Energy drinks are ubiquitous these days. They have become a multi-billion dollar industry….even Nelly has a drink called “Pimp Juice” and Lil John has “Crunk” energy drink. Advertised to improve stamina, energy, and mental power….what’s not to love? By far the most popular of these drinks is Red Bull, which is a Austrian/Thai fizzy apple-flavored jolt. But what is really in these energy drinks, or more specifically, what is the reason that Red Bull “gives you wings?” And, can it be good for you? (More below the fold…)
The ingredients of Red Bull (per 250 mL serving) include:
Sugar isn’t great for you, but is a relatively benign ingredient. 27 grams is quite a bit less than the 39 grams that are in a 12oz Coke. Either one will substantially raise your glucose level, though. This is a moot point, of course, if you prefer the Sugar-Free Red Bull.
As for the caffeine content, which most people assume is where the real boost effect comes from, its less than a 8oz cup of coffee, but 2x as much as a can of Coke. Nothing really out of the ordinary, but won’t help your caffeine addiction either. FYI, the LD50 for caffeine (this means the amount of caffeine it requires to kill 50% of an animal test group) is about 10g (or 10,000 mg). You’d have to drink 125 Red Bulls to get that much caffeine. Given how much they cost, that seems quite unlikely.
Glucuronolactone is a natural chemical produced in the body as a byproduct of glucose metabolism by the liver. This compound received some notoriety, as it was used by the US government during Vietnam to improve soldiers’ sense of well-being and to stave off depression. It is a precursor to taurine.
Taurine (above) is also called 2-aminoethanesulfonic acid, and is so named due to its preliminary discovery in ox bile. It has since been located in a variety of animals and plants, and is quite abundant in sushi and seafood. Taurine is an amine, but not an animo acid as it is not part of the universal genetic code. It has a documented biological roles as an ingredient in bile salts (to lend a negative charge), and has been implicated in inhibitory neurotransmission, LTP in the hippocampus and striatum, fat regulation, calcium homeostasis, and membrane stabilization. The evidence for the ‘implicated roles’ is weak still; much more research needs to be done to fully understand taurine’s role.
There is some evidence that taurine can treat hypertension. Several rat models of hypertension have been used to suggest that dietary taurine supplementation can alleviate high blood pressure. These beneficial effects were also demonstrated in humans suffering from hypertension; supplements as little as 6g/day for as little as 7 days resulted in a significant decrease in the blood pressure of these patients.
And quite interestingly, a recent study by a nutritional biology group at Japan’s National Institute of Health and Nutrition shows that taurine supplements given to mice on a high-fat diet reduced their overall weight. This jives well with the ongoing observations that societies with fish-based diets suffer less obesity than those that primarily eat meat (taurine is not abundant in the edible parts of mammals). Previous experiments have shown that increased intake of taurine can reduce high blood pressure and cholesterol levels. This group decided to compare mice on a high fat or high carb diet, and found that the high-fat mice became obese and had reduced levels of endogenous taurine in their blood as well as reduced levels of enzymes required for synthesizing taurine in adipose tissue (fat stores).
The team noted that the decrease in the production of taurine occurred 14 days or more after the high-fat diet was started, leading them to speculate that the reduction resulted from diet-induced changes in the adipocytes. “This creates a vicious cycle promoting obesity,” says Tsuboyama-Kasaoka [a researcher in the study].
However, here’s where it gets interesting: when the team gave the high-fat mice a 3mg/gram (of a mouse’s weight) dose of taurine, they didn’t become obese. They measured energy expenditure, and concluded that the mice burned off the fat because of higher at-rest energy consumption. The study was published in Endocrinology here. The bad news, in a way, is that humans would have to consume about 150-250 grams of taurine per day to meet an equivalent dose, although I suspect that a much lower dose may be as effective. Mice have extremely fast metabolisms, and cycle chemicals out of their bodies at a much faster rate than humans.
One more interesting thing: in the presence of B6 vitamins (included in the ingredients of Red Bull), taurine is also synthesized into methionine and cysteine. Methionine is used by the body to form creatine, which important in maintaining and building muscle mass. In addition, it has been suggested that methionine can prevent bacteria from sticking to urinary tract cells, reducing bladder and urinary tract infections similar to cranberry juice. In addition, one study in rats suggests that methionine protects the liver against the damaging effects of acetaminophen poisoning. (Neuvonen PJ, Tokola O, Toivonen ML, et al. Methionine in paracetamol tablets, a tool to reduce paracetamol toxicity. Int J Clin Pharmacol Ther Toxicol. 1985;23:497-500.)
Take home message? Red Bull’s “wings” seem to be a largely benign mixture of the stimulants caffiene and sugar (although no more than regular soda or coffee), as well as surprisingly encouraging (if not 100% substantiated) effects from taurine. While it seems doubtful that it truly enhances mental ability or stamina any more than soda or coffee might, the truly intriguing benefits (reduced obesity and hyertension) of taurine supplementation aren’t even part of Red Bull’s advertising schema. Perhaps as more research is published supporting these results, taurine may well be a supplement that our doctors encourage us to take.