When it comes to energy drinks there seems to be this elitism or classism. If you’re seen drinking a can of Monster people will look at you as if you’re drinking a can of bleach. But when looking at the evidence; is it fair to say sugar-free energy drinks are bad for you?
When compared to coffee, apart from the taste and fizziness, there isn’t that much difference.
Energy drinks get a bad rap. I mean I understand why the full sugar ones do, but as for the sugar-free ones, the vitriol is unjust.
Whilst writing this I am actually biased. I much prefer coffee and think Red-bull is repulsive. So I am writing this from evidence and I have no bias at all towards energy drinks. But I don’t see that as a reason to bash them or bash those that drink them.
Anyway, let’s get into it and discuss whether sugar-free energy drinks are bad for you.
Compared to sugary energy drinks
When it comes to nutrition I’m a firm believer that there are no bad foods. But energy drinks with sugar are as close to bad as it can get, with regards to drinks.
A standard can of monster has 55g of sugar. That’s 25g more than the standard amount. An adult is recommended not to have more than, which is 30g.
This means a standard sugar-filled monster has 237 calories per can. Unless you’re an endurance athlete, I can not see any reason to drink the sugar versions.
Sugar itself isn’t bad. A little bit of added sugar is fine in the context of a balanced diet. But sugar contains 4 calories per gram and is not filling at all, especially in drinks. This means you can drink a lot of calories without feeling full. Then you add up all the food you eat, you can see it’s very easy to gain weight.
This is especially problematic with children and teenagers. Most of the sugar they have comes from drinks. A lot of them will be having more than 1 can per day too. Then there’s the issue of what too much sugar does to the teeth too.
As sugar-free energy drinks don’t have sugar, this is not an issue. There are plenty of conspiracies about artificial sweeteners. But sweeteners are one of the most studied substances on the planet. Every world food organisation deems them very safe, in the very small dosages we use them at.
Caffeine compared to coffee
So we’ve ruled out the sugar argument for why sugar-free energy drinks may be bad. But another argument why sugar-free energy drinks are ‘bad’; is because of the amount of caffeine.
The daily recommended caffeine the average person shouldn’t have more than is 400mg. (1) I dislike absolute figures like this. Someone who weighs 50kg, will have different requirements to someone who’s 100kg. But for now, that’s the best we have.
Anyway, a can of white Monster contains 150mg per 500ml can and a can of sugar-free Red bull contains 80mg per 250ml can. Both of these amounts are well below the recommended amount. Even if you had a couple of cans per day.
Then we have coffee, the average cup is around 100 mg. When we look at coffees from coffee shops, the caffeine content can vary. One shot of espresso contains 65mg, whilst a Venti blonde roast filter from Starbucks has 475 mg.
But if you drank one of them, nobody would make a smug comment, like they would if you drank a sugar-free monster.
The ingredients of sugar-free energy drinks
We’ve established that caffeine most likely isn’t the issue. So is it the ingredients?
People will claim all the chemicals in sugar-free energy drinks are the reason they must be bad. Unfortunately, we’re not educated on what these chemicals are.
So, I have gone through all the ingredients in Monster ultra.
Ingredients of Monster ultra:
Carbonated Water, Acid (Citric Acid), Taurine (0.4%), Acidity Regulator (Sodium Citrate), Flavourings, Panax Ginseng Root Extract (0.08%), Sweeteners (Sucralose, Acesulfame K), Caffeine (0.03%), Preservatives (Sorbic Acid, Benzoic Acid), L-Carnitine L-Tartrate (0.015%), Vitamins (B3, B5, B6, B12), Sodium Chloride, D-Glucuronolactone, Guarana Seed Extract (0.002%), Inositol
- Carbonated water – Fizzy water
- Citric acid – Vitamin C, found in oranges and peppers. Pretty important for health.
- Taurine – This is an amino acid, one of 20 which makes protein. The human body produces plenty of Taurine.
- Sodium citrate – This is a salt of citric acid. As mentioned earlier vitamin c is found in many fruits.
- Panax ginseng root extract – The extract of the root of a Korean plant. It’s said to have health benefits. People take it as a supplement. But evidence suggests it doesn’t do anything. But it is safe to use. Used for flavour
- Sweeteners – sucralose and acesulfame k – read my post about sweeteners
- Caffeine – Caffeine is caffeine
- Sorbic acid – A natural preservative, used in bread, wines, cheese and ham
- Benzoic acid – Used in jams, beer and fruit juices. Found in plants. It’s an antifungal preservative, used in fizzy drinks
- L-carnitine and L-cartrate – Found in red meat and fish. It’s also found in the body
- Vitamins – Vitamins are vitamins, people buy vitamins supplements all the time
- Sodium chloride – Salt the stuff you put on your chips. Included for hydration
- D-Glucuronolactone – A substance found in body tissue. Used a lot in energy drinks to ‘increase performance’, but there isn’t any evidence to suggest it works
- Guarana Seed Extract – A substance used for weight loss and performance-enhancing. Comes from the seed of Guarana which is a Brazilian plant
- Inositol – A sugar that in the brain and other tissues. It’s also sold as a supplement. A supplement aimed at women with PCOS, it’s shown to be effective and future research looks promising.
All these ingredients are safe. They are all approved by the EU, UK, US, Canadian and Australian food standards agencies.
Ingredients in coffee
I thought it’d also be a good idea to list the chemicals found in a natural coffee bean.
Caffeine, Tannin, Thiamin, Xanthine, Spermidine, Guaiacol, Citric acid, Chlorogenic acid, Acetaldehyde, Spermine, Putrescine, Scopoletin
- Caffeine – Caffeine is caffeine
- Tannin – A compound found in leaves, wood, bark and plants
- Thiamin – Also known as vitamin B1
- Xanthine – Substance that occurs in the human body
- Spermidine – Another substance that occurs in the tissue. Also found in wheat, broccoli, cauliflower and mushrooms
- Guaiacol – Substance found in leaves, citrus skin and tobacco
- Citric acid – Vitamin C
- Chlorogenic acid – Substance in caffeine also found in fruits and vegetables
- Acetaldehyde – A substance that occurs in coffee, bread and fruits
- Spermine – A substance found in soy and wheat. Also gives semen its smell
- Putrescine – Found in our cells. Also used for textiles.
- Scopoletin – Found in the root of plants, found in vinegar and whiskey too
The reason I listed the ingredients in coffee beans is not to scare you. As I said I’d always choose coffee over an energy drink. But, if they listed a sugar-free energy drink with the same ingredients, people would go crazy. But when it’s coffee, it is somehow okay.
Reasons they could be bad
So we’ve now established the ingredients are safe, there’s no sugar and the caffeine is no different from coffee. So that leaves us with one reason why they could be bad.
The reason sugar-free energy drinks are seen as ‘bad’ is due to psychology and behaviour.
These reasons include:
- More likely to be drunk by young boys
- Poor diet and mental health
- Health issues
- Drunk faster
- The packaging
Energy drinks are usually drunk by young teenage boys. Young teenage boys aren’t known for their love of morning Lattes. As you need to be 16+, I’d hunch these make young boys want to drink them more. What makes something more attractive to teenagers? Telling them they can’t have it.
Another reason they have been shown to be problematic to teenagers is due to the caffeine effects in youngsters. Body development is at its peak during the teenage years. You’re turning from a child to an adult, this is why diet and good nutrition are of the utmost importance. Bone development is also at its peak in the teenage years.
Drinking caffeine slows down the bodies calcium absorption rate, thus slowing bone development. This issue would happen if they drank the same amount of coffee, but as they drink energy drinks, they get the blame. (2)
Drinking energy drinks is also associated with a poorer diet and mental health. When I say associate, that means there’s a correlation, that doesn’t mean one causes the other. But there is a link between those who drink energy drinks, do less exercise and eat more junk food. Thus people put both together and assume the drinks are bad. Whereas adults who drink black coffee are going to be more health-conscious.
Another reason energy drinks get a bad rap is because of the association with a poor lifestyle. There’s a stereotype of the person who does little activity and eats processed food. It’s thought drinking energy drinks will compensate for a lack of energy. When in reality, getting more activity and eating a healthier balanced diet would do most of the work.
Then a caffeinated drink would be the cherry on top. I have noticed in this situation, it’s usually the sugar energy drinks that are being drunk.
They are also linked with heart problems, especially those with eating disorders. The increased caffeine can have adverse effects on some people’s hearts. Those with eating disorders are more likely to have heart issues.
Caffeine is also an appetite suppressant, thus popular with people with eating disorders. So for those with eating disorders, these drinks can be dangerous. This is another reason for the link between energy drinks and heart problems in young people. But again there is no reason why excess coffee couldn’t do the same.
Energy drinks can cause a double whammy of issues when it comes to alcohol. The first being a lot of young people mix them with alcohol, Jeager bombs for example. Mixing caffeine (stimulant) with alcohol (depressor) is never a good idea.
Young people that mix their energy drinks with alcohol, on a night out, are more likely to:
- Drink more alcohol as the stimulant masks the depressant, making you think you don’t need to stop as soon
- Binge drink compared to those who don’t mix with energy drinks
- Have unprotected sex (3)
- Get an alcohol related injury
Energy drinks and alcohol can also act as a gateway for binge drinking and other substances.
Speaking from experience, teenagers, especially boys, want to be seen as “cool”. Drinking something ‘forbidden’ such as energy drinks may give them that feeling.
One study showed, youngsters who drink lots of energy drinks, are likelier to drink excess alcohol and take cocaine. Whereas young people who didn’t or drank less over time were less likely to abuse alcohol and drugs.
The way energy drinks are drunk compared to coffee are very different. A hot cup of coffee is drunk in small sips over a period of time. Whereas energy drinks are drunk in large gulps. This can make a difference for 2 different reasons.
If they are drunk quicker, there is a likelihood you will have more. This may lead to you having more caffeine than your body can take. Whereas if you nurse a coffee over a longer period of time, you’re more likely to make it last a little longer.
Evidence suggests acute caffeine intakes are likely to raise blood pressure. This may be another reason why energy drinks get a bad rap.
Finally, people may think sugar-free energy drinks are bad is due to marketing. The bright colours and pictures give people the impression that this stuff is rocket fuel. Whereas coffee comes in a paper cup.
Energy drinks usually sponsor motorsports and advertise themselves on games consoles. The places young boys are likely to hang out. All these things together give the illusion of energy drinks being harmful.
Performance effects of sugar-free energy drinks
We’ve established the psychological reasons energy drinks can be negative towards some people. But are there benefits to other people?
One study compared the effects of energy drinks, sugar-free ones and a placebo, on runners. Both energy drinks and sugar-free gave the runners better results than the placebo.
The guys on the energy drinks also felt like their rate of effort was lower than the placebo group. The sugary energy drinks, unlike the sugar-free version, increased systolic blood pressure. Thus out of the 3 options, the sugar-free one was the most effective and safe. (4)
A 2009 study compared sugar-free red bull and a placebo drink. A group of students had to drink either the red bull or the placebo, then do high-intensity running.
The results showed there was no noticeable difference between the groups. Though energy drinks may not be the devil, they may not also be the magic formula either.
Do I think sugar free energy drinks are bad? No, I don’t. That’s too simplistic and for many people, they can be a nice tasting caffeine hit. Some people don’t like coffee, they also deserve a drink that tastes nice, with caffeine.
Sugar-free energy drinks can be part of a healthy balanced diet. Though I don’t think they are the devil, there still needs to be caution when drinking them.
Below is my guide on how you should go about energy drinks: (It’s my opinion, don’t take this as health guidance)
- Unless you’ve been advised by your nutritionist or dietitian, avoid the sugar versions. Stick with the sugar-free versions. Your teeth will thank you too.
- Only drink them in the morning or avoid having your last one at least 6 hours before you go to sleep
- Keep within the caffeine guidelines. (That may mean not having more than 2 days or only 1 per day if you also drink coffee)
- Avoid drinking them with alcohol, it’s not cool and it’s not clever
- In my opinion, adolescents don’t need caffeinated drinks, especially with sugar. They have plenty of energy as it is. They can wait until they enter the real world before getting hooked on caffeine, like the rest of us.
There you go. I still enjoy the odd white Monster here and there without any fear. But given the choice between a white monster or a ground and brewed coffee, I will choose the coffee every time.
Josh is a Registered Associate Nutritionist, with the Association for Nutrition (AFN). He completed his degree in Nutrition at the University of Roehampton in 2021. He passed with a First Class with Honours.
Josh is also a tutor for up-and-coming Personal Trainers, where he teaches a Level 4 Advanced Nutrition course. This is for Personal Trainers looking to upskill their nutrition knowledge. This is done at Norfolk Health & Fitness.