over-the-counter as a nutritional supplement.

Pantothenic Acid – Present in all foods and essential to all forms of life. It is involved with fatty acid metabolism.

Vitamin B12 – (cobalamin) Plays an essential role in amino acid and fatty acid metabolism, as well as DNA synthesis. It is only made by bacteria and is not found in plants.

So what’s the verdict?

A regular 8.4oz can of Red Bull contains 80mg of caffeine, which surprisingly is in range with most servings of coffee! The amount of sugar is also in range with most soft drinks and juice beverages. So perhaps there is something to those added  ingredients, or maybe it has to do with how fast people tend to drink beverages like energy drinks, compared to just slowly sipping at coffee and tea. At any rate, none of the ingredients in Red Bull are inherently toxic or unsafe to drink. Those that may pose an adverse effect are present at quantities that are generally safe for consumption.

Beverages with large amounts of caffeine shouldn’t be given to children as their bodies process it at a slower rate than adults. There is also concern about mixing energy drinks with alcohol. Since caffeine acts as a stimulant and alcohol as a depressant, it may cause drinkers to feel less drunk than they actually are. This in turn leads to more alcohol consumption and increased incidence of injury. This is in part why energy drinks have been viewed as unsafe. The sale of pre-mixed energy drinks with alcohol has essentially been banned. The bottom line is moderation. Monitor how much you drink energy drinks and pay attention to what your body is telling you. If you find that you do not experience any negative symptoms then don’t worry, but if you do just abstain; you are probably sensitive to caffeine.

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