Energy drinks are the fastest-growing part of the beverage industry, with sales in the United States reaching more than $10 billion in 2012 — more than Americans spent on iced tea or sports beverages like Gatorade.
Their rising popularity represents a generational shift in what people drink, and reflects a successful campaign to convince consumers, particularly teenagers, that the drinks provide a mental and physical edge.
The drinks are now under scrutiny by the Food and Drug Administration after reports of deaths and serious injuries that may be linked to their high caffeine levels. But however that review ends, one thing is clear, interviews with researchers and a review of scientific studies show: The energy drink industry is based on a brew of ingredients that, apart from caffeine, have little if any benefit for consumers.
"If you had a cup of coffee, you are going to affect metabolism in the same way," said Robert W. Pettitt, an associate professor at Minnesota State University in Mankato, who has studied the drinks.
Energy drink companies promote their products not as caffeine-fueled concoctions but as specially engineered blends. Promoting a message beyond caffeine has enabled the beverage makers to charge premium prices. A 16-ounce energy drink that sells for $2.99 a can contains about the same amount of caffeine as a tablet of NoDoz that costs 30 cents. Even Starbucks coffee is cheap by comparison; a 12-ounce cup that costs $1.85 has even more caffeine.
Caffeine is called the world's most widely used drug. A stimulant, it increases alertness, awareness and, if taken at the right time, improves athletic performance, studies show.
"They don't want to say this is equivalent to a NoDoz, because that is not a very sexy sales message," said Roland Griffiths, a Johns Hopkins University researcher.