Is Organic Food More Nutritious than Conventional?

A PDF version more suitable for printing can be found here

One reason that consumers feel that organic food is better than “conventional” and worth a premium price is that it is supposed to be more nutritious. What is meant by “more nutritious.”? What specific nutrients are being referred to? Are there nutrients that conventional food has more of, but that are considered harmful? When I looked into it, there appears to be no real scientific support for the claim that organic food is nutritionally superior to conventional, or even that different. In this entry I will look at what the latest science has to say on the matter. Pesticides are not discussed.

The article is broken up into two parts. The first goes over Vitamin C and Nitrates, which are the two items that come up most often when discussing the differences between organic and convention — organic claimed to be higher in Vitamin C and lower in nitrates and therefore better. The second part looks at the actual systematic reviews that have been done on this very question from the most recent in 2009 to an earlier one in 2000. There is also an appendix in which I thought it would be interesting to talk a bit about the most frequent studies referenced by the reviews (basically, what did the reviewers review).

Notes on a couple of nutrients

Vitamin C

While in general there seems to be no difference between organic and conventional, my reading is that there might be a slight trend toward some fruits and vegetables having a higher ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) content, however this conclusion is not supported by the most recent and, arguably, thorough review. Regardless, in the case of Vitamin C, the recommended daily intake is about about 75-90 mg for an adult. 1 cup of the orange slices has about 95mg [1](USDA DB 2010). I have seen some references put a single orange around 75mg. So if you have an orange and some peppers or tomatoes in a day, you will be well above the amount your body can hold in any case and will just release it in your urine. So it would not seem to matter much, even if organic produce does have a trend toward slightly higher Vitamin C.


Even in more recent studies, conventional produce tends to have a higher nitrate content (generally due to differences in fertilizers), which proponents of organic food consider to be a major win. It seems that they are holding on to pre-2000 notions on the safety of dietary nitrate content. In 1945 there were 2 cases of methemoglobinemia (“blue baby syndrome”) in small infants which they traced to very high concentrations of nitrate in rural well water. This led to limits on drinking water levels of 10 ppm [2](EPA 2009). Additionally, In the 1970s it was believed that dietary nitrate was a potential carcinogen, but this conclusion was not able to be supported by the science done since then.

Research starting around 1994 demonstrated that dietary nitrate is actually quite beneficial in helping to fight disease pathogens in the mouth and gut. This is because it acts as an alternative source of nitric oxide [3], an important product in our bodies to help prevent stroke and ulcers (Lundberg 2008). Fascinatingly, its not our own bodies that does the conversion from nitrate to nitrite and nitric oxide, but rather symbiotic bacteria living in our mouths [4] and stomach (sounds gross, but is good!)(Duncan 1995). It seems in fact, that dietary nitrate presents no real health hazard to children or adults. There is also an entire book devoted to this question entitled Nitrate and Man: Toxic, Harmless or Beneficial by J. L’hirondel.

So it appears to be only infants < 6 months of age where there is any concern about nitrate levels, due to fears about methemoglobinemia (Greer 2005 [5]), and that is really only related to contanimated well water used for formula and some very high nitrate-level foods (beets, green beans, squash carrots). Those foods have high nitrates on their own, switching to organic certainly would have no effect in this case, and the recommendation for small infants is to simply avoid them.

Note that these aren’t just obscure arguments in scientific journals, it has in fact been picked up by the media mainstream media (Minkel 2004 [6]) and blogs (pponline [7]). So it makes sense for earlier reviews (such as Worthington’s) to have called out nitrate as being exceptional, but there is currently no real reason that I can discern for lower nitrate levels in organic to make it any “safer”, especially given the amounts already present. Finally, the European Food Safety Authority (similar to FDA) put out a finding in 2008 that affirms the safety of leafy fruits and vegetables, considering their nitrate content with no link with cancer and some potential positive side effects (EFSA 2008 [8]).

What the Science Says

Looking over the history of the studies in this area, I think it may be interesting to actually approach this in reverse chronological order, starting from the most recent and comprehensive review down to one in 2000 that actually seems much less systematic in its approach.

2009 – Dangour, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition

The most recent review is “Nutritional quality of organic foods: a systematic review” by Dangour et al, published September of 2009 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. The study was sponsored by the UK Food Standards Agency (equivalent to US FDA). Their primary finding was that (Dangour 2009 [9]):

There is no evidence of a difference in nutrient quality between organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs. The small differences in nutrient content detected are biologically plausible and mostly relate to differences in production methods.

I hunted down the full text and found a preview (so reader should note that I cannot say for certain that it represents the final published version). All additional details come from that document[10]. For the statistically inclined, they have made the raw data available (Food Standards Agency 2010 [11]). Now, that’s open science for you!. In the full text we find the specific nutrients:

Analysis of satisfactory quality-crop studies found no evidence of a difference in 8 of the 11 nutrient categories (vitamin C, phenolic compounds, magnesium, potassium, calcium, zinc, copper, and total soluble solids)

Looking more into the paper, it mentions that Phosporous and “titratable acidity” went to organic and Nitrogen content went to conventional.

Their study filtered through more than 52,000 articles (covering the years 1958 to 2008) to find 162 studies purporting to compare organic and conventional foods (both food and livestock), to arrive at 55 that actual met the standards of the systematic review.

Those standards were:

“The quality of research and reporting in this area is extremely variable. Each study included in the review was graded for quality based on 5 criteria addressing key components of study design: a clear definition of the organic production methods, including the name of the organic certification body; specification of the cultivar of crop or breed of livestock; a statement of which nutrient or other nutritionally relevant substance was analyzed; a description of the laboratory analytic methods used; and a statement of the methods used for statistical analyses. Studies were defined as being of satisfactory quality if they met all 5 criteria. We did not grade further the quality of organic certifying bodies or analytic methods used”

One would think that all systematic reviews on this topic would follow similar standards, but that is not the case. It is possible that the lack of specific certification body filtered out quite a bit of them because “organic” is not a concrete term, but rather is defined in practice by whichever certification bodies have been approved by the national governments. Their criteria could be more or less “strict” for different parts of the definition of “organic” and, for the case of the US, might not be the same “organic” recognized by the USDA (which simply means they cannot use the official labelling (USDA 2010 [12]).

Not surprisingly, the UK Soil Association (organic food lobby) was none too pleased with the study. Their primary complaint was that it did not cover herbicide/pesticide content. The study was explicitly about nutritional content, so it is a rather strange complaint (Soil Association 2009 [13]). They attempt to discredit even the nutritional part by listing out the differences that were found in the study. However, the figures are misleading because the standard error is sometimes more than the difference! But the Soil Association doesn’t mention that. For instance, they show copper has having an 8.6% difference (in favor of organic). But if you look at the data in the Dangour study, the standard error is 11.5, making the difference meaningless. They do however make a fair point that organic food is not just about nutritional content (clearly) or pesticides, but about the whole lifecycle of production. This precludes “conventional” farmers from making use of the techniques that they feel will best optimize production without actually attempting to have organic certification, which I highly doubt is the case in the real world.

So it seems that the most recent, and certainly the most rigorous, systematic review finds no real nutritional difference between organic and conventional food. That study stretches back to studies in the 50s and has a very clear definition of its entry criteria.

2006 – Györéné, Orv Hetil

This study, “[A comparison of chemical composition and nutritional value of organically and conventionally grown plant derived foods]”, is actually in Hungarian but PubMed has an English version of its abstract. It has only been cited a single time (in a study by the Organic Center’s Charles Benbrook, which is my main reason for still including it here). That said, it is listed in PubMed, but I cannot tell if it is peer-reviewed or not. Part of the conclusions (Györéné 2006 [14]):

“Organic crops contain a significantly higher amount of certain antioxidants (vitamin C, polyphenols and flavonoids) and minerals, as well as have higher dry matter content than conventional ones.”

“Orv Hetil” appears to translation to something like “Health Weekly”.

So the results of this study are the organic crops are actually more nutritious. However, I don’t have a way of determining what studies they looked at, what criteria they used, or whether it was peer-reviewed.

2003 – Magkos, International Journal of Food Science And Nutrition

This study, “Organic food: nutritious food or food for thought? A review of the evidence” acknowledges (as do most) that quality studies in this area can be few and far between especially as you look at earlier studies. Their findings (Magkos 2003 [15]):

“In spite of these limitations, however, some differences can be identified. Although there is little evidence that organic and conventional foods differ in respect to the concentrations of the various micronutrients (vitamins, minerals and trace elements), there seems to be a slight trend towards higher ascorbic acid content in organically grown leafy vegetables and potatoes. There is also a trend towards lower protein concentration but of higher quality in some organic vegetables and cereal crops. “

I managed to track down what appears to the full text by searching for the first few words of the abstract. It is hosted on, so I won’t link to it here as I am not certain of the legality of documents uploaded there.

So the only real finding other than that organic and conventional are virtually identical is another case of the trend toward finding slightly higher ascorbic acid/Vitamin C content in organic food. It strikes me as being a well done study without obvious bias. The authors go item by item and provide overview of the findings.

2002 – Bourn, Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition

This particular review (entitled “A comparison of the nutritional value, sensory qualities, and food safety of organically and conventionally produced foods”) was interesting in that it actually separated out the different types of studies and discussed them as units. For instance, the studies which looked only at fertilizer usage versus those that made retail purchases of “organic” and “conventional” products. 41 key studies were discussed and put into tables, but there are actually over 200 references. Part of their results (Bourn 2002 [16]):

With the possible exception of nitrate content, there is no strong evidence that organic and conventional foods differ in concentrations of various nutrients.

Google Scholar also identified the full text article (available as of July of 2010), which is where I found the information about how the study was done and the number of them. The review is a good read, especially as it goes into detail into the study design (or lack of) as well as tests of significance (or lack of) employed by the researchers. One thing that becomes quite clear from reading this study is the true variability and complexity in looking at the nutritional effects of the organic production process.

In the end, as you can see from the quote, there is no real difference between organic and conventional especially if you look at studies in their own context.

2001 – Worthington, Journal of Complementary and Alternative Medicine

This was an earlier “systematic” review performed by Virginia Worthington, a chiropractor from Washington DC. The review was entitled “Nutritional quality of organic versus conventional fruits, vegetables, and grains” and ended up using 41 studies (Worthington 2001 [17], Full Text [18]). The results:

Organic crops contained significantly more vitamin C, iron, magnesium, and phosphorus and significantly less nitrates than conventional crops. There were nonsignificant trends showing less protein but of a better quality and a higher content of nutritionally significant minerals with lower amounts of some heavy metals in organic crops compared to conventional ones.

I mention her profession because this is an alert to look closer at the study, and how it has been reviewed. By definition, a chiropractor who practices traditional chiropractic must ignore the majority of the science of illness in favor of the non-scientific idea of “subluxations” and “innate intelligence” as a basis for illness (Ernst 2008 [19]). So while her personal views do not actually make this study invalid, they lead to the reasonable suggestion that it may possibly cherry pick or otherwise perform improper analysis in the goal of coming up with a desired outcome. And if you read the article, she does seem to indicate that there was not much concern for how good a study was, rather they were just matched up. In any case, this is the earliest of the reviews and so did not have as good of studies to work with.

This one obviously found that trend for Vitamin C (and some others) in organic, as well as higher nitrate levels in conventional.


There does not appear to be any meaningful difference in nutrient content between organically-certified and “conventionally” grown produce. There is a possible trend toward higher Vitamin C content in organic, but for the levels found it would make no practical difference. The variance between any given two items of produce is so high that your specific organic fruit or vegetable is as likely to have less Vitamin C (or others) as any conventional one compared between themselves. Based on the scientific evidence, I see no reason to choose organically certified produce over conventional for purposes of obtaining higher nutrient content. This says nothing about other value/safety arguments that one might make (such as synthetic pesticide or sustainability), which I have not yet looked at, but plan to in a future article.

Appendix: Meta-meta review

For the reviews where I could get full text, or otherwise determine the the studies in use, I have created a table which has the reference, year and which reviewers used it. It is available as web page or as a CSV. It also includes a column for whether or not it found positive differences in organic, but I have not filled that out.

What I found intriguing is that there are only 4 studies that all of the reviews (except Gyorene, for which I could not find any full text version) agree was of high enough quality (or at least, met their criteria). A spattering more are in 2 studies, and the rest are in a single one, even for where the years overlap.

Just looking at these few studies you see that lack of meaningful trend. One might find organic higher for a given nutrient, and another will find organic lower for the same nutrient. Sometimes the same study had switches between the years the study was run.

The 4 that all “agree” on (though if you read Bourn, he references some more to point that they are frequently referenced but weren’t necessarily great studies):

Clarke RP, Merrow SB. Nutrient composition of tomatoes homegrown under different cultural procedures. Ecol Food Nutr 1979;8:37–46.

  • Long-term tomato study
  • 1 year higher Vitamin C in organic, others higher in conventional (but not statistically sig. difference)

Wolfson JL, Shearer G. Amino acid composition of grain protein of maize grown with and without pesticides and standard commercial fertilizers. Agron J 1981;73: 611–613.

  1. Proteins in maize
  2. From Bourn, protein and most amino acids lower in organic

Shier NW, Kelman J, Dunson JW. A comparison of Crude protein, moisture, ash and crop yield between organic and conventionally grown wheat. Nutr Rep Int 1984;30:337–349.

  • Found no difference in protein or moisture, difference in ash at a lower temperature
  • Conventional higher yield of grain

Smith B. Organic foods vs. supermarket foods: element levels. J Appl Nutr 1993;45:35–39.

  • Of interest, Smith is actually from a company called Doctor’s Data, which is high on the list of Stephen Barrett’s “QuackWatch” and in fact they are currently suing him for calling them out on their invalid analysis of urine and the like. This does not mean their analysis is fruits are incorrect, and at the time they may have been totally legitimate. Small world I suppose.
  • Raw levels are not noted, neither are statistical significance levels (so “90% more” could mean almost anything). As an example of how you could choose to read the results to support whatever conclusion you want:
    • Organic potatoes had 10% more lead, but wheat 65% less, but sweet corn equal
    • Organic potatoes had 70% more mercury, but wheat 40% less, and sweet corn 80% more
    • Somehow they managed to calculate both as being less “on average” in organic, and all the “good” nutrients more in organic

There are are some more that at least 3 considered:

Pettersson BD. A comparison between the conventional and biodynamic farming systems as indicated by yields and quality. In: Lockeretz W, ed. Environmentally Sound Agriculture. New York: Praeger, 1983:87–94. (Not in Dangour)

  • Biodynamic potatoes had higher protein, Vitamin C (from Bourn)
  • Wheat and Barley had lower protein
  • Biodynamics is…interesting… and includes ideas from the “spiritual science of anthroposophy” (which is also what Waldorf education is based on) of Rudolf Steiner. What is strange is that one of their tenets is that holistically/biodynamically grown produce is more healthy and nutritious. Making it a tenet does not make it true.
  • “The concept of dynamic practic—those practices associated with non-physical forces in nature like vitality, life force, ki, subtle energy and related concepts—is a commonality that also underlies many systems of alternative and complementary medicine. It is this latter aspect of biodynamics which gives rise to the characterization of biodynamics as a spiritual or mystical approach to alternative agriculture. See the following table for a brief summary of biological and dynamic farming practices.”

Termine E, Lairon D, Taupier-Letage B, Gautier S, Lafont R, Lafont H. Yield and content in nitrates, minerals and ascorbic acid of leeks and turnips grown under mineral or organic nitrogen fertilizations. Plant Foods Hum Nutr 1987;37:321–32. (Not in Dangour, all details from Bourn)

  • Vitamin C higher in produce fertilized with manure versus woodchip compost
  • No consistent trends for organic versus conventional in either vegetable
  • Vogtmann H, Temperli AT, Kunsch U, Eichenberger M,Ott P. Accumulation of nitrates in leafy vegetablesgrown under contrasting agricultural systems. BiolAgric Hort 1984;2:51–68. (Not in Dangour)

    • Found no real difference in ascorbic acid or minerals
    • Organic had lower nitrate levels

    Stopes C, Woodward L, Forde G, Vogtmann H. The nitrate content of vegetable and salad crops offered to the consumer as from “organic” or “conventional” production systems. Biol Agric Hort 1988;5:215–221. (Not in Magkos)

    • (From Bourn) – no difference and generally wide variance

    Starling, W. and Richards, M.C., Quality of organically grown wheat and barley, Aspects Appl. Biology, 1990; 25: 193-8. (Not in Worthington)

    • (From Bourn) – Barley higher N in organic, wheat lower N and protein

    LeClerc J, Miller ML, Joliet E, Rocquelin G. Vitamin and mineral contents of carrot and celeriac grown under mineral or organic fertilization. Biol Agric Hort 1991;7:339–348. (Not in Magkos)

    • (From Bourn) – Higher beta-carotene in carrots
    • (From Bourn) – Celeriac lower Nitrate and zinc, higher P and vitamin C

    Warman PR, Havard KA. Yield, vitamin and mineral content of four vegetables grown with either composted manure or conventional fertilizer. J Vegetable Crop Production 1996;2:13–25. (Not in Bourn)

    • This is actually a combination of the results of the next 2 (not a distinct study)
    • Main finding across them: “Given the number of factors evaluated each year for each of the four crops, there were relatively few differences in the yield, vitamin and mineral content of the vegetables grown using the two different production systems. We believe this was related to the proper use of fertility amendments and pest control practices. When quality compost is analyzed prior to use, vegetables can be provided with approximately the same amount of essential nutrients from compost as from inorganic fertilizers.”

    Warman PR, Havard KA. Yield vitamin and mineral contents of organically and conventionally grown carrots and cabbage. Agric Ecosys Environ 1997;61:155–162. (Not in Magkos)

    • Three year study
    • Vitamin yield no different
    • Other minor differences in leaves

    Warman, P.R. and Havard, K.A., Yield, vitamin and mineral contents of organically and conventionally grown potatoes and sweet corn, Agric. Ecosys. Environ., 1998; 68: 207-16. (Not in Worthington)

    • Three year growing of potatoes and sweet corn
    • Vitamin C and E no different in corn
    • Phosphorous, Magenesium, Manganese higher in the organic potato tubers (as I read it), but others went to conventional (or were same)

    [1]USDA. “USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 22”. Visited August 18, 2010

    [2]EPA. “Drinking Water Contaminants”. May 2009. Visited August 25, 2009. Available at

    [3]Lundberg JO, Weitzberg E, Gladwin MT. The nitrate-nitrite-nitric oxide pathway in physiology and therapeutics. Nat Rev Drug Discov. 2008 Feb;7(2):156-67. Review. PubMed PMID: 18167491

    [4]Duncan, C. “Chemical generation of nitric oxide in the mouth from the enterosalivary circulation of dietary nitrate”. Nature Medicine. 1(6):1 June 1995. pp546-551

    [5]Greer, FR. “Infant Methemoglobinemia: The Role of Dietary Nitrate in Food and Water”. Pediatric. Vol. 116 No. 3 September 2005, pp. 784-786 (doi:10.1542/peds.2005-1497)

    [6]Minkel, JR. Scientific American. “Bad Rap for Nitrate?”. September 6, 2004. Visited August 23, 2010. Available

    [7]Editors. Peak Performance Online. “Sports nutrition: Is dietery nitrate the key to enhanced endurance performance?”. Visited August 23, 2010. Available

    [8]European Food Safety Authority. “Nitrate in vegetables – Scientific Opinion of the Panel on Contaminants in the Food chain”. Published 5 June 2008. Visited 4 Sept 2010. Available at <;

    [9]Dangour, AD et al. “Nutritional quality of organic foods: a systematic review”. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009 Sep;90(3):680-5. Epub 2009 Jul 29. Review. PubMed PMID: 19640946.

    [10]Danger AD.“ajcn28041-1..6”.pdf. Ahead of print preview July 2009. Visited 7/23/2010.

    [11]Food Standards Agency. Report details. “Systematic review of differences in nutrient content of organically and conventionally produced food”. Published 5/12/2010. Visited 7/23/2010

    [12]National Organic Program (NOP). USDA. “NOP Regulations: Subpart D – Labels, Labeling, and Market Information”. Updated February 4, 2010. Visited August 18, 2010. Available at <;

    [13]Soil Association. “Soil Association response to the Food Standards Agency’s Organic Review”. Published 7/29/2009. Visited 7/23/2010. Available at <;

    [14]Györéné KG, Varga A, Lugasi A. [A comparison of chemical composition and nutritional value of organically and conventionally grown plant derived foods]. Orv Hetil. 2006 Oct 9;147(43):2081-90. Review. Hungarian. PubMed PMID: 17297755.

    [15]Magkos F, Arvaniti F, Zampelas A. Organic food:  nutritious food or food for thought? A review of the evidence. Int J Food Sci Nutr. 2003 Sep;54(5):357-71.Review. PubMed PMID: 12907407.

    [16]Bourn D, Prescott J. A comparison of the nutritional value, sensory qualities, and food safety of organically and conventionally produced foods. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2002 Jan;42(1):1-34. Review. PubMed PMID: 11833635.

    [17]Worthington V. Nutritional quality of organic versus conventional fruits, vegetables, and grains. J Altern Complement Med. 2001 Apr;7(2):161-73. PubMed PMID: 11327522.

    [18]Google Scholar found full text at, which is where I base my comments that are not in the abstract alone.Visited 7/25/2010

    [19]Ernst E. Chiropractic: a critical evaluation. J Pain Symptom Manage. 2008 May;35(5):544-62. Epub 2008 Feb 14. Review. PubMed PMID: 18280103.

    8 glasses of water a day



    This is part of my ongoing series of articles looking into the science around various popular claims (in the same vein as Brian Dunning of Skeptoid). My goal is not necessarily to “debunk” (though that will often be the result) but more to see what the actual scientific consensus is which may be different from what we are often told from friends or news sources. This is the third in the series, I previously discussed some anti-vaccination claims and energy drinks. In this case, a friend of mine suggested I look into the truth of the need for at least eight 8 ounce (“8×8) glasses of water a day.


    I have used the same method as in my previous entries. Namely, I do a quick search for the top sites making the claim(s). When they refer to their sources, which is itself infrequent, I look take a look at those studies (as well as others that cite them) to see if the studies actually match the claim. At times, the studies might turn out to have been superseded my newer research or discredited for one reason or another. Additionally I make heavy use of Google Scholar to locate studies on the topic. Wikipedia will often be a jumping off point, but will not itself be used as a source (for obvious reasons). Also, blogs and non-scientific sites are not considered sources for the side of “science” but will be used for the claim side. In this particular case, I did not end up using the “claim” sources as this topic is pop culture enough to not need to take up space with specific quotes.


    I was actually surprised to find out that the recommended intake of water was in fact in the range of 90 ounces (2.7L) for women and 120 ounces (3.7L) for men (really it depends on age and weight). In other words, more than 64 ounces. However, at least 20% of this will come from your daily food intake. More importantly it is incorrect to claim that tea, soft drinks and coffee don’t count toward the intake, when in fact they do. Mildly alcoholic beverages have been found to show a small increase in the time it takes to rehydrate from exercise. So there is absolutely no need to feel obligated to down 2 full liters of plain water daily. The average person gets pretty well within range of the recommended intake without trying too hard.


    None of what is written here should be construed as medical advice, as I am certainly in no way qualified to provide that.

    The Claims

    Claim 1: An adult requires 64 ounces (“8×8”) of water a day

    What the science says

    Intriguingly, the recommendation of the Institute of Medicine (IOM) is actually a bit higher for a normal adult. Taking a look at the “Dietary Reference Intakes: Electrolytes and Water” published by the Institute of Medicine’s (IOM) Food and Nutrition Board, female adults should have 2.7L/day and males should have about 3.7L. However, they state that “about 20%” of that will come from food, leading to about 2.16L (73oz) and 2.96L (100oz), respectively, that should be consumed in liquid form[1].

    This is technically an average, as the actual recommendation is really based on your weight (so bigger folks like myself actually need more). The best number I can find is about 35 mL/kg[2], which translates to about .5 oz/pound. So someone around 170lbs would “need” about 80 or so ounces, while someone closer to 200 pounds would go for 100 ounces.

    What I found cool was that even in the “original” source for the recommendation, it mentions that most of the fluid intake would come from food, but that people ignored that part. From a very comprehensive review of the available literature done by Heinz Valtin of Dartmouth[3]:

    According to J. Papai (65), P. Thomas has suggested a different origin for 8 × 8. Thomas reminds us that in 1945 the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Research Council wrote (31): “A suitable allowance of water for adults is 2.5 liters daily in most instances. An ordinary standard for diverse persons is 1 milliliter for each calorie of food. Most of this quantity is contained in prepared foods.”

    Thomas suggests that the last sentence was not heeded, and the recommendation was therefore erroneously interpreted as eight glasses of water to be drunk each day.


    The current recommendation is in fact to consume about about 2.5-4L of water a day, of which at least 20% will come from food and that soft drinks and mild alcohol count toward (discussed below). If you look for it, there is also some controversy that the suggested amount is higher than necessary.

    Claim 2 : Soft drinks, coffee and alcoholic beverages don’t count

    So we’re supposed to have at least 2L of water a day, but that has to come from plain drinking water. Or does it?

    What the science says

    Let’s start with the IOM Food and Nutrition’s board actual recommendation (previously quoted above as well)[4]:

    The AIs provided are for total water in temperate climates. All sources can contribute to total water needs: beverages (including tea, coffee, juices, sodas, and drinking water) and moisture found in foods. Moisture in food accounts  for about 20% of total water intake. Thirst and consumption of beverages at meals are adequate to maintain hydration.

    So right off the bat the most official recommendation that I’m aware of contradicts popular knowledge.
    The reasons are probably related to studies that were done such as that by Ann C. Grandjean and others. In “The Effect of Caffeinated, Non-Caffeinated, Caloric and Non-Caloric Beverages on Hydration“, they concluded[5]:

    This preliminary study found no significant differences in the effect of various combinations of beverages on hydration status of healthy adult males. Advising people to disregard caffeinated beverages as part of the daily fluid intake is not substantiated by the results of this study. The across-treatment weight loss observed, when combined with data on fluid-disease relationships, suggests that optimal fluid intake may be higher than common recommendations. Further research is needed to confirm these results and to explore optimal fluid intake for healthy individuals.

    Additionally, in a controlled study where one group consumed a standard diet (except with no water, but other beverages) and another had a diet including plain water they concluded “Inclusion of plain drinking water compared to exclusion of plain drinking water in the diet did not affect the markers of hydration used in this study.“[6]

    The exception appears to be (at least) for those who are just now restarting to drink caffeine after having abstained for a week or so. Basically the body very quickly adapts to counteract the diuretic effects. In a literature review published in the Journal of Nutrition and Dietetics, the authors found [7]:

    The available literature suggests that acute ingestion of caffeine in large doses (at least 250–300 mg, equivalent to the amount found in 2–3 cups of coffee or 5–8 cups of tea) results in a short-term stimulation of urine output in individuals who have been deprived of caffeine for a period of days or weeks. A profound tolerance to the diuretic and other effects of caffeine develops, however, and the actions are much diminished in individuals who regularly consume tea or coffee. Doses of caffeine equivalent to the amount normally found in standard servings of tea, coffee and carbonated soft drinks appear to have no diuretic action.

    In terms of alcohol, in a study looking at fluid balance recovery after exercise, there appears to be no difference in recovery from dehydration whether the rehydration beverage is alcohol free or contains up to 2% alcohol, but drinks containing 4% alcohol tend to delay the recovery process.” [8]


    The actual IOM recommendation specifically mentions that non-water beverages fully contribute to the intake. At least one study indicates that mildly alcoholic beverages have a mildly net diuretic effect. One study found no difference in hydration of folks who did not intake any plain water.

    Final Note and Further Reading

    If you’re interested in some of the other dietary guidelines for vitamins in nutrients, a good jumping off point is the USDA’s National Agricultural Library DRI tables.

    Also, the article I referenced by Heinz Valtin is very interesting and significantly more thorough than mine.
    I always invite readers to comment on any of my “articles”, suggest new topics or provide additional resources. I’m available by email (address above) or at my blogs ( and


    1 Institute of Medicine’s Food and Nutrition Board. “Dietary Reference Intakes : Electrolytes and Water”. Visited 11/18/2009

    2 Ann C. Grandjean, EdD, FACN, CNS, Kristin J. Reimers, RD, MS, Mary C. Haven, MS and Gary L. Curtis, PhD. “The Effect on Hydration of Two Diets, One with and One without Plain Water”. J of Am Coll Nutr. Vol 22, No. 2, 165-173 (2003).

    3 Valtin, Heinz. “‘Drink at least eight glasses of water a day.’ Really? Is there scientific evidence for ‘8 × 8’? Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol 283: R993-R1004, 2002. First published August 8, 2002; doi:10.1152/ajpregu.00365.2002 – I would highly recommend my readers take a look at this if they want a more comprehensive look into this topic.

    4 Institute of Medicine’s Food and Nutrition Board. “Dietary Reference Intakes : Electrolytes and Water”. – See above.

    5 Ann C. Grandjean, EdD, FACN, CNS et al.”The Effect of Caffeinated, Non-Caffeinated, Caloric and Non-Caloric Beverages on Hydration”. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, Vol. 19, No. 5, 591-600 (2000).

    6 Ann C. Grandjean, EdD, FACN, CNS, Kristin J. Reimers, RD, MS, Mary C. Haven, MS and Gary L. Curtis, PhD. “The Effect on Hydration of Two Diets, One with and One without Plain Water”. J of Am Coll Nutr. Vol 22, No. 2, 165-173 (2003).

    7 R.J Maughan.”Caffeine ingestion and fluid balance: a review”. J Human Nutr. 16:6. p411-420 (2003).

    8 Susan M. Shirreffs and Ronald J. Maughan.”Restoration of fluid balance after exercise-induced dehydration: effects of alcohol consumption”. Journal of Applied Physiology. Vol. 83, No. 4, pp. 1152-1158, October 1997.

    Energy Drinks

    What does the science say:Energy Drinks

    A printable and potentially easier to read version of this can be found at

    In general I am still trying to figure out the best way to present this information, so bear with me 🙂



    I really enjoy drinking (mostly for the taste) energy drinks, especially Monster Lo-Carb. However, I am often told how bad they are for me, much much worse than regular soft drinks! I have been told that not only are they absolutely filled with caffeine, but sugar. And I will also die of a heart attack if I drink them.

    My goal in this was to look into into these claims, especially in terms of how energy drinks might compare with other popular soft drinks and caffeinated beverages. I knew that these drinks probably wouldn’t be considered “healthy”, but is it true that energy drinks represent a significantly worse health hazard then everything else we’re drinking?

    This article is part of an ongoing series, I have previously addressed some specific anti-vaccination claims1. They all have the dual purpose of allowing me to learn more about these topics as well as the inform others (and provide references) about them. I firmly believe that the spread of bad information is worse than no information at all. If you find anything in here that is not based on fact (or at least scientific studies), please let me know.

    NOTE: I plan on addressing Diet drinks in a separate one of these, in case you have comments/questions specifically regarding diet energy drinks. Also, I will not specifically address pesticide concerns about any herbal ingredients here, as that is planned for another essay.


    As I am not a scientist or doctor, I have done no original lab-based or statistical research as part of this article. Rather I have tried to find studies which may be an intended response (or investigation into) a claim, simply a study that contradicts the claim, or even science that completely confirms the claim. I will generally just quote from the studies in those cases. Occasionally I will use Wikipedia if I don’t think the particular piece of information is controversial but is rather descriptive in nature (such as describing what a chemical might be). For the controversial bits, I will always look to find the source studies.

    I have done my best to accurately present the data in an objective way. If you are reading this on the internet, all sources can be reached (as of writing here in November of 2009) via clicking on the links. If you are reading this via a printout, then the citation and URL for all sources is available in the footnotes sections for later checking.

    If the reader disagrees with the results, I would definitely appreciate some feedback with other (preferably peer-reviewed) evidence they have. As always, anecdotal stories are not scientific evidence and do not contribute to the debate.


    I’ve been asked a couple of times who a document like this is meant for. Part of it is for me (basically documenting my journey of finding out about the topic). The second audience is really for those other followers of science who may have a friend or relative making a claim about the topic (in this case energy drinks) and want some resources to be able to back up with actual numbers or studies. Or perhaps they themselves are simply unsure about whether a claim is true or not (in some cases, they might be true). The final audience are those who are convinced of the truth of what is a, I believe the science shows, false claim. To those, I hope that you are open minded enough to consider the data. In some cases, your views might even get strengthened (for instance, there’s no denying that non-diet energy drinks contain as much or more sugar than other soft drinks).
    And it is for those reasons that I try to have so many references and links (perhaps to the point of ridiculousness). Through that I can hopefully be able to address even minor details of claims that could come up (“yes, but did you consider… ?”).

    I’m also looking for ways to make this more interesting…


    I am not a doctor, research scientist or medically trained in any way. Nothing in this document should be construed as medical advice.

    The Claims

    There are a variety of claims leveled against energy drinks, which can be grouped in a variety of ways. As far as I can tell (from speaking with people and searching the Internet), the main claims are:

    • They have much higher levels of caffeine than other drinks
    • They have much higher levels of sugar than other drinks
    • They are filled with mysterious ingredients, including the unstudied herbal ones
    • When they are mixed with alcohol, chaos ensues
    • They destroy your teeth

    An example that encompasses most of these can be found at the “Quality Health” site2:

    Caffeine content in energy drinks range between 50 and more than 500 milligrams (for a 12-ounce cola drink it’s 35 milligrams, and it’s about 80 to 150 milligrams for a brewed 6-ounce cup of coffee). However, energy drinks are marketed as “dietary supplements” and the Food and Drug Administration’s caffeine content limit of 71 milligrams per 12-ounce can doesn’t apply. As a result, consumers remain in the dark about the dangers of energy drinks, which include:

    • Dental decay. A study published in the journal General Dentistry revealed that high energy drinks have the potential to erode tooth enamel more than other drinks we’re usually     warned about such as sodas, sports drinks and root beer.

    • Energy highs and crashes. In a study that investigated the energy drink consumption by college students (the key target demographic for energy drinks), 29 percent reported experiencing weekly jolt and crash episodes.

    • Headaches and heart palpitations. In the same college study, 22 percent reported having headaches, and 19 percent had heart palpitations related to drinking the energy drinks.

    • Poor perception of intoxication. Mixing an alcoholic beverage with an energy drink may help fight fatigue, but it reduces your ability to tell that you’re drunk – even more than drinking alcohol on its own, according to a study out of Brazil. This puts you at a higher risk of problems such as driving while intoxicated.

    • Higher risk of injury. In a Wake Forest study that also investigated energy drink consumption by college students, researchers found that combining alcohol with energy drinks dramatically heightened the risk of injury and other alcohol-related problems.

    • Increased risk taking. If you consume six or more energy drinks a month, you have a three times greater risk of smoking cigarettes, abusing prescription drugs, or engaging in a serious physical fight. You’re also twice as likely to abuse alcohol and smoke marijuana compared to people who don’t drink energy drinks.

    This article is one of the very few that actually cites their sources, which I have used as a basis to start.

    Their sources (last updated 9/11/2009):

    Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center press release, “Study Shows Energy Drink ‘Cocktails’ Lead to Increased Injury Risk,” Sept. 2007.

    Academy of General Dentistry press release, “New Study Indicates That Popular Sports Beverages Cause More Irreversible Damage to Teeth Than Soda,” Feb. 2005.

    Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 2009 Jan 1;99 (1-3):1-10 “Caffeinated energy drinks–a growing problem.” Reissig CJ, Strain EC, Griffiths RR.

    Nutrition Journal, Oct. 2007 6(35) “A Survey of Energy Drink Consumption Patterns Among College Students.” Brenda M Malinauskas, Victor G Aeby, Reginald F Overton, Tracy Carpenter-Aeby and Kimberly Barber-Heidal

    Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 2006 30(4):598 – 605 “Effects of Energy Drink Ingestion on Alcohol Intoxication.” Sionaldo Eduardo Ferreira, Marco Túlio de Mello, Sabine  Pompéia, and Maria Lucia Oliveira de Souza-Formigoni

    I was able to locate all of these and reference them within the main body of the article.

    And now on to the specific claims.

    Claim 1: Energy Drinks have significantly higher levels of caffeine than other drinks

    Sample claims

    Again from the Quality Health article mentioned above3:

    Last year, scientists at Johns Hopkins University called for prominent labels to warn consumers of the possible dangers of energy drinks. “The caffeine content of energy drinks varies over a 10-fold range, with some containing the equivalent of 14 cans of Coca-Cola,” says Roland Griffiths, Ph.D., a co-author of the article published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence. “Yet the caffeine amounts are often unlabeled and few include warnings about the potential health risks of caffeine intoxication.”

    From ‘s “The 6 Top Dangers of Energy Drinks, and 5 Healthy Energy-Boosting Alternatives4:

    1. Caffeine Intoxication

    Energy drinks contain anywhere from 160 mg to 300 mg of caffeine, compared with 80 mg for a typical cup of coffee. While most adults can safely drink up to 200-300 mg of caffeine a day, many teens drink several energy drinks a day, sometimes in a short period of time.

    Not surprisingly, a study by Johns Hopkins School of Medicine found that energy drinks can lead to caffeine intoxication, a condition that can cause nervousness, heart irregularities, increased blood pressure, insomnia, neurological symptoms and anxiety.

    “The caffeine content of energy drinks varies over a 10-fold range, with some containing the equivalent of 14 cans of cola, yet the caffeine amounts are unlabeled and few include warnings about potential health risks of caffeine intoxication,” the study’s author said.

    Sidebar comment: As far as I can tell, all of’s article end with with a “solution” or “alternative” product to solve the problem listed in the article, which they conveniently link to so the person can buy it. It strikes me that all of the articles are written specifically with this in mind, but this is just my personal opinion.

    What the science says

    Reading those quotes you’ll notice that both quote from a Johns Hopkins article, co-authored by Roland Griffiths. So it seemed like a good idea to locate this article and see what it had to say.

    The article is:

    Reissig, C.J., et al., Caffeinated energy drinks—A growing problem. Drug and Alcohol Dependence (2008), doi:10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2008.08.001

    The only version I could find that did not require purchase was a Google scholar cache of, which is no longer available. I apologize for any strange formatting. I’ve tried to correct bits that the Google conversion missed.

    The study is a review and commentary on other studies (sort of a meta-study). For the most part, it’s a review of the literature on caffeine in general.

    With regards to caffeine levels (emphasis mine)5:

    These drinks vary widely in both caffeine content (ranging from 50 to 505 mg per can or bottle) and caffeine concentration (ranging from 2.5 to 171 mg per fluid ounce) (Table 1). For comparison, the caffeine content of a 6 oz cup of brewed coffee varies from 77 to 150 mg (Griffiths et al., 2003).

    This all looks to be factual information, but I would like to make some points about it. First, while they show the caffeine concentration for the energy drinks, they neglect to show it for coffee. If you do the math (77 to 150 mg for 6oz) you end up with 12.8 to 25 mg/oz. Yet, the caffeine concentrations they mention for energy drinks start as low as 2.5 mg/oz (but go up to 171, but more on that in a bit). Secondly who, outside of breakfast diner patrons who drink only a single cup, have ever consumed only 6 ounces of coffee? A Tall at Starbucks is already 12 oz.

    I have reproduced a portion of the table they included in the study below (but I have added in ‘brewed coffee’ based on their information, though it is left out of their actual table):

    Ounces per bottle/can Caffeine Concentration (mg/oz) Total caffeine (mg)
    Red Bull 8.3 9.6 80
    Monster 16 10 160
    Rockstar 16 10 160
    Full Throttle 16 9 144
    No Fear 16 10.9 174
    Wired X505 24 21 505
    Fixx 20 25 500
    Coca Cola 12 2.9 34.5
    Mountain Dew 12 4.5 54
    Brewed Coffee 6 12.8 to 25 77 to 150

    The first thing that probably strikes you is that 6 ounces (a very small cup) of coffee, can have nearly twice the caffeine as Red Bull! And it can have about equivalent to a standard 16 oz can of Monster or Rockstar, the other popular energy drinks. The actual concentration for brewed coffee is more than any standard caffeinated drink, so it seems to me slightly disingenous and misleading to use it as an example of something with less caffeine.

    And what about the huge volumes they mention (up to 505 mg, or 14 cans of Coke)? Well, those are in drinks known as Wired X505 and Fixx. Ever heard of them? Neither have I. So while nobody could actually disagree about the fact that numbers are true for them, they in no way represent the norm for energy drinks.

    For more details on Starbucks (which I am using as representative of mainstream coffee shops) as well in tea (which people often bring up in caffeine conversations), I have produced portions of tables available at the Energy Fiend site. They are their “caffeine database6” and “the complete guide to Starbucks coffee7“:

    Drink drink ounces concentration (mg/oz) total caffeine (mg)
    Starbucks Brewed Coffee (Tall) 12 21.6 260
    Starbucks Brewed Coffee (Grande) 16 20.625 330
    Starbucks Brewed Coffee (Venti) 20 20.75 415
    Latte (Tall) 12 6.25 75
    Latte (Grande/Venti) 16/20 9.375/7.5 150
    Coca Cola 33 (1 liter) 2.9 95.7
    Tea (Brewed) 8 3.1 47
    Tea (Green) 8 3.1 25
    Tea (Brewed, Imported) 8 7.5 60

    If you compare this to the previous table, you’ll find that Starbucks brewed coffees (as with any brewed coffee) just blow energy drinks (except for the crazy 500 mg ones) out of the water. Espresso/latte is of approximately the same concentration and amount as standard energy drinks.

    I have combined these tables and produced a chart which hopefully makes the comparison even more obvious

    Caffeine Content of Popular Drinks

    Continuing from the same study, with regards to caffeine toxicity8:

    Concern regarding the caffeine content of energy drinks is prompted by the potential adverse consequences of caffeine use. One such adverse effect is caffeine intoxication, a recognized clinical syndrome included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR) and theWorld Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases(ICD-10)(American Psychiatric Association,1994;World Health Organization, 1992a,b). Caffeine toxicity is defined by specific symptoms that emerge as a direct result of caffeine consumption. Common features of caffeine intoxication include nervousness, anxiety, restlessness, insomnia, gastrointestinal upset, tremors, tachycardia, psychomotor agitation (American Psychiatric Association, 1994) and in rare cases, death (Garriott etal.,1985;Kerrigan and Lindsey,2005;Mrvosetal.,1989).The symptoms of caffeine intoxication can mimic those of anxiety and other mood disorders (Greden, 1974).The consumption of energy drinks may increase the risk for caffeine overdose in caffeine abstainers as well as habitual consumers of caffeine from coffee,soft drinks, and tea.

    Basically, caffeine can make you hyper and could also have some other negative effects in same cases. So in this case energy drinks are not the culprit here any more (and in fact less in many cases) than other frequently consumed caffeinated beverages.

    The full cite for the Garriott study referenced above is: Garriott, J.C., Simmons, L.M., Poklis, A., Mackell, M.A., 1985. Five cases of fatal overdose from caffeine-containing “look-alike” drugs. J. Anal. Toxicol. 9, 141–143

    From the abstract9:

    Five cases of death from ingestion of “look-alike” dose forms are reported. “Look-alikes” are widely used non-prescription drugs sold as appetite suppressants or stimulants. Three of the cases had taken caffeine/ephedrine combinations, and two had taken caffeine only. All had lethal concentrations of caffeine detected in the blood (130 to 344 mg/L), and three had high ephedrine concentrations from 3.5 to 20.5 mg/L. Caffeine and ephedrine were measured in body fluids and tissues (when available) by SIM gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GC/MS) after extraction with diethyl ether.

    So in these already rare cases, 3 were because they had taken ephedrine along with the caffeine and the other two had taken lethal level doses of caffeine. In other words, they did not just have a Red Bull and die.

    And finally (from the Ressig study above):

    The absence of regulatory oversight has resulted in aggressive marketing of energy drinks, targeted primarily toward young males, for psychoactive, performance-enhancing and stimulant drug effects. There are increasing reports of caffeine intoxication from energy drinks, and it seems likely that problems with caffeine dependence and withdrawal will also increase.
    One limitation of the present review is that the great majority of the knowledge about caffeine intoxication, withdrawal, and dependenceis derived from studies of coffee consumption. However, studies that have examined these phenomena in the context of caffeine delivered via soft drinks or capsules have shown similar results (e.g. Juliano and Griffiths, 2004; Strain et al., 1994).
    Thus, there is no reason to suppose that delivery of caffeine via energy drinks would appreciably alter these processes.

    Drinking too much caffeine can be bad, regardless of its source. My can of Monster actually contains the warning:

    Consume responsibly – Limit (3) cans per day. Not recommended for children, pregnant women or people sensitive to caffeine.

    Lest you think that the only thing beneficial from caffeine is the energy boost, a WebMD article has the following10:

    After analyzing data on 126,000 people for as long as 18 years, Harvard researchers calculate that compared with not partaking in America’s favorite morning drink, downing one to three cups of caffeinated coffee daily can reduce diabetes risk by single digits. But having six cups or more each day slashed men’s risk by 54% and women’s by 30% over java avoiders.

    In recent decades, some 19,000 studies have been done examining coffee’s impact on health. And for the most part, their results are as pleasing as a gulp of freshly brewed Breakfast Blend for the 108 million Americans who routinely enjoy this traditionally morning — and increasingly daylong — ritual. In practical terms, regular coffee drinkers include the majority of U.S. adults and a growing number of children.

    Overall, the research shows that coffee is far more healthful than it is harmful,” says Tomas DePaulis, PhD, research scientist at Vanderbilt University’s Institute for Coffee Studies, which conducts its own medical research and tracks coffee studies from around the world. “For most people, very little bad comes from drinking it, but a lot of good.”

    Consider this: At least six studies indicate that people who drink coffee on a regular basis are up to 80% less likely to develop Parkinson’s, with three showing the more they drink, the lower the risk. Other research shows that compared to not drinking coffee, at least two cups daily can translate to a 25% reduced risk of colon cancer, an 80% drop in liver cirrhosis risk, and nearly half the risk of gallstones.


    Energy drinks contain caffeine in varying numbers. If your goal is to get a boost of energy, they are one path to that. But coffee is actually a much “better” source of caffeine to get the extra kick. The average energy drink does contain a good amount more caffeine (4-5x) than the average soft drink (Coke, Pepsi, etc). So they are somewhere in the middle. So if the argument you are making or are hearing is that energy drinks represent “worse” caffeine levels than anything else, the argument really does not hold water.

    The many thousands of Americans who start their day in a coffee shop are getting as much or more caffeine than those who start their day with an energy drink such as Red Bull or Monster. The high-caffeine (400+ mg) energy drinks do exist, but it is my view that they don’t represent the mainstream assuming you can even locate them.

    In terms of the the caffeine itself, there have been medical studies demonstrating that it can raise your heart rate and make you restless or anxious and in extremely rare cases of high doses, lead to death. It has also been shown to be very beneficial for helping to prevent some diseases. So partake wisely.

    Claim 2: Energy Drinks have significantly higher levels of sugar than other drinks

    Sample claims

    Somewhat surprisingly, I found it difficult to find many popular articles addressing the sugar content in energy. One of the few that I happened to see is from the previously mentioned “6 Dangers of Energy Drinks” article:


    Energy drinks contain a lot of sugar (at least 7 teaspoons for each can)

    So I guess suffice to say is that the claim is that energy drinks have a lot of sugar.

    What the science says

    There isn’t much to dispute here. Non-diet energy drinks contain similar concentrations of sugar as other standard soft drinks.

    I have reproduced a portion of another table from the ever-useful “Energy Fiend” site11:

    Drink Ounces Sugar Grams g/oz
    Cherry Coke 12 42 3.50
    Chocolate Milk 8 24 3.00
    Clearly Canadian daily ENERGY 20 30 1.50
    Club-Mate 16.9 27 1.60
    Coca-Cola Blak 8 12 1.50
    Coca-Cola C2 12 18 1.50
    Coca-Cola caffeine free 8 27 3.38
    Coca-Cola Classic 12 40.5 3.38
    Cocaine Energy Drink 8.4 18 2.14
    Monster 16 54 3.38
    Monster Lo-Carb 16.9 7 0.41
    Red Bull 8.46 27 3.19
    Rockstar 16 62 3.88
    Starbucks Bottled Frappucino 9.5 33 3.47
    Starbucks Double Shot 6.5 17 2.62
    Starbucks Grande Caffe Latte 16 20 1.25

    Assuming this table is accurate, energy drinks are about average when compared to Coke or even bottled Frappucino. An individual can of Monster will have more sugar due to its higher volume, but the concentration is the side (i.e. someone having a liter bottle of Coke would actually get more caffeine than from a standard can of Monster).

    There is also interesting diagram of calorie and sugar content of different drinks available at


    Energy drinks have about the same sugar by volume as other soft drinks. Because most energy drinks (other than Red Bull) come in 16 oz cans, an actual can will tend to have more actual sugar than a can of Coke or Pepsi.. So if sugar is your worry, then you can have the sugar-free versions (the “dangers” of which I will address in a later article), which is the path I tend to take.

    In other words, it is not true that energy drinks contain significantly more energy then other soft drinks. The effects of too much sugar are well known and I don’t see any reason to go into them here.

    Claim 3: The “herbal” and otherwise mysterious ingredients in energy drinks have unknown side effects

    Sample Claims

    From’s “The Dangers of Energy Drinks” (emphasis my own)12:

    The problem with many of these energy drinks is not what you know is in them but what you don’t know or aren’t familiar with. While one of the most common ingredients in energy drinks is caffeine, this is only the tip of the iceberg as far as problems go … But what about the other common ingredients in energy drinks, the ones you probably never heard of? We are just beginning to learn of the problems associated with some of these ingredients, especially when mixed with other things, such as drugs.

    To give you an example of what I am talking about, guarana, which is a very popular ingredient in many energy drinks, is a central nervous system stimulant. What you don’t know is that consuming these drinks and then mixing them with drinks containing ephedrine or diet pills can be very dangerous.

    Another popular ingredient in energy drinks is taurine, which is actually something that we naturally get from foods that contain vitamin B6. We normally get more than enough taurine in our diet and the extra amount that we get from these energy drinks, depending on how much we consume, can become toxic in our systems.

    But even worse than what we know about the ingredients in these energy drinks that can be harmful, especially if mixed with other items, is what we don’t know. The FDA has all but admitted that many of the ingredients in most popular energy drinks have not been fully tested as to their degree of “safeness.” This is not to say that these ingredients are good or bad, simply that we don’t know. When you combine these factors with what we do know, that caffeine and some ingredients in these energy drinks can be harmful, it is almost like playing Russian Roulette with a fully loaded revolver to your head, especially if you’re like most people who consume energy drinks. It is common knowledge that most energy drink consumers are not casual users and consume large quantities of these drinks. This fact just makes the consumption of these drinks that much more dangerous.

    The article is somewhat balanced, but the writer does something misleading by talking about guarana and then immediately going into caffeine dangers, which I guess is supposed to lead us to make a connection between the two.

    It seems a bit unfair to bring up ephedrine and diet pills in combination of energy drinks, as they are dangerous even without mixing them with drinks. I believe they are referring to the incidents (mention in the caffeine section) of 3 people dying after having consuming a lot of diet pills mixed with caffeine. That same study mentions the 2 deaths where were reported to be exclusively from a large amount of caffeine.

    And from a blog called Global Healing Center, an entry entitled “The Health Dangers of Energy Drinks13:

    My main concern with the use of the herbs in these drinks is their source. The mass manufacturers of energy drinks are not required by law to list whether or not the herbs they use, have been sprayed with toxic pesticides, irradiated or watered with contaminated water supplies, so there is no telling what other toxins are contained in these drinks and whether or not these herbs will have a negative effect on the body.”

    “The bottom line concerning energy drinks is that medical professionals simply do not know the long-term effects of consuming these beverages. It is known, however, that large amounts of sugar and caffeine are harmful to our bodies. For people to utilize energy drinks during exercise or other strenuous activity compounds the problem of dehydration, and does nothing to provide the body with any necessary nutrients or fluids.”

    It’s hard to comment on this specifically as the entire “argument” is “eh, we dunno… they might or might not be dangerous, so you should be afraid of them”. We already know you shouldn’t take vast quantities of caffeine and sugar. But it doesn’t require energy drinks to do that, just use common sense.

    What the science says

    Addressing this is made somewhat more difficult by the fact that most of the actual scientific articles sounds remarkably like the claims above. Namely, the main gist is “we don’t know” what the effects of guarana, etc are but express a general sense of dis-ease about them.

    From the previously quoted Reissig et al study14:

    The main active ingredient in energy drinks is caffeine, although other substances such as taurine, riboflavin, pyridoxine, nicotinamide, other B vitamins, and various herbal derivatives are also present (Aranda and Morlock, 2006). The acute and long-term effects resulting from excessive and chronic consumption of these additives alone and in combination with caffeine are not fully known

    But a much less wish-washy conclusion can be found in the 2008 study “Safety Issues Associated With Commercially Available Energy Drinks“, published in the Journal of the American Pharmacists Association, which concluded15:

    Conclusion: The amounts of guarana, taurine, and ginseng found in popular energy drinks are far below the amounts expected to deliver either therapeutic benefits or adverse events. However, caffeine and sugar are present in amounts known to cause a variety of adverse health effects.

    The approach I will take is to try to take each of the ingredients in turn, and see if there are any known dangers of them or what their purpose is.

    Ingredients of example energy drink (Monster Lo-Carb in this case)

    I have highlighted in orange the chemicals brought up in the “claim” section.
    • acesulfame potassium41 [Wikipedia link]
      • Another non-caloric sweetener (aka Acesulfame K)
      • See the reference for the 5th bullet on sucralose for safety studies
    • sodium chloride
      • Standard table salt (NaCl)
    • glucuronolactone
      • Considered one of the “active” ingredients in energy drinks (along with caffeine and taurine)
      • It’s unclear to me what it is exact function is, but it might be a stimulant (apparently it’s part of what produces a “high” feeling with tea)
      • It’s mentioned specifically in studies that looked42 at the efficacy43 of energy drinks.
    • inositol (most likely myo-inositol)
    • guarana46 [Wikipedia link]
    • seed extract (presumably grapefruit) [Wikipedia link]
    • pyridoxine hydrochloride51 [Wikipedia link]
      • A version of vitamin B6 (about 4mg in 16oz can)
      • Helps promote red blood cell production
      • Most comes from milk and meat products
      • Most beneficial at levels between 101 and 150 mg, but at chronic daily levels starting at 200mg (50 cans) but really around 1000 mg (250 cans) can cause temporary sensory and nerve damage52.
        • So to directly address the original claim… yes this can be “toxic” but only in very very large doses.
        • There was a study that claimed doses of 10mg could be dangerous, but this study has been discredited
    • riboflavin53 [Wikipedia link]
      • A version of vitamin B2 (about 4mg in 16oz can)
      • Common in milk, cheese, leafy green vegetables, liver, kidneys, soybeans, yeast, almonds
      • Not very fat soluble, so not toxic via ingestion (unabsorbed amounts over 20mg or so come out as bright yellow urine)
    • maltodextrin54 [Wikipedia link]
    • cyanocobalamin56 [Wikipedia link]
    So that’s that… it does not appear that any of these would represent some shocking health hazard based on the science. Some of them in very large levels could prove toxic, but the same can be said of anything including water. In the cases of things like guarana and taurine, the study above found that most likely the levels (regardless of the potential benefits of the chemical itself) in energy drinks are not high enough to have any noticeable effect.
    There was an additional claim about pesticides in the herbal ingredients or them being watered with toxic water. This is one of those that is difficult to address because it is simply thrown out there as a “what if!?” hypothetical. So on that note I will leave it for a later essay devoted to pesticides (kind of a cop out I suppose, but I think it would take quite a bit more time to find any evidence either way).


    Hard to say here. I did not find anything in the research about the ingredients that would lead me to believe they are dangerous (especially in the levels in an energy drink). In fact, most are more beneficial than I was aware of. And this is without actually attempting to specifically look for benefits of the ingredients or energy drinks in general. It does seem true that the “long term” effects of the full complement of ingredients has not been done, but I don’t know that it is seen as being warranted by the scientific community. Red Bull was introduced in Austria in the late 80s, so that could be the place to look.
    For the cases where the original claim said that some of the herbal and amino acid ingredients could become toxic, the levels are significantly higher than a person could reasonably consume in a day via energy drinks. For taurine specifically, it is a damn crucial chemical!

    Claim 4: The dangers increase when mixed with alcohol

    Sample Claims

    From the sixwise article mentioned previously:

    Heart Failure

    Energy drinks are commonly used as mixers for alcoholic drinks in bars and nightclubs, and there are now new pre-mixed alcoholic energy drinks on the market.

    The dangerous combination of mixing energy drinks, a stimulant, with alcohol, a depressant, has proven deadly. “It is scary to think that these energy drinks are being used as a mixer with vodka and whiskey,” said David Pearson, a researcher in the Human Performance Laboratory at Ball State University. “You are just overloading the body with heavy stimulants and heavy depressants.” The resulting mix can lead to cardiopulmonary and cardiovascular failure.

    What the science says

    Also again from the Reissig article mentioned above in the section on caffeine, but this time relating to alcohol consumption:

    There is an association between the heavy use of caffeine and the heavy use of alcohol (Istvan and Matarazzo,1984;Kozlowski et al., 1993), and the ingestion of energy drinks in combination with alcohol is becoming increasingly popular (O’Brien et al.2008; Oteri et al., 2007), with 24% of a large stratified sample of college students reporting such consumption within the past 30 days (O’Brien et al., 2008). In the previously mentioned survey of 496 college students, 27% reported mixing alcohol and energy drinks in the past month. Of those that mixed energy drinks and alcohol, 49% used more than three energy drinks per occasion when doing so (Malinauskas et al., 2007). In a survey of 1253 college students, energy drink users were disproportionately male and consumed alcohol more frequently than non-energy drink users (Arria et al., 2008)

    And from a 2006 study “Effects of Energy Drink Ingestion on Alcohol Intoxication” which looked to see if energy drinks actually had any effect on the intoxication (versus perception of intoxication)58:

    Conclusions: Even though the subjective perceptions of some symptoms of alcohol intoxication were less intense after the combined ingestion of the alcohol plus energy drink, these effects were not detected in objective measures of motor coordination and visual reaction time, as well as on the breath alcohol concentration.

    And from the discussion section (emphasis my own):

    Riesselmann et al. (1996) suggested that users of alcohol plus energy drinks might have their judgment affected by the reduced subjective sensation of intoxication, thus increasing the probability of their becoming involved in accidents after the combined ingestion of these drinks. Besides, the increase in the alcohol palatability reported by many users of energy drinks could lead youth toward a higher consumption of alcoholic beverages

    The Riesselmann study referenced above appears to be of single case study of a DUI in Germany
    From the abstract (PubMed translation of the original German)59:

    In the case discussed here-both the 20-year-old car driver and his passenger suffered not inconsiderable injuries-an alcohol concentration of 1.2 per mille was found at the time a blood sample was taken. Furthermore, a caffeine content of 1.5 micrograms/ml was noted. A value also reached after drinking a cup of filter coffee. In contrast, values of 2 to 10 micrograms/ml are reached when caffeine is used for therapeutic purposes. Values of more than 15 micrograms/ml are considered toxic. The measured caffeine content was thus fully insignificant. The same also applies to the “active ingredients” (taurine, glucuronolactone) contained in the beverage “Red Bull”. Another assumption that, namely, the effect of alcohol can be offset by such beverages could lead to a situation in which young people incorrectly assess their ability to drive after imbibing alcohol and fitness drinks.

    The 1.2 per mill, would correspond to .12 per cent, certainly over the legal limit but not ridiculously so.

    So the general idea here is that if you consume some number of energy drinks with alcohol, you will feel less impaired than you actually are and so might either consume more alcohol or otherwise make dangerous decisions (DUI).

    I suspect the majority of energy drink consumption is not in combination with alcohol and that generally the alcohol will be in larger volumes than in this test. But that is purely my own conjecture.


    This seems to be scientifically valid concern (though to what extent it is not clear). If you are going to consume energy drinks with alcohol, be aware that your subjective experience of “being drunk” may be affected. Granted, once you have reached a certain point in your alcohol consumption that ability to judge will go out the window anyhow. I think the danger is more going to be at those borderline (~.10%) cases where the person is not ridiculously drunk but is in the range of DUI.


    Claim 5: Energy drinks destroy your teeth

    Sample Claims

    From the “Quality Health” article referenced above:

    Dental decay. A study published in the journal General Dentistry revealed that high energy drinks have the potential to erode tooth enamel more than other drinks we’re usually     warned about such as sodas, sports drinks and root beer.

    And from the “Yale-New Haven Children Hospital” general info site60:

    According to the study cited in General Dentistry, the Academy of General Dentistry’s clinical, peer-reviewed journal, enamel damage caused by non-cola andsports beverages was 3 to 11 times greater than cola-based drinks.

    A study by the University of Maryland revealed that regular long-term use of these beverages may cause irreversible damage to dental enamel – the thin, outer layer that helps preserve the tooth’s structure and prevent decay.”

    Lead author Dr. Anthony von Fraunhofer, professor of biomaterials science at the University of Maryland Dental School, exposed tooth enamel from cavity-free molars and premolars to a variety of popular sports beverages including energy drinks, fitness waterand sports drinks and cola and non-cola beverages – such as bottled lemonade and canned iced tea. The tooth enamel was steeped in the drinks for a total of 14 days, and weighed every 24 to 48 hours. The solution’s acidity was checked, and solutions were changed daily. The exposure timewas intended to simulate the effects of normal beverage consumption over about 13 years.

    While all the drinks produced some enamel damage, von Fraunhofer found the most wear occurred, in descending order, from lemonade, energy drinks, sports drinks, fitness water (often with citrus flavors), ice tea and cola. Von Fraunhofer said most cola drinks contain acids, but energy and sport drinks also contain other organic acids that can speed up damage to the enamel.

    To be balanced, they also include a response to that study:

    “The study from Maryland uses an experimental approach that takes the tooth out of the mouth and uses a non-real-world situation to see if beverages have an impact on tooth weight,” said Craig Horswill, senior research fellow at the Gatorade Sports Science Institute. He pointed to another study, published in the European journal Caries Research in 2002, that found no relationship between sports-drink consumption and dental erosion in more than 300 athletes.

    What the science says

    The study being referenced is:
    von Fraunhofer JA, Rogers MM. Effects of sports drinks and other beverages on dental enamel. Gen Dent. 2005 Jan-Feb;53(1):28-31. PubMed PMID: 15779219.

    From the actual study summary61:

    Enamel dissolution occurred in all of the tested beverages, with far greater attack occurring in flavored and energy (sports) drinks than previously noted for water and cola drinks. No correlation was found between enamel dissolution and beverage pH. Non-cola drinks, commercial lemonades, and energy/sports drinks showed the most aggressive dissolution effect on dental enamel. Reduced residence times of beverages in the mouth by salivary clearance or rinsing would appear to be beneficial.

    I found it interesting that actually lemonade was the worst of the bunch. The response above should also be noted (taking into account that the guy is from the “Gatorade Sports Science Institute”) that in the real-world, your teeth are not bathed continuously in the drink for 14 days days (this type of study is known as an “in vitro” study), and that at least one other study has actually found no relationship in the world world with tooth decay by sports drinks.

    Furthermore, although there is much in vitro evidence that acidic drinks such as wine, fruit juices and carbonated soft drinks have erosive potential and there are relationships between consumption of these drinks and erosion, only one study has reported an association between sports drinks and dental erosion. Other factors such as drinking habit and salivary production may be more important determinants of dental erosion.

    Basically, this one in vitro study has found a dental erosion correlation, but when looking at actual people there isn’t much there.


    This one seems somewhat inconclusive. Basically, studies testing direct bathing of teeth in energy and sports drinks show tooth decay. Evaluations of actual do not appear to relate equivalent amounts of decay due to other factors. So, swallow regularly I suppose.


    As part of my research, I was not looking to prove that energy drinks were “good” for you, only that they were not as bad as some people claim. The look into the ingredients did have the side effect of definitely making want to continue drinking them (even if the quantities of the ingredients might not be enough to offer their claimed benefit). In any case, it seems unfair to say that they are any worse than the beverages (coffee, soda, etc) consumed by the same people making the claim the energy drinks represent something akin to a narcotic. And depending on which axis their claim is about (i.e. caffeine levels, sugar, acidity, etc), energy drinks are actually better/lower than commonly consumed drinks that are considered more mainstream, such as a coffee from Starbucks or a Coke. Unless all you drink is water…

    In a sense, even the naysayers have been swayed by the marketing (“it gives you wings!”) into believing that energy drinks are full of mysterious substances wreaking havoc on the body. The claims don’t appear to me to hold much water and in some cases are exactly the opposite as claimed. I’m going to continue to drink my much-loved Monster Lo-Carb with knowledge that soft drinks in general are not the best thing in the world, but that energy drinks are really no worse.

    The reader can decide if they agree with my conclusions.


    1 My previous article about anti-vaccination claims.

    2 – Quality Health’s “Dangers of Energy drinks”. Visited November 8, 2009

    3 See above.

    4 – The 6 Top Dangers of Energy Drinks, and 5 Healthy Energy-Boosting Alternatives. Visited November 8, 2009

    5 Reissig, C.J., et al., Caffeinated energy drinks-A growing problem. Drug and Alcohol Dependency (2008).

    6 Energy Fiend “caffeine database” list of caffeine content of popular drinks

    7 Energy Fiend guide to Starbucks coffee

    8 Ressig et al (see previous footnoets)

    9 Garriott, J.C., Simmons, L.M., Poklis, A., Mackell, M.A., 1985. Five cases of fatal overdose from caffeine-containing “look-alike” drugs. J. Anal. Toxicol. 9, 141–143

    10 Visited November 8, 2009.

    11 Energy Fiend table of sugar levels.

    12 e-zine article with claims about energy drinks

    13 Blog entry called “The Health Dangers of Energy Drinks”



    Kevin A. Clauson; Kelly M. Shields; Cydney E. McQueen; Nikki Persad. Safety Issues Associated With Commercially Available Energy Drinks. Published: 11/24/2008

    16 – Human enamel erosion in constant composition citric acid solutions as a function of degree of saturation with respect to hydroxyapatite

    17 “Taurine deficiency is a cause of vigabatrin-induced retinal phototoxicity”

    18 – Enamfily ProSobee description

    19 “Taurine: Its biologic role and implications”

    20 Ferko AP, Bobyock E. Effect of taurine on ethanol-induced sleep time in mice

    genetically bred for differences in ethanol sensitivity. Pharmacol Biochem Behav.

    1988 Nov;31(3):667-73. PubMed PMID: 3251249.

    21 – notes on Taurine

    22 European Union, Scientific Community on Food. “Opinion on Caffeine, Taurine and D-Glucurono – g -Lactone as constituents of so-called “energy” drinks”. 1999 – This is actually a pretty interesting article, which seems to have been written in with a similar goal to mine to address concerns.

    23 – Alka Seltzer (for sodium citrate)

    24  Banerjee U, Izquierdo JA. Antistress and antifatigue properties of Panax

    ginseng: comparison with piracetam. Acta Physiol Lat Am. 1982;32(4):277-85.

    PubMed PMID: 6892267.

    25 Rai Deepak et al. Anti-stress Effects of Ginkgo biloba and Panax ginseng: a Comparative

    Study. Journal of Pharmacological Society. 93, 458 – 464 (2003)


    27  Contact reaction (with reference to sorbic acid)

    28 N H Mezitis. Glycemic effect of a single high oral dose of the novel sweetener sucralose in patients with diabetes. Diabetes Care September 1996 vol.19 no. 9 1004-1005 doi: 10.2337/diacare.19.9.1004

    29 S. W. Manna. A combined chronic toxicity/carcinogenicity study of sucralose in Sprague–Dawley rats. Food and Chemical Toxicology Volume 38, Supplement 2, July 2000, Pages 71-89

    30    Neurotoxicity Studies on Sucralose and its Hydrolysis Products with Special Reference to Histopathologic and Ultrastructural Changes

    31 (see section called “Sucralose”). Manfred Kroger et al. Low-calorie Sweeteners and Other Sugar Substitutes: A Review of the Safety Issues. Volume 5 Issue 2. pp35-47.

    32 Rajendrakumar M. Patel. Popular Sweetner Sucralose as a Migraine Trigger. Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain. Vol 46. Issue 8.



    35  (Same as above)


    37 Evans A.M.1; Fornasini G.2. Pharmacokinetics of L-Carnitine. Clinical Pharmacokinetics, Volume 42, Number 11, 2003 , pp. 941-967(27)

    38 l-Carnitine and the recovery from exhaustive endurance exercise: a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial

    39 aka Niacinamide

    40 M. Knip et al. Safety of high-dose nicotinamide: a review. Diabetologia. Vol. 43, Number 11. Oct 2000. doi:10.1007/s001250051536. Full text available at


    42 Horne JA, Reyner LA. Beneficial effects of an “energy drink” given to sleepy drivers. Amino Acids. 2001;20(1):83-9. PubMed PMID: 11310933.

    43 Warburton DM, Bersellini E, Sweeney E. An evaluation of a caffeinated taurine drink on mood, memory and information processing in healthy volunteers without caffeine abstinence. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2001 Nov;158(3):322-8. PubMed

    PMID: 11713623.

    44 Myo-inositol content of common foods: development of a high-myo-inositol diet

    45 Fux M, Levine J, Aviv A, Belmaker RH. Inositol treatment of

    obsessive-compulsive disorder. Am J Psychiatry. 1996 Sep;153(9):1219-21. PubMed

    PMID: 8780431.



    Haskell CF, Kennedy DO, Wesnes KA, Milne AL, Scholey AB (January 2007). “A double-blind, placebo-controlled, multi-dose evaluation of the acute behavioral effects of guaraná in humans”. J. Psychopharmacol. (Oxford) 21 (1): 65–70. doi:10.1177/0269881106063815. PMID 16533867

    48 R. Matteia,R. F. Diasb, E. B. Espínolab, E. A. Carlinia and S. B. M. Barrosc. “Guarana (Paullinia cupana): toxic behavioral effects in laboratory animals and antioxidant activity in vitro”. Journal of Ethnopharmacology. Vol 60. Issue 2. March 1998. pp111-116 From abstract.

    49 Armando C, Maythe S, Beatriz NP (December 1997). “Antioxidant activity of grapefruit seed extract on vegetable oils”. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture 77 (4): 463–7. doi:10.1002/(SICI)1097-0010(199808)77:4<463::AID-JSFA62>3.0.CO;2-1.

    50 Vanamala J, Leonardi T, Patil BS, et al. (June 2006). “Suppression of colon carcinogenesis by bioactive compounds in grapefruit”. Carcinogenesis 27 (6): 1257–65. doi:10.1093/carcin/bgi318. PMID 16387741

    51 (for pyridoxine hydrochloride – B6)

    52 – Aliya N. Chaudary, Adam Porter-Blake. Patrick Holford. “Indices of Pyridoxine Levels on Symptoms Associated with Toxicity: A Retrospective Study”



    55 – Gluten Free Living site addressing fact that maltodextrin is gluten-free


    57 – BERNARD A. COOPER and LOUIS LOWENSTEIN. “Relative Folate Deficiency of Erythrocytes in Pernicious Anemia and its Correction with Cyanocobalamin”. Blood, 1964, Vol. 24, No. 5, pp. 502-521.

    58 Sionaldo Eduardo Ferreira, Marco Túlio de Mello, Sabine  Pompéia, and Maria Lucia Oliveira de Souza-Formigoni. “Effects of Energy Drink Ingestion on Alcohol Intoxication.” ALCOHOLISM: CLINICAL AND EXPERIMENTAL RESEARCH. April 2006 Vol. 30, No. 4

    59 Blutalkohol. 1996 Jul;33(4):201-8.

    [Alcohol and energy drink–can combined consumption of both beverages modify automobile driving fitness?]

    PMID: 8924273


    61 – von Fraunhofer JA, Rogers MM. Effects of sports drinks and other beverages on dental enamel. Gen Dent. 2005 Jan-Feb;53(1):28-31. PubMed PMID: 15779219.

    62 – Coombes JS.”Sports drinks and dental erosion”. Am J Dent. 2005 Apr;18(2):101-4.

    Welcome, and a response to some anti-vaccination claims

    Hi there. This is the first of what I hope to be a weeky or bi-weekly series of entries on what the science actually has to say about certain topics.

    My intent is not to dissuade those who have already decided that some form of pseudo-science is true. Instead, I want to address those who for the most part believe that modern science is right, but have perhaps heard about a claim about a scientific topic and are curious about what the current scientific consensus is.

    In essence… I try to debunk pseudoscience but realize I will not convince anyone who has already made their decision.

    To get things started, I am linking to something I recently wrote on another of my blogs, which made me decide to start this one.

    The article is a response to some anti-vaccination claims that were presented to me:

    I invite anybody to send questions or comments to

    And comments will be open on any posting.