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Energy for Sale

Energy products abound -- in drinks, herbs, bars, and some stranger forms -- goo, anyone? -- but some are better at giving you a lift, and some are bunk. Part 2 of a three-part series.

Sports, Fortified, and Energy Drinks continued...

The caveat with sports drinks and flavored waters is that they contain calories, whereas water has none. This may be an important consideration for the weight conscious.

Many sports and fortified liquids also contain sodium, potassium, and other electrolytes to replace minerals lost in sweat. Electrolyte replacement is important for the physically active and for those who may be working in hot and humid environments.

"For most people who are not physically active, they don't need electrolyte replacement at all," says Moore. Most people just need to be properly hydrated, and that can be achieved with water or juice.

Some sports, fortified, and energy drinks also contain substances such as caffeine, chromium, amino acids, and proprietary blends.

Caffeine has been shown to improve athletes' reaction time, but it can also have undesired effects such as addiction, anxiety, and a fast heart rate.

Chromium is an essential mineral that may help control blood sugar levels by enhancing insulin sensitivity. Controlling blood sugar levels may regulate energy, says Mary Ellen Camire, PhD, professor of food science and human nutrition at the University of Maine. The mineral can be found in beef, broccoli, processed ham, grape juice, and bananas.

Amino acids are the building blocks of protein and can be found in meat, cheese, soy, nuts, and fish. Makers of the sports drink Cytomax combined amino acids with a non-acid form of lactic acid. The resulting product, alpha L-polylactate, an ingredient in the drink, is supposed to provide sustained energy and reduce fatigue under endurance exercise.

For this reason, Camire says such drinks are more appropriate for athletes and not for people with regular, everyday activities. She also points to a recent study that shows the concoctions could cause gastrointestinal problems.

Some fortified and energy drinks have so-called propriety blends that sound mysterious. Moore says marketers play on the aura of secrecy to sell products. "There really isn't any magical formulation," she says.

If you look at the labels of energy drinks such as Red Bull, Red Stallion, and Sobe Adrenaline Rush, you will see that common ingredients include inositol and taurine. They don't have any special energy-boosting powers, says Moore, noting that our bodies already make inositol and taurine from the foods we eat. Inositol is a chemical found in foods including beans, brown rice, and corn. Taurine is an amino acid found in foods from animal sources.

Herbs and Supplements

Many energy products are infused with herbs that are supposed to give people an extra charge. Popular herbs include ginseng, guarana, yerba mate, rhodiola rosea, and cordyceps mushroom. They also come in supplement form.

How well do they work in increasing energy? Overall, it's uncertain, says Carol Haggans, MSRD, a consultant with the Office of Dietary Supplements, a branch of the National Institutes of Health. She says the evidence ranges from suggestive (some small studies say it might help), to contradictory (results of various studies differ), to nonexistent (no scientific studies have been done).

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