Energy drinks are a highly popular beverage option, with more than 30% of young adults and adolescents in America regularly consuming them for supporting perceived benefits such as improving athletic performance, reducing body fat and more.1 A report on the U.S. energy drinks market from Grand View Research estimated the energy drink market size in 2016 was US$14.3 billion. Most energy drinks contain caffeine as the primary active ingredient—the source of which may influence effectiveness and health outcomes.
Synthetic and natural caffeine
Caffeine has been used for thousands of years and is one of the most popular substances across human civilization.2 In 1025, a Persian physician mentioned coffee as a medication for the first time in a medical manuscript. People first cultivated coffee plants in Yemen and roasted green coffee beans in Turkey. Shortly after that, in the 15th century, coffee houses opened in Arabia, and the habit of caffeine was born.
The popularity of caffeine spread across the globe. Today caffeine continues to be a widely available, legal, socially accepted stimulant, noted an Institute of Medicine (IOM) military nutrition research book on performance-enhancing food components. It stated approximately 1.6 billion cups of coffee were consumed daily worldwide in 2015.
Caffeine intake proliferated through the development of energy drinks. One study mentioned that in the American adolescent population, energy drinks follow multivitamins in the top most popular supplements.1
Naturally occurring in more than 60 plants,2 caffeine can be found in everything from food and beverages to pharmaceutical products. It is naturally found in kola nuts, guarana berries, coffee beans, cacao beans and tea leaves, or can be created synthetically in a lab.3 While synthetic and naturally occurring caffeine are chemically similar, they are used differently in product formulations3 and can vary slightly in their effects on the human body.4
Benefits and effects of natural caffeine
Not all caffeine is created equal. Several key differences exist between synthetic and natural caffeine—namely, the duration of positive effects from caffeine intake. In 2020 research, natural caffeine was found to have a longer-lasting and more consistent effect on mood and mental cognition than synthetic caffeine.4
The IOM book included a clinical trial on the effects of caffeine on cognitive performance, mood and alertness, where participants were deprived of sleep for 64.5 hours. They received either caffeine or a placebo and were given a series of tests. The caffeinated group showed improved performance as compared to the placebo group. Both synthetic and natural caffeine produce these effects on the human body, but natural caffeine’s effects could last longer.4
IOM’s publication pointed out that caffeine works by blocking adenosine receptors, which wasn’t researched until the 1980s. Caffeine stimulates the cardiovascular system and the central nervous system (CNS), which can have positive and negative effects.2 Another IOM book on caffeine and military operations—this one examining caffeine for the sustainment of mental task performance—highlighted that the metabolism of caffeine primarily happens in the liver, instigated by hepatic microsomal enzyme systems. Additionally, in healthy humans, caffeine does not alter absorption or metabolism.
Too much caffeine can lead to abuse, dependence and, in extreme cases, deadly caffeine intoxication; however, caffeine also may offer scientifically supported benefits.2 Besides helping some people to stay awake and alert, research has examined regular caffeine intake and decreased risk of developing Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases.2 Another study suggested caffeine can positively impact people with Parkinson’s disease by preventing loss of dopaminergic neurons and motor symptoms.2
Caffeine in energy drinks
The difference between synthetic and natural caffeine is prominent in energy drinks, and the market is segmented into three major categories: non-organic, organic and natural. Grand View Research’s report indicated that non-organic energy drinks often contain high levels of added synthetic caffeine and sugar, along with other chemical additives—while natural energy drinks contain naturally sourced caffeine and are free from preservatives, chemical additives and flavors.
A mini review from Al-Shaar et al. detailed that non-organic energy drinks containing synthetic caffeine have come under scrutiny for the possibility of contributing to negative health effects, including health problems that can occur with unregulated consumption.5 It added that drinking energy beverages containing high amounts of added caffeine, sugar and other novel ingredients can lead to caffeine intoxication, obesity and enamel erosion, as well as altered subjective states when mixed with alcohol consumption. Evidence also suggests caffeine may have a heightened effect on alcohol intoxication when combined with artificial sweeteners, such as those sometimes found in non-organic energy drinks.
As the possible drawbacks of energy drinks have become more public, health care providers and parents have become more educated around energy drink consumption.5 In a report on generational food shopping, Packaged Facts maintained that Millennials have strongly influenced the market toward natural foods and beverages, as they are more likely than preceding generations to purchase these products. This insight into who’s consuming things like raw, organic food is increasingly important as Millennials and young adults continue to wield their buying power.
While non-organic energy drinks make up most of the market, Grand View’s research showed that natural energy drinks represented one-fourth of the overall revenue in 2016. Brands looking to stay ahead of consumer trends around natural and healthy products can consider formulating energy drinks with natural caffeine. The generational quest for natural products and the Millennial tendency to research individual ingredients, combined with the consistent demand for caffeine-based energy drinks, makes formulating with natural caffeine a strong option—especially as consumer behavior reveals that what’s in a product matters to them.
Mike Efting has been a senior executive in the chemical distribution industry for more than 35 years and an entrepreneur for well over a decade. He is the current president, CEO and founder of Viachem, a specialty chemical food additive and ingredient distributor, and American Pure Products, a wholly owned subsidiary of Viachem that includes premium personal care brands spanning hand sanitizer to CBD.
1 Hoffman JR. “Caffeine and Energy Drinks.” Strength Cond J. 2010;32(1):15-20.
2 Cappelletti S et al. “Caffeine: Cognitive and Physical Performance Enhancer or Psychoactive Drug?” Curr Neuropharmacol. 2015;13(1):71-88.
3 Heckman MA et al. “Caffeine (1, 3, 7-Trimethylxanthine) in Foods: A Comprehensive Review on Consumption, Functionality, Safety, and Regulatory Matters.” J Food Sci. 2010;75(3):R77-87.
4 Boolani A et al. “Caffeine-Containing, Adaptogenic-Rich Drink Modulates the Effects of Caffeine on Mental Performance and Cognitive Parameters: A Double-Blinded, Placebo-Controlled, Randomized Trial.” Nutrients. 2020;12(7):1922.
5 Al-Shaar L et al. “Health Effects and Public Health Concerns of Energy Drink Consumption in the United States: A Mini-Review.” Front Public Health. 2017;5:225.