Energy drinks are a popular alternative for people who don’t like coffee or want something different to perk up after their morning joe. But they can come with a metabolic cost.
First, they’re often loaded with sugar. One popular brand packs 63 grams of added sugars in a 16-ounce can—that’s nearly 16 teaspoons.
And sugar-free versions may not be much better. Many use artificial sweeteners, such as sucralose and acesulfame potassium, which may raise the risk of insulin resistance. Moreover, some energy drinks contain harmful additives, such as food dyes and preservatives.
Finally, if you rely on energy drinks regularly to stay focused, you may want to look closely at your diet and lifestyle habits. Eating high-glycemic meals can cause a blood sugar crash, leaving you feeling drained and sluggish, whereas choosing blood sugar-friendly foods will give you a consistent energy supply. Sleep and exercise are other key lifestyle factors influencing your energy (and glucose) levels throughout the day.
Here’s how to find no-sugar energy drinks that taste great and live up to their name, plus our favorite picks.
How to Find a Healthier Energy Drink
With the energy drink market totaling more than $19 billion in sales last year compared to $12 billion five years ago, there’s no shortage of options in any mini-mart or grocery store. Some of these drinks have slick marketing and healthy-sounding claims, so it’s important to examine the nutrition label and ingredient list carefully. Here’s what to look for:
1. Keep tabs on the caffeine content. Many energy drinks get some of their get-up-and-go from caffeine, the stimulant found in coffee and tea. Research suggests that caffeine is associated with impaired glucose metabolism and reduced insulin sensitivity in the short term. However, no concrete proof shows that caffeine harms metabolic health over the long run. In fact, one study showed that people with high caffeine concentration in their blood plasma (a marker of long-term caffeine consumption) had lower body mass indexes and a reduced risk of Type 2 diabetes. Experts speculate that caffeine may rev up fat metabolism and increase the amount of energy you burn throughout the day.
The problem is that energy drinks can deliver anywhere from 50 to more than 400 milligrams (mg) of caffeine per serving. The FDA recommends getting no more than 400 mg daily—the amount in four to five eight-ounce cups of coffee. The amount of caffeine that you can tolerate depends on various factors such as genetics, medications (such as oral contraceptives), and lifestyle factors (such as smoking). Too much caffeine may lead to sleep problems, nausea, anxiety, and increased blood pressure.
It doesn’t matter if that caffeine comes from a natural or synthetic source. When it comes to the actual molecule, natural and synthetic caffeine are virtually identical. The difference is that synthetic caffeine is made in a lab, while natural caffeine is derived from plant-based sources, such as green tea, yerba mate, guarana, and green coffee. Although many manufacturers tout that “all-natural caffeine” is healthier, both types have the same effect on your body.
2. Avoid added sugars and artificial sweeteners. Some of the most popular brands of energy drinks contain anywhere from 27 to 63 grams of added sugars per can. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans’ recommended sugar limit is less than 10 percent of daily calories (i.e., 20 grams for someone on a 2,000-calorie diet). Still, the truth is you don’t need any added sugar in your diet. Sugar is one of the worst foods for metabolic health because too much can cause glycemic variability that can drive cellular damage, increase inflammation, and raise the risk of obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.
Sugar-free drinks seem healthier, but some contain artificial sweeteners, including sucralose, acesulfame potassium, and aspartame. These sweeteners may cause unfavorable changes in the gut microbiome. They may increase insulin production and, in turn, the risk of insulin resistance. Instead, look for drinks with natural sweeteners, such as stevia, erythritol, and monk fruit, which don’t have the same metabolic effects.
3. Steer clear of dyes and preservatives. Some manufacturers use synthetic dyes, such as Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6, to give their drink a brighter hue. Other countries ban these ingredients because of their potential ties to ADHD and carcinogens. Additionally, energy drinks may contain chemical preservatives, such as sorbic acid and sodium benzoate, to prevent spoiling. While these ingredients are generally recognized as safe by the FDA, some research suggests that sodium benzoate may disrupt hormones and increase inflammation in the body.
4. Consider the “extras.” Many energy drinks are infused with vitamins, minerals, and herbal extracts. Some common additions include taurine and creatine (naturally occurring substances used in energy production), B vitamins, and herbs like ginseng and ginkgo biloba. Certain drinks also use plant extracts, such as yerba mate, green tea, and guarana, for their caffeine content. Some research suggests that these compounds may have metabolic benefits. For instance, one study suggests that green tea extract may reduce inflammation in the gut and, in turn, protect against metabolic syndrome. While the FDA recognizes these ingredients as generally safe, there’s no regulating body to check that they’re effective and live up to the manufacturers’ claims.
5. Do a double take. When you’re grabbing an energy drink, check the label. Many brands offer versions with similar packaging but very different ingredients. For example, Guayaki Organic Sparkling Lima Limon has zero sugar, while its Organic Lemon Elation variety looks nearly identical—and contains 23 grams of sugar.
9 Energy Drinks to Consider
With so many options, chances are you’ll find one that fits your personal preferences. Choose between canned and powdered options, with the amount of caffeine you can handle. Here are our picks, listed from least to most caffeine.
These beverages can give you—and your blood glucose—a jolt. Here’s how to sip smarter.
This organic kombucha drink is made from fermented tea, so it’s a source of beneficial probiotics. Each 8.5-ounce can delivers 60 mg of caffeine from green coffee, the unroasted coffee bean that’s higher in antioxidants than the plain roasted kind. And it’s sweetened with stevia and natural erythritol, a sugar alcohol that tends to cause fewer digestive problems.
Per serving (8.5-ounce can): 5 calories, 0 g fat (0 g sat), 4 g carbs, 0 g fiber, 0 g sugars, 0 g protein, 0 mg sodium
Price: $27* for 12 cans
The main ingredient in this drink is yerba mate, an herbal tea popular in South America. Research shows that yerba mate is high in antioxidants and contains minerals like magnesium, iron, and zinc. Its anti-inflammatory properties may support metabolic health—studies suggest it may improve body weight and suppress appetite. This drink blends yerba mate with lime concentrate and sparkling water for a citrusy drink with 80 mg of caffeine.
Per serving (12-ounce can): 5 calories, 0 g fat (0 g sat), 0 g carbs, 0 g fiber, 0 g sugars, 1 g protein, 0 mg sodium
Price: $32 for 12 cans
Each 16-ounce can of this organic drink serves up 100 mg of caffeine from three sources: green tea, yerba mate, and green coffee. Fans love the elevated flavors, including lemon lavender and lychee peach, which get their sweetness from monk fruit, stevia, and erythritol. The drinks are infused with immune-boosting vitamin C and are a source of vitamins B3, B5, B6, and B12, which play a crucial role in energy production.
Per serving (16-ounce can): 0 calories, 0 g fat (0 g sat), 9 g carbs, 0 g fiber, 0 g sugars, 0 g protein, 0 mg sodium
Price: $31 for 12 cans
This powder adds a citrusy berry flavor to regular water, plus 100 percent of the vitamin C you need daily and 120 mg of caffeine from green tea extract. It’s sweetened with stevia.
Per serving (1 packet): 0 calories, 0 g fat (0 g sat), 0 g carbs, 0 g fiber, 0 g sugars, 0 g protein, 0 mg sodium
Price: $4.46 for six packets
This bubbly beverage is sweetened with stevia instead of sugar, and you’ll get a boost of energy from 120 mg of caffeine derived from green tea leaves.Green tea is high in antioxidants, which protect against gut inflammation and, in turn, improve markers of metabolic health such as blood sugar and insulin response. There are five other flavors, including strawberry kiwi, raspberry lime, and mango ginger.
Per serving (12-ounce can): 0 calories, 0 g fat (0 g sat), 0 g carbs, 0 g fiber, 0 g sugars, 0 g protein, 0 mg sodium
Price: $26 for 12 cans
Get your energy on the go with this packet, which you can mix with 1⁄2 to 1 cup of water. Made from blueberry and apple juice powders, this powder gets 150 mg of caffeine from green tea and guayasa, a plant native to the Amazon and cousin to the yerba mate plant. Each serving also contains more than your daily quota for vitamins C and D, plus zinc, magnesium, and B vitamins.
Per serving (1 packet): 30 calories, 0 g fat (0 g sat), 9 g carbs, 0 g fiber, 3 g sugars, 0 g protein, 0 mg sodium
Price: $13 for six packets
Free of all sweeteners, this lightly flavored seltzer comes in seven different flavors, including peach and vanilla. Each can contains 160 mg of caffeine from ginseng and guarana, a Brazilian plant with anti-inflammatory polyphenol antioxidants. You’ll also get 150 percent of your daily amount of certain B vitamins, such as B6 and B12.
Per serving (16-ounce can): 0 calories, 0 g fat (0 g sat), 0 g carbs, 0 g fiber, 0 g sugars, 0 g protein, 0 mg sodium
Price: $24 for eight cans
Yerba mate extract gives this sparkling drink 160 mg of caffeine per can. It’s also available in orange ginger and watermelon flavors and sweetened with erythritol and stevia. Half of the product’s net profits go to organizations supporting addiction recovery.
Per serving (16 ounces): 0 calories, 0 g fat (0 g sat), 0 g carbs, 0 g fiber, 0 g sugars, 0 g protein, 5 mg sodium
Price: $36 for 12 cans
With 200 mg of caffeine per can, this drink packs in more caffeine than two cups of coffee (nevermind its claims about burning fat and speeding up metabolism, which aren’t relevant to metabolic health). Celsius gets its caffeine from the extracts of green tea and guarana seed. It also contains vitamin C and B vitamins. Stevia and erythritol add sweetness to this non-carbonated drink; there are also three sparkling flavors (grapefruit, orange pomegranate, and cucumber lime).
Per serving (12-ounce can): 10 calories, 0 g fat (0 g sat), 9 g carbs, 0 g fiber, 0 g sugars, 0 g protein, 5 mg sodium
Price: $2.39 for one can
*The prices in this article reflect those listed by the retailer at the time of publication. Prices and local store availability may vary.
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