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A bolt of energy

It’s 3 a.m. You’re writing an essay. Just like last night. Some time between now and your 11 a.m. class, you need to study for the midterm. It’s been days since you’ve seen your girlfriend, longer since you’ve seen your pillow. Where’s your toothbrush? It’s midterms-finals-extra credit time again and you don’t care. What’s getting you through it?

For many students, it’s caffeine. In the past decade, energy drinks have been rising in popularity and these days, they are the easiest and cheapest way to get through an overfull day.

The Tea Shop and Cafe Suzie sell a variety of energy drinks including Rockstar, Red Bull, and a new brand, San Diego-based CUBA. “We sell a ton of energy drinks,” said Katie Mamlok, Tea Shop cashier.

Rockstar is a fairly recent addition to the energy drink market. It is based in Las Vegas, Nev., and was released in 2001. Unlike many energy drinks, Rockstar has 15 flavor variations, including one alcoholic version.

Red Bull is one of the oldest and most popular energy drinks on the market, known for its “It gives you wings!” campaign. It has been available in the U.S. since 1997 and, according to, it dominates about 50 percent of the U.S. market for energy drinks. “Red Bulls are definitely the most popular,” agreed Mamlok.

According to their website, the CUBA Beverage Company started with a simple concept of “healthy, clean, natural, and refreshing.” CUBA has only been on the U.S. market for a few months, so very little has been studied about it. However, it has apparently avoided many of the problems with other energy drinks by containing no caffeine, high fructose corn syrup or artificial sugars. However, this article details some of its other worrying ingredients.

As use of these products increases, so has research and controversy. What is good to drink and what is not?

A caffeine overdose can result in anything from severe dehydration to seizures, Dr. Ann Slattery, a clinical toxicologist with Children’s Hospital in Birmingham, Ala. told ABC. Roland Griffiths, PhD, a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, told WebMD that although the FDA limits the caffeine contents of cola-type soft drinks to 71 milligrams per 12 fluid ounces, no such limit is required on energy drinks. This is a significant worry in some energy drinks – Fixx brand, for example, has 500 mg of caffeine per 20 oz. serving, over three times the allowed amount of caffeine for soft drinks – but Rockstar and Red Bull are both well within the limits.

According to research done by Griffiths, a Rockstar has 160 mg of caffeine per 16-oz. serving. Compared to the 200 mg of caffeine in a 12-oz. cup of brewed coffee (a size small at the Tea Shop and Café Suzie), that’s 10 mg per ounce versus 16 mg in coffee. Red Bull has less: 80 mg of caffeine per 8.3-oz. serving.

CUBA contains guarana, a Brazilian plant containing guaranine, a substance that is chemically similar to caffeine with likely comparable stimulant effects. There is very little information regarding the effects of guarana, and in the U.S., it is unregulated.

Many energy drinks contain artificial sugars or high fructose corn syrup, both of which have been shown to have bad health effects, but once again Rockstar and Red Bull do not have this problem. The Rockstar sold at the Tea Shop is sugar-free, a recent replacement of Diet Rockstar; instead of using aspartame, it uses sucralose, an artificial sugar that uses 95% dextrose, which the body readily metabolizes, according to the International Food Information Council. Red Bull contains only glucose and sucrose (though 23 mg). CUBA contains crystalline fructose, the ingredient that caused controversy for VitaminWater (also sold at the Tea Shop). It contains heavy metals including arsenic and lead. Nutrition experts have warned that these metals are toxic to the human body.

James Kalus, PharmD, senior manager of patient care services at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit conducted a small study on energy drinks. Most – CUBA excluded – contain taurine, an amino acid found in protein-rich foods like meat and fish that generally has been found to have positive effects on the heart, he said. However, most people get more than enough taurine from their normal diet – a healthy Daily Value has not been established – and both Rockstar and Red Bull contain a lot. 1000 mg are in both sugar free Rockstar and Red Bull.

Energy drinks are indisputably effective in keeping people awake, but it’s smart to consider what they are actually made of and how they will affect your body. Remember that the most effective form of product research is what happens to someone over a lifetime of use and energy drinks have not been around long enough for that.