It is no secret that for many Trinbagonians Carnival means fete, fete and more fete. Some persons have gladly taken on the challenge of feteing every night (and sometimes days) in the weeks leading up to the ultimate 'free-up' – Carnival Monday and Tuesday. For some Carnival revellers, energy drinks are a 'must have', as they seem to provide the right amount of boost to keep their energy levels high. However, before we take our next chug of this liquid fuel, let's consider the following fact:

Energy drinks are classified as dietary supplements – a category that is largely unregulated.

A close examination of the label of your favorite energy drink may reveal three (3) common dietary additives, namely, caffeine, ginko biloba and ginseng. Most of us are unaware of any negative effects of these ingredients and believe them to have important health benefits. Nevertheless, it is imperative that in order to make informed food choices, we must seek to weigh all the available information on these three common energy drinks ingredients before making our final decisions.

  • Caffeine – Caffeine is a natural substance found in many plant foods such as tea, soft drinks, cocoa and coffee beans. Caffeine is produced by the plant as a natural pesticide and serves to protect the plant from infestation. Since caffeine is also a natural stimulant, it works well in energy drinks to provide increase energy levels and reduce feelings of fatigue. Caffeine is generally classified as 'safe' by the USFDA and is considered to have no negative health effects if consumed at a maximum of 300mg/day, approximately 2-3 8oz cups of brewed coffee. However, caffeine consumption above 750mg/day can be harmful to some persons. Persons with blood pressure, heart and metabolic disorders should not consume caffeine owing to its stimulating effect. In addition, persons with kidney disorders should not consume caffeinated foods, as caffeine is also a diuretic.
  • Ginseng – Many Caribbean men swear by the power of this plant extract – ginseng. Ginseng is believed to enhance mental and physical performance and treat a diverse range of health maladies such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes. Though considered generally safe, ginseng consumption has been reported to have the following side effects:
    • Reduction in the effectiveness of blood thinning medications such as warfarin and aspirin
    • Produces an estrogen-like effect and is not recommended for persons with breast or reproductive disorders
    • Greater than 200mg/day increases the risk of abnormal heart rhythms
    • Intensifies the symptoms of persons with mental disorders such as depression and bi-polar syndrome
    • Not for children and pregnant or nursing women
  • Gingko or Ginkgo biloba – Gingko is a leaf extract thought to improve memory and blood flow. It is popular with students, especially those preparing for examinations. It is added to many food products, including energy drinks, and is marketed as a memory and concentration enhancer. Like the previously discussed dietary additives, gingko is generally considered safe but it should be noted that it contains a toxin – ginkolic acid – which can be harmful in levels above 5ppm. Current regulations do not require food manufacturers to report the level of ginkolic acid in the food. Gingko can also affect blood thinning medications and is not for persons taking monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOI). Other side effects of gingko consumption include nausea, vomiting, headaches and dizziness.

Given all the possible negative side effects of the three (3) common energy drinks additives, it can be recommended that consumers exercise caution before 'stocking up' on these products. Always consult your doctor before taking dietary supplements and remember that sleep, exercise and a balanced diet are also natural energy boosters.