Energy Drinks' Effect on Kidneys and Health

Red Bull energy drink next to a class of gold liquid

Nattu / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

The world of energy drinks is a mystifying one. The connoisseurs swear by them. Detractors try their best to warn people of their possible side effects. The average person on the street tends to not have too much of a clue either way. Let's take a look at the evidence behind the safety of energy drinks and whether they have any specific damaging effect on the kidneys.

If you do not include coffee, (which technically might be considered one of the first popular energy drinks to be mass consumed), Coca-Cola or Coke might have been the first modern energy/stimulant drink. And that's not just due to the caffeine content, but also because it contained cocaine as an ingredient. It was finally removed in 1903.

Today, energy drinks are ubiquitous and sales have surged. It only takes a quick visit to the neighborhood gas station to figure out how popular they are. Their use has dramatically increased across most age groups. Which, obviously raises questions about these energy drinks' health effects.

In order to understand the effects, it's best to take a quick look at the common ingredients that most energy drinks have. Here are some common "energy" ingredients:

Caffeine is perhaps the most well known of the above. An 8.3 oz can of Red Bull energy drink has about 80 mg of caffeine per serving. A 16-oz can of Rockstar energy drink has about 160 mg. To give you a perspective, 1 oz of an espresso has anywhere between 47 mg to 75 mg of caffeine. 

The average American consumes about 300 mg per day of caffeine a day.

For all the bad rap that teenagers and young adults get about consuming copious amounts of energy drinks, it has been found that they consumed one-third the amount of caffeine as adults or about 100 mg per day . Only a small portion of this caffeine actually came from energy drinks.

An interesting fact to bear in mind is that in the US, a manufacturer is not required to mention the amount of caffeine on a food label. This is largely because of a technicality. The nutrition info panel that we see on food labels is required to mention information only for nutrients.

Taurine is an amino acid found naturally in protein sources including milk, meat, and fish. It is a common ingredient in sports supplements and is believed to enhance athletic ability.

However, high levels of taurine in the blood can have damaging consequences and this is especially likely to happen in people with chronic kidney disease (CKD). Symptoms from such accumulation have been reported in the literature . It is debatable, however, if ingesting taurine found in a typical single serving of most energy drinks enough to cause serious harm to most people with normal kidneys. 

Many energy drinks, like sodas, contain a notoriously high amount of empty calories that come from their sugar content. We are well aware of the downsides of excessive sugar consumption. 

An 8-ounce serving of Rockstar energy drink has about 30 grams of sugar. However, Rockstar is sold in 16-ounce cans, which contain two servings and 60 grams of sugar—or about 12 teaspoons.

The FDA's Stand 

It is important to appreciate that none of the energy drinks are regulated by the FDA. Therefore there is no regulation as to what ingredients can be put in them and no manufacturer is under obligation to prove any statement about the product's efficacy.

However, deaths from excessive energy drink consumption have been reported , and the FDA is one of the federal organizations that will investigate any reported death or illness which might be apparently linked to an energy drink.

Effects on the Kidneys

Besides the harmful effects reported from taurine accumulation with excess intake, data exist which have associated varying effects ranging from acute renal failure from excessive Red Bull consumption, increase in systolic and diastolic blood pressure as well as heart rate, and even reduced blood supply to the brain. 

A recent abstract presented at the American Heart Association/American College of Cardiology meeting showed that young healthy adults consuming commercially available Rockstar energy drink had a significant increase in their resting blood pressure which could predispose to cardiovascular events (heart attack, chest pain, stroke).

The Energy-Drink Manufacturers' Stand

Currently, most manufacturers participate in voluntary and mandatory reporting on adverse effects of their respective energy drinks. The current official line from the manufacturers seems to be that, well, insufficient data exist with regards to most ingredients found in major energy drinks and therefore, a cause and effect relationship between any energy drink and death/illness cannot be conclusively established.

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