Apr 26, 2018
Burst of Energy
Dr. Kris Clark

There are typically two main ingredients in energy supplements: carbohydrates and caffeine. Most manufacturers also include other ingredients that have health benefits beyond an energy boost to separate themselves from their competitors. Here is a guide to some of these ingredients and what they do:

Guarana: This South American bush produces potent caffeine-rich seeds. When compared to coffee beans, which contain anywhere from one to 2.5 percent caffeine, guarana seeds contain four to eight percent more per serving. Guarana is reputed to be a stimulant that increases mental alertness, fights fatigue, and increases stamina and physical endurance.

Yerba mate: Another South American plant, “mate” is a source of caffeine when the leaves are brewed for tea. Its caffeine content is low compared to coffee or guarana seeds and is Generally Recognized as Safe by the Food and Drug Administration.

Creatine: A calorie-free, nitrogen-containing substance naturally occurring in very small amounts in humans, creatine helps supply energy to muscle cells by producing adenosine triphosphate, which transports chemical energy within cells for metabolism. Extensive research shows that daily doses between five and 20 grams have no negative health effects on adults.

Coupled with weight training, the benefits of ingesting creatine appear to be increased muscle mass and weight gain. But taking a supplement containing creatine just before a workout will not improve energy levels unless the product also contains carbohydrates and/or caffeine. Benefits from creatine come from daily use over time, and it is considered more of a training aid than an immediate energy-enhancing agent.

Taurine: This non-essential amino acid (a building block of protein) is necessary for normal skeletal muscle functioning, but humans can produce enough of it naturally by eating a wide variety of protein sources. The amount of it present in energy supplements will not harm the body.

Branched-chain amino acids: Including leucine, isoleucine, and valine, these essential amino acids must come from diet and/or supplements because, unlike taurine, the body cannot manufacture them. Some believe their consumption aids in gaining lean muscle mass.

L-Carnitine: Produced in the body by the amino acids methionine and lysine, L-carnitine is required to help shuttle fatty acids into the cells to be used as an energy source. Manufacturers include it in energy supplements because it gives the impression that it burns fat, though this hasn’t been proven.

Inositol: A substance made naturally in the body, inositol is added to energy supplements because of its potential link to cell membrane integrity. The amount found in energy products will not harm the body.

B vitamins: These water soluble and essential vitamins must come from diet or supplements. They play a role in breaking down carbohydrates, fat, and protein so they can serve as energy sources for working muscles. Athletes should have no problem eating foods with plenty of B vitamins since they’re plentiful in dairy, grain-based foods, and meats. Since B vitamins will be excreted in urine if excess amounts are consumed, there is no risk associated with consuming extra B vitamins found in energy supplements.

Ginkgo biloba: An herb primarily touted for its effect on memory performance, supplement manufacturers claim ginkgo biloba improves blood flow and oxygen delivery to the brain and subsequently better helps deliver nutrients.

Glucuronolactone: A naturally-occurring substance that is part of all connective tissue, glucuronolactone is used in energy products by manufacturers under claims it will detoxify the blood. Studies have shown that levels up to 1,000 milligrams per serving is safe.

None of the ingredients listed are “bad” for an athlete to consume, as long as it’s not in excess. A lot of choosing which energy supplement to take will be based on personal preference. For some, it has to do with taste and texture. I know athletes who can’t seem to get the gels down but love the chews and beans–and vice versa.

Consider a reasonable investigation of any energy product before suggesting it to your athletes because all products are not created equally. Take into account the ingredients on the nutrition facts label, but keep in mind that the NCAA, which partners with the organization Drug Free Sport, takes a hard line in this area: No supplement is a safe supplement. Contaminated products do exist, which means ingredients may be present in a product without being identified on the nutrition facts label.

Image by Lance Cpl. Heather Johnson.

Kris Clark, PhD, RD, FACSM, is a nutrition consultant and the former Director of Sports Nutrition and an Assistant Professor at Pennsylvania State University, where she coordinated nutrition planning for more than 800 varsity athletes.

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