This is Your Brain on Red Bull – Are energy drinks posing as sports drinks fooling you?
A battle is being waged on North American convenience store shelves. Sports beverages, led by Gatorade are fighting for their lives against energy drinks like Red Bull, Monster and Rock Star. At the heart of the battle is the question: do any of these drinks really boost performance?
Gainesville, we have a problem.
The first batch, it is said, tasted so bad that none of the researchers could stomach it. In the spring of 1965, Dwayne Douglas, a University of Florida Gators assistant football coach asked a question: why did players lose so much weight during practice but never felt the urge to urinate? Robert Cade, director of the UF College of Medicine’s renal and electrolyte division would later recount, “that question changed our lives”. Cade’s wife gets the credit for suggesting they add a little lemon juice.
The following year, armed with their new magic potion, the Gators rolled to an 8-2 record and established a reputation as a come-from-behind second half team. A small Indianapolis beverage company licensed Gatorade the following year and the sports drink industry was born.
The real Godfather of long distance truckers.
Started in 1987, Red Bull was the brainchild of Dietrich Mateschitz, the secretive mastermind that turned a carbonated and caffeinated version of an Asian energy tonic into a global media phenomenon. Red Bull launched a new beverage category and continues to dominates the 37 billion dollar global energy drink market. Most people recognize the brand as a sponsor of sporting events, professional soccer clubs and motor racing teams.
Red Bull and other energy drinks have squarely positioned themselves as sports drinks that enhance athletic performance. Red Bull’s Malaysian website extols the benefits they provide for “the World’s top athletes” and lays out specific guidelines. One can a half hour before training or competition, 1-2 cans during the activity with water and 1 after to aid recovery. Red Bull’s North American website is less specific, relying on sponsored athletes like stand-up paddle-boarder, Robby Naish to prescribe the optimum consumption schedule: “before, during, or after”.
Blinded by science.
It’s been well established in the academic literature that caffeine increases endurance, reduces the perception of fatigue and improves reaction times. Based on their single serving size containing the caffeine equivalent of one cup of coffee, Red Bull’s marketing message plays heavily on these same performance enhancing qualities .
Taurine, another major ingredient of Red Bull, is an amino acid naturally present in your body. As a supplement, taurine has not been widely studied, likely because the body can make plenty of it’s own. One recent study did however test the effects ingesting caffeine combined with taurine on short term memory. Since many University of Wisconsin students were using Red Bull to perform better on exams, researchers tested to see if caffeine mixed with taurine could improve performance on short term memory tasks. The results showed no improvement in short term memory but did uncover a surprising effect on heart rate.
Paper, rock, scissors.
Just when caffeine should have been raising heart rates, the combination with taurine actually lowered them. It may be that mixing taurine with caffeine counters the very performance benefits that Red Bull promotes.
Too much sugar.
During prolonged intense physical exertion of over an hour, consuming carbohydrates can restore blood sugar levels and supply glycogen to working muscles. At 11 grams per 100ml, Red Bull packs nearly twice the sugar concentration as Gatorade’s 6 grams. That should be good right?
A 2009 study published in the Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism showed that glucose concentrations above 6 grams per 100 ml significantly reduced fluid absorption in the gut. Tossing back an energy drink during a hard workout is likely to leave you more dehydrated than drinking nothing at all.
The bottom line.
Sports drinks are for athletes performing intense physical activity for prolonged periods.
Energy drinks are for people that like energy drinks.
If you are thirsty and fall somewhere between these two groups, try water.