Sugar in Caffeinated Drinks


Energy drinks contain massive quantities of sugar plus a hefty dose of caffeine.  The sugar gives you an immediate rush while the caffeine keeps the rush going.  So what’s the problem here?  The problem is that the two substances do not form a harmonious relationship within the body.

Cortisol is a glucocorticoid (steroid hormone) released by the adrenal glands and its release can be precipitated by caffeine.  Cortisol gives you a rush and blood levels can remain elevated for up to 18 hours.  Unfortunately chronically high cortisol levels also promote the accumulation of body fat and are implicated in weight gain, belly fat, hypertension, insulin resistance, rising blood sugars and heart disease.

Cortisol raises blood sugar to deliver emergency fuel to the body’s cells.  It also dumps free fatty acids into the bloodstream which can further raise blood sugar as free fatty acids interfere with glucose uptake.

When the sugar is consumed you get an initial rush, but then insulin is released to ensure that excess sugar is quickly cleared from the bloodstream because excess sugar in the blood is dangerous.  Insulin not only clears the bloodstream but also has the effect of slowing down adrenal activity so it can balance the amount of glucose being released – this is the crash we experience after the buzz.

Thus a sugar/caffeine combination can have devastating effects on the body as one works to counteract the other.  The result is not a net balance but a huge swing between the two actions.  This places further stress on the body and a negative cycle of hyperactivity and crashing is often made worse by repeated cycles of consumption of energy drinks.  The end result can be erratic energy levels and an imbalance in blood sugar levels.

So what’s in your favourite caffeine drink?

On average energy drinks contain around 21g – 34g sugar per 250ml – that’s around 5 – 8.5 teaspoons of sugar per 250ml.   But 500ml size drinks are more common and they contain between 10 – 17 teaspoons of sugar per drink.

In Australia energy drinks are regulated under the Standard 2.6.4 (Formulated Caffeinated Beverages) of the Australia New Zealand Food Standards.  A formulated caffeinated drink must contain no less than 145mg/L and no more than 320 mg/L of caffeine.  This is roughly the amount found in a cup of instant coffee – but remember that many drinks are 500ml so it’s more like a cup and a half of coffee in each serve.

Put into a more meaningful context – a typical energy drink is equivalent to drinking a really large cup of coffee with up to 17 teaspoons of sugar!

If you are interested in health, then the answer is not energy drinks with artificial sweeteners as their use is also highly controversial.  The Harvard School of Public Health says that the health benefits of artificial sweeteners are inconclusive with research showing mixed findings including an ability to make you gain weight!

Adequate sleep, a healthy diet and regular exercise will help guard against the need for the boost from an energy drink.  And make sure you keep energy drinks away from children.