The Secret Behind Natural Energy Drinks

OK, we'll admit: Monster Energy Drinks and 5-Hour Energy are not vicious killers. But the newest round of reports, linking both drinks to more than 20 deaths, has many worried that their need for caffeine may be the death of them. (No pun intended.) 

But while the energy drink name is being dragged through the mud, a new kind of energy drink has emerged in the market: the natural energy drink. The brightly colored, nicely designed bottles claim to be chock-full of vitamins, electrolytes, and most importantly, caffeine from natural sources.

And they may be a more viable option, since more and more people are putting down the traditional energy drinks. Gene Grabowski, executive vice president of LEVICK Strategic Communications and a crisis communications counselor, says he has heard of a slight drop-off of Monster Energy Drinks since the FDA reports surfaced. And because Monster is most popular with teens, parents may soon take the energy drinks out of the fridge. (5-Hour Energy, Grabowski says, is tageted to older adults in demanding jobs — so the adverse publicity may not matter to the consumers at all.) But do the natural energy drinks live up to the claim — and how are they different from their energy drink siblings?

Josh Taekman, the co-founder of one such natural energy drink alternative, EBOOST, explained the mechanisms of traditional energy drinks — and why they make you crash. When he set out to create EBOOST, he was looking for a product without the ephedra (which is now banned from use in dietary supplements by the FDA). "It's great energy if you want to lift a car off a child," he said of the energy drinks. But he soon learned the dangerous side of energy drinks. "Most energy drinks deplete your adrenal glands," he said, which helps the body balance water and electrolytes in the body and also secretes adrenalin and nonadrenaline. Taekman said that energy drinks also act as a diuretic, which further depletes the body of hydration and electrolytes.

Traditional energy drinks, with few vitamins but plenty of artificial flavors and colors, give you a false sense of energy, said Taekman. "It's like trickery," he said. "It tricks your body into thinking you have energy, but once it stabalizes, you get that huge crash." Of course, some energy drinks do have vitamins, like B12 (particularly known for its energy-boosting properties), B6, and niacin (a B-complex vitamin). "But [the drinks] kind of stop there," he said.

It's why Taekman created EBOOST, the natural energy drinks and powder supplements. The ingredient listings for EBOOST come with vitamins you may actually recognize: in addition to the B vitamins, EBOOST contains vitamin C, vitamin D, folic acid, potassium, and zinc. "It's about a healthy way to get energy," Taekman said. "EBOOST is substantiated with real vitamins and nutrients that support the delivery of healthy energy, that supports immunity, hydration, electrolyte replacement, and focus." 

Another new natural energy drink company, Frava, got a similar start to EBOOST. The three founders of Frava, once undergraduates at Colgate University, sought to make an energy drink that wouldn't give them the same crash of a traditional carbonated energy drink. (After all, they had already crammed for finals with the crash and burn of energy drinks.) The final product? A natural fruit juice infused with natural caffeine. "The caffeine comes straight from the java bean," said Alex Portin, the vice president of marketing for Frava. "It doesn't come from taurine or any other chemical." 

EBOOST drinks contains about 150 milligrams of caffeine, which comes from green tea extract; the new powder formulations get their caffeine from green coffee bean extract and contain 110 milligrams of caffeine. Frava contains about 200 milligrams in one 16-ounce bottle, or the equivalent of about two cups of coffee, Portin explained. In comparison, a 5-Hour Energy contains about 215 milligrams of caffeine. 

What's different about natural energy drinks and the monsters of the energy drink world isn't necessarily the amount of the caffeine: it's the ingredients. As Forbes details, several of the ingredients in Monster Energy Drinks and 5-Hour Energy act as stimulants — so it's not just the caffeine that's giving you the jitters. While some of the ingredients aren't inherently harmful, like panax ginseng or guaranine, when combined they can be a potent mix. Of course, while dietary supplements (which include some energy drinks, like Monster Energy Drinks and 5-Hour Energy) are regulated by the FDA, the dietary ingredients in them do not have to be preapproved by the FDA. Says the FDA in a new release concerning the adverse reports about energy drinks: "Dietary ingredients (the 'active ingredients' in dietary supplements) require no FDA preapproval to be used in a dietary supplement, and the FFDCA [Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act] requires FDA to prove that a product is unsafe under the conditions of use suggested in the labeling in order to take the product off the market." 

Taekman points out that it's not necessarily the ingredients that are problematic. Even caffeine isn't in itself harmful. Some studies even point out that caffeine can promote endurance and performance in athletes. "A certain dosage of caffeine is good for you on many fronts," Taekman says. "The issue is when people abuse it." Take the examples of guarana and taurine, Taekman says, which raised concerns early on for its high caffeine content. Both ingredients are not unsafe, but can cause harm if you have sensitivities to caffeine — and everybody reacts differently to caffeine. 

Taekman shared his tips on choosing a natural energy drink alternative, but it all boiled down to one point: be conscious of what you're drinking. "Ask yourself what's important to you," he says. Avoiding artificial sweetners? Stay away from the sucralose and aspartame products and look for products with Stevia or Xylitol. Want a vitamin-filled drink? Look for products with recognizable nutrients on the label. "If I buy a car, I want to know the horsepower and the MPG," Taekman says. "We want to let people know what's on the inside of that bottle." Portin agreed, and says Frava is meant for the millenial consumer who is more informed — and therefore more conscious of what they're drinking. "These are the people that are more informed than other generations in a simlar time in their lives," he said. 

Of course, people may still prefer the traditional energy drinks for their pick-me-up. "So far, we haven't seen a drop-off in consumption of the [energy] drinks," says Grabowski. "The marketing efforts of the company seem to be overpowering the negative publicity." Well, at least we know there are other options out there.