Energy Drinks: Deconstructed

August 17, 2020
| Created by Genevieve Daly, RDN, CD

For many of us, energy drinks have become a staple in our lives. They give us a jump-start to our day, provide a pick-me-up to counteract the afternoon slump, and help us stay awake when we’re working on a late-night project for school or work. Like most products you can buy at the grocery store, energy drinks can range from healthy energy shots to sugar-laden beverages with questionable ingredients. Here’s a quick overview of what to look for and what to avoid when choosing energy drinks. 


Probably a no-brainer, but since this is the most common ingredient in energy drinks, it’s worth diving into. Caffeine is a naturally occurring compound found in more than 60 different plant species and is by far the world’s most commonly consumed psychoactive chemical. Caffeine works by temporarily making us feel more alert by blocking sleep-inducing chemicals in the brain and increasing adrenaline production. Caffeine has been shown to be effective in improving alertness and speed, however there isn’t much evidence of caffeine improving mental performance. The general recommendation for caffeine consumption is no more than 400mg per day for healthy adults, and no more than 200mg per day for pregnant or breastfeeding women. This roughly equates to four and two cups of coffee or green tea, respectively. 

Panax ginseng extract

Panax ginseng is a plant grown in Korea, northeastern China, and far-eastern Siberia. Panax ginseng is used for its adaptogenic effects (mainly lowering stress and improving well-being) as well as improving cognitive function. Some research suggests that panax ginseng can improve abstract thinking, attention, mental arithmetic skills, and reaction times in healthy, middle-aged people, however this does not have the same effect on younger adults who consume panax ginseng. Panax ginseng is safe to take in recommended doses of 200-400mg per day, however use should be limited to no more than six months at a time. 

Guarana Extract

Guarana is a South American vine that is prized for its coffee-bean-sized fruit seeds. Guarana seeds contain three to six percent caffeine, making them a popular ingredient in energy drinks, weight loss supplements, and herbal formulas. Some clinical studies have found guarana to be helpful in improving speed of cognitive task performance, however there isn’t enough evidence to suggest speed and accuracy of memory is improved. Several studies that coupled guarana with B vitamins did find an increase in speed of memory and decrease in mental fatigue. Guarana is generally recognized as safe by the FDA, however since it does contain caffeine, it should be limited to no more than 400mg caffeine per day for healthy adults and 200mg per day for pregnant or breastfeeding women. 

B vitamins, including Niacinamide (Vit B3), D-Calcium Pantothenate (Vit B5), Pyridoxine Hydrochloride (Vit B6), Cyanocobalamin (Vit B12)

B vitamins are water soluble vitamins that play a large role in cell function and energy regulation. If you’re getting adequate amounts of B vitamins in your diet, you likely won’t notice a surge in energy when consuming additional B vitamins. 


Taurine is a non-essential amino acid, meaning our bodies already produce it on its own. Taurine is commonly used in products to improve athletic performance and boost energy, however there aren’t any reliable studies that backup these claims. 


Sugar is the most basic form of energy for the body, so it’s no surprise that a sugary drink provides us with instant energy. Sugar-laden drinks are often accompanied by a “sugar crash” caused by a sudden release of insulin and drop in blood sugar levels. Long-term consumption of high sugar beverages can also increase your risk of obesity and diabetes, so choose lower sugar options more often. 

Artificial Sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners are popular due to their popular use as a sugar replacement in sweetened food and beverages. Research shows that replacing real sugar with artificial sweeteners generally does not help people become healthier even though they do in fact have zero calories. Just like high sugar beverages, try limiting your intake of artificial sweeteners and choose unsweetened products more often.  

Natural and Artificial Flavors

 Artificial flavors are any flavors that are not defined as natural and are instead created in a lab setting. Both natural and artificial flavors are generally recognized as safe, and are great substitutes to use in place of sugar and artificial sweeteners. 

Energy drinks can easily fit into a healthy diet as long as they’re consumed safely and in moderation. Remember to avoid excessive amounts of caffeine, don’t drink them with alcohol, and discourage children and teens from onsuming them regularly. Looking for a healthier energy drink to try? Two of the Harmons dietitian team’s favorites are Hi-Ball and Ugly, both free of sugar and artificial sweeteners! Pick one up next time you need an extra boost of energy!