Energy drinks and snacks do exactly what they say on the tin: they boost energy.

But many manufacturers of such items have become targets of criticism and have even had their products banned due to their allegedly harmful side effects.

There are pros and cons that come with consuming any product but the debate over what fruity snack bars and carbohydrate drinks are doing to the body has been shaken up more than most.

Causing a stir

Energy drinks generally contain vitamin B, carbonated water, herbs, extracts of ginseng, additives such as maltodextrin and, the key energy-boosting ingredient, caffeine. This stimulant, when added to an energy drink, is usually taken from the guarana plant, seeds of which contain twice the amount of caffeine found in coffee beans.

“In 1996, the popular energy drink Red Bull was banned in France due to health authorities’ concerns.”

Research shows that excess consumption of energy drinks may induce euphoria primarily due to the stimulant properties of caffeine. The downside, however, is that the same drinks may also induce agitation, anxiety and irritability. For these reasons, many liquid pick-me-ups have been banned from some countries or even discontinued.

In November last year, a US study on more than 1,000 students found that those who consumed energy drinks on a weekly or daily basis drank alcohol more often and in greater quantities.

The study, published online, ahead of the Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research report expected to be released this year, also showed that energy drinks had a greater risk for alcohol related problems such as blackouts.

Caffeine isn’t the only ingredient in energy drinks which is said to cause physiological and psychological problems. In 1996, the popular energy drink Red Bull was banned in France due to health authorities’ concerns about the unknown consequences of the ingredient taurine, a chemical forbidden in several countries.

The ban, however, was then challenged by the EU in 2004 and lifted in 2008 after a review found no documented reports of negative or positive health effects associated with the amount of taurine used in energy drinks.

Today, other controversial energy drinks continue to be sold including in the US where a brand known as Cocaine is sold containing 350% more caffeine than Red Bull. Cocaine caused so much controversy that it has been banned by Australian authorities but is still available online for UK and US consumers.

Most energy drinks also contain soluble glucose, an energy source that is said to replenish the glycogen stored in the muscles to release energy.

High energy foods like snack bars receive less headline coverage than energy drinks mainly because they involve other more ‘natural’ ingredients that tend to act against its stimulant properties. Snack bars are usually cut from slabs of dense foods like nuts, grains and dried fruit, and bound together with glucose syrup.

A question of health

According to experts in the nutrition field, the level of side effects experienced by consumers depends greatly on the individual, their health and their level of fitness – taken without exercise, energy drinks and snacks turn to fat but taken with exercise, they are said to replace energy stored in the body.

Isotonic drinks are said to restore essential minerals lost in sweat during exercise including sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium. Carbohydrates in the drink also provide energy to prevent performance dips and vitamins that help the body absorb nutrients in the drink.

Despite the benefits, the question remains, were athletes unable to perform before energy drinks were invented or is the argument that energy drinks and snacks are “essential” to sportspeople one huge market hyperbole?

In April 2009, researchers at the University of Birmingham in the UK proved that although athletes could still perform without energy drinks, a few sips made them move faster.

The study revealed that cyclists, who took part in a time trial, recorded significantly faster times if they periodically rinsed their mouths with an energy drink, without swallowing, throughout the event.

In a report Ed Chambers, who led the study, wrote that cyclists recorded an average time of 62.6 minutes when they swigged the carbohydrate drink compared to 60.4 minutes when they guzzled a glucose-rich drink and 61.6 minutes on a placebo drink laced with an artificial sweetener.

“Stimulants in energy drinks are usually taken from the guarana plant.”

Karl Christensen, Industry Development Manager and Deputy Director for Agribusiness Management for the School of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development at Newcastle University, UK explains what energy snacks and drinks can do to the body “Some may be low in fat, but all will contain enhanced sugar. And, if taken without exercise and on top of a normal healthy diet, the increased sugars could lead to additional fat deposition.”

“Since most of the developed world eats more carbohydrates than they need because they do not get sufficient exercise due to a modern lifestyle, which is far too sedentary, high impact carbohydrates are most likely only really needed by serious sportspeople and athletes.”

So, only where our diets do not provide adequate energy concentrations or when we engage in rigorous exercise are high energy drinks absolutely essential but, as long as high energy drinks and snacks are made available for all consumers to buy, the debate over how they affect the body will continue.