If the names of today's energy products have any truth to them, vitality and endurance are readily available in bars, drinks, gels, ices, herbs, and supplements.
PowerBar. Red Bull. Amp. Gatorade. Accelerade. Super Energizer. Energice.
Well they sure sound energizing. But are they actually any better than a candy bar or a bottle of soda? It depends on the product and its consumer, say experts, who note that the sheer variety make blanket statements difficult.
To get the full story, WebMD investigated the different kinds of energy edibles, their ingredients, and general effects on the body. Some products provide full nutritional information, while others closely guard the secrets of their proprietary blends. But many of these products just haven’t been studied very well.
We also asked the experts whether these products really add anything to our lives. Are we all limping through life, suffering from an energy crisis -- a crisis that unwrapping a power bar can resolve? Or does our obsession with edible energy have very little to do with good nutrition?
Energy Bars and Gels
All energy bars, goos, and ices are not created equal. Some pack in the carbohydrates, proteins, or fats. Others bring in vitamins and minerals. The flavors are plentiful, too, with cookies and cream, cappuccino, lemon poppy seed, and chocolate raspberry fudge appealing to the taste buds.
John Allred, PhD, food science communicator for the Institute of Food Technologists, shakes his head at the mention of energy products. "They are outrageously expensive for what you are getting," he says. "There's nothing magical about the ingredients."
The same nutrients could be found in a banana, yogurt, or a chocolate bar, which are cheaper options, Allred explains.
To be fair, the carbohydrate or protein composition of some energy bars and gels may provide a more sustained charge than products that primarily use sugar or caffeine. The power surge of sugar usually lasts about 30 minutes to one hour, and caffeine about two hours. The rush from sugar and coffee is usually followed by an energy low.
Energy bars and gels with carbohydrates will definitely provide a boost, as carbs are the body's preferred fuel source. It's ideal if much of the carbohydrate source is fiber, as the roughage takes longer to digest, providing more sustained energy. This can be especially helpful for people involved in endurance events. Protein-rich products can also provide staying power and strength. The nutrient helps build muscle and regulates energy production in the body.
Yet the bars, goos, and ices are no substitute for real food. "Energy bars are manufactured products," says Cindy Moore, MSRD, director of nutrition therapy at Cleveland Clinic. "What you're missing from any kind of manufactured product are the benefits from nature -- the chemicals that aren't vitamins or minerals, but are phytochemicals -- which are still beneficial to our health."
Phytochemicals are natural plant compounds like carotenoids, which give fruits and vegetables color, isoflavones from soy, and polyphenols from teas. They have been linked to many things from killing viruses to reducing cholesterol to improving memory.
"What I would far rather see is for someone to eat a sandwich and a piece of fruit, instead of that PowerBar," says Moore. "It's still something you can hold in your hand, but you're getting the whole grain from the bread, protein from the sandwich contents -- whether that's meat or cheese or fish -- and fiber from the whole grain and from the fruit."
Other convenient whole-food choices include yogurt, string cheese, nuts, ready-to-eat cereal, peanut butter, toast, smoothies, and fruits such as bananas, grapes, apples, and nectarines.
In situations where there are no choices except for junk food or fast food, energy bars may be the more nutritious alternative, but it still doesn't replace a meal, says Dee Sandquist, MSRD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.
Energy products may meet the needs of the physically active. "For people who are training and exercising on a regular basis, [energy bars and gels] can actually be a useful food item to help them meet their higher energy demands," says Lisa Bunce, MSRD, owner of Back to Basics Nutrition Consultants in Redding, Conn. She says the bars and gels can be portable, palatable, and pre-measured options for some athletes. Inactive individuals, on the other hand, will not benefit from high-calorie products.
To determine whether an energy bar, gel, or ice is right for you, consider your body's needs. Are you physically active? Sedentary? Next, compare the nutrient labels of different products. Pay attention to the amount of calories, protein, carbohydrates, fiber, fats, vitamins, and minerals.
Sports, Fortified, and Energy Drinks
The thirst for energy has opened up an extensive market for various potions. Sports drinks, energy cocktails, and fortified liquids are among the plethora of choices available for the drained and dehydrated.
Sports drinks such as Gatorade and Powerade are often no better than water, say experts, but they may make it easier for some people to get enough fluids in their system. They come in a variety of flavors and colors.
"If a sports drink will get someone to drink a little bit more than they would have if they were just going to drink water, then it's probably a good choice for them," says Moore, noting the importance of keeping hydrated. Sports drinks usually contain water, which is essential for energy production and proper functioning of the body. Hydration needs vary, depending on the individual, activity level, and the environment.
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).
Of the herbs used for energy, ginseng probably has the most research, but the studies are contradictory, says Haggans. Plus, she says there are different types of ginseng, and the investigators don't always make it clear what kind was used in studies.
Asian ginseng, also known as Panax ginseng, is generally known as a stimulant and has been used by older people seeking more energy, says Andrew Weil, author of 8 Weeks to Optimum Health. The Asian variety also has a reputation as a sexual enhancer for men and has been used to improve athletic performance.
American ginseng, on the other hand, is used more as a tonic and is known to increase immunity over time, says Weil.
The herbs guarana and yerba mate are rich sources of caffeine. They stimulate the central nervous system, much like coffee does. The caffeine "may be helpful for mental alertness and possibly for weight loss," says Haggans. But there have not been many studies on the herbs, separate from the effects of caffeine.
Rhodiola rosea has been used in Sweden and Denmark as an anti-fatigue supplement. There is some evidence it improves aspects of mental and physical performance, but other than that, we don't know a lot about the herb, says Haggans.
Rhodiola is often combined with cordyceps mushroom, another herb that has had little scientific research. Cordyceps mushroom by itself and the combined formula of cordyceps and rhodiola have been tested on athletic performance, and the results have been contradictory.
There are benefits to taking cordyceps mushroom, says Weil. It can reportedly provide energy to older people who have been debilitated by age or illness and to young athletes who need a boost in performance.
If you are considering the use of an herb or a supplement, it's best to first check with your doctor. Some plant compounds, no matter how natural, can interact with drugs and may have some adverse effects.
Asian ginseng, for example, can raise blood pressure in those that are prone to hypertension, says Weil. Plus, Haggans says a recent study suggests the herb may reduce the effect of Coumadin (a blood thinner) and other drugs. There are also observational reports that yerba mate, when used in large amounts or for prolonged periods, may cause cancer in the gastrointestinal tract.
Keep in mind, herbs are presumed to be safe until proven harmful. They are regulated more like foods, as opposed to drugs, says Haggans. The dietary supplement ephedra, used for weight loss or athletic performance, is one example of a plant compound that was pulled from the market following numerous reports of death and injury.
The Bottom Line on Energy Products
Energy bars, drinks, herbs, and supplements may be helpful in some instances, but they are not sure-fire remedies for fatigue. And don’t assume that any of this stuff is inherently healthy. If you’re just lying around the house, you really don’t need a high calorie energy bar, nor do you need to fret about your electrolyte balance. Experts say you should just concentrate on a well-balanced diet.
"As long as you are eating a variety of foods -- in the spirit of the food guide pyramid -- you're going to be able to meet your nutrient needs," says Moore. "As long as you do that, your body is going to be able to carry out all of its functions in terms of transferring food into fuel with complete accuracy."
If a healthy diet is not helping with energy needs, examine the amount of sleep, exercise, and stress in your life. These factors, plus diseases and medications, can affect energy levels.