Why are Red Bull and other energy drinks so popular? And are they doing you more harm than good? WITH 2 SIDEBARS

Zack Peterson of East Peoria is a big fan of Mountain Dew. The 17-year-old goes through about a case a week in the summer months.

But when the computer gaming enthusiast takes part in LAN (local access network) parties -- gatherings where computer gaming enthusiasts hook up their computers and compete against each other -- sometimes he sips something stronger. A can of Red Bull has about 80 milligrams of caffeine, the equivalent of about two cans of Coke. It helps him stay alert during the parties, which are usually held at a friend's house or a rented facility and last anywhere from 12 to 36 hours.

"(I'll drink) three or four cans," said the teen, who plays varsity tennis and soccer. "I drink it over about a two-hour timespan, and that will last me maybe a day. ... It just keeps me awake. I really don't feel a jolt off it. I can feel that it's keeping me awake, and that's all I need."

Peterson is part of a growing trend, as energy drinks with punchy names -- Amp, Rockstar, Monster, Jolt -- bring in $3.4 billion a year to the beverage market.

It seems everywhere you look these days there is a new energy drink marketed to people who drink them in place of coffee in the morning or for a pick-me-up in the afternoon. Some sip energy drinks on road trips, some slam them before extreme-sporting events and many mix them with booze in the evening hours. And, yes, energy drinks were consumed in the writing of this story.

Monster Buzz

Chris Owens, a Richwoods High School student who spends his summers working in landscaping and refereeing at Chilli Paintball Pits in Chillicothe, said he starts his mornings with a can of Monster energy drink about four days a week when school's out.

Owens, who isn't a morning person, started drinking Monster about two years ago.

The 17-year-old, a wrestler who is going into his senior year, doesn't usually drink Monster during the school year. He doesn't wake up early enough to stop at a gas station before school.

But he usually finds time to pick up a can of Monster during his morning commute to the paintball grounds in Chillicothe, and he says the energy drink helps keep him on his toes.

"When I ref, what we're out there to do is basically make sure everyone's following the safety rules," Owens said. "If I'm asleep ... and somebody gets hurt, it's on me."

Mike Walters, account executive with Specialty Distributing Co. in Peoria, said energy drinks are big with computer gamers, extreme-sports enthusiasts, college kids and young professionals who are looking for an alternative to coffee.

"You can spend a lot of money on a cup of coffee, and when it's 90 degrees, do you really want to sit in your car and drink a coffee? Or do you want something that's cold and refreshing?"

Red Bull Dominates

Pragnesh Patel, owner of J&L Phillips 66 in Sunnyland, said he sells lots of Monster, Amp and Jolt. Jolt Blue is the most popular Jolt flavor, especially among teenagers, he said. But his best-selling energy drink is Red Bull. He sells three cases of it a week, most of it on Fridays and Saturdays, and often to people who buy vodka to mix it with.

Dave Remington, owner of Richard's on Main, said he attended a bar and nightclub trade show in Las Vegas a couple years ago, and there were about 150 kinds of energy drinks.

"Red Bull, they were the first in the market, and they just dominate," said Remington, who has been known to drink a sugar-free, 10-calorie Red Bull if he's feeling tired.

Red Bull and vodka isn't the only concoction. A Jagerbomb -- a shot of Jagermeister liqueur in a glass of Red Bull -- is popular, Remington said, and so is the grape bomb -- a shot of grape vodka with Red Bull.

Mellissa King, a bartender at Gorman's Pub, said the pub's Saturday night special is a $4 Red Bull and vodka.

"We (sell) a lot of shots -- Jagerbombs -- then they have a cherry bomb with cherry vodka. Any flavored vodka you can pretty much put with Red Bull, and they do," she said.

Remington said, "We probably go through seven to 10 cases of that a
week, but you figure, too, you normally get two drinks out of a can. ... Whenever people are drinking, the likelihood of hearing 'Jagerbomb' is pretty good. It just depends on the crowd. Obviously, we're not selling a lot of them at lunch time."

Bring on the Sugar

Not everyone is a fan of energy drinks. Sara Hodgen, a Richwoods High School cheerleader who will be a senior in the fall, said the drinks are popular at her school; some students drink two cans during the six-hour school day.

"A lot of them think that they need that to make it through the day," said Hodgen, who said the drinks remind her of Kool-Aid with too much sugar.

"There's so much sugar, it kind of gave me a headache," she said. "But afterwards I felt really drained. . . . After (drinking one), you feel like you need another one to stay awake."

Consume in Moderation

Despite the popularity of energy drinks, some health advocates say they should be consumed in moderation -- if at all. Although the caffeine content doesn't seem too shocking at first, consumers should take note of serving sizes. A serving of Rockstar energy drink has 80 milligrams of caffeine (less than a cup of coffee), according to its nutritional label. But a serving size is 8 ounces, so a 16-ounce can holds two servings. Jolt's 23.5-ounce "battery cans" contain three servings.

Many of the drinks have little or no nutritional value, experts say, and they are heavy on sugar. They also have ingredients like guarana, a berry native to South America. Extract of the berry contains caffeine, but it isn't factored into the caffeine content on the labels, making it difficult to calculate just how much caffeine the drinks contain.

And although they're labeled as "energy" drinks, they are definitely not a good choice for athletes, said Ashley Simper, a registered and licensed dietitian at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center.

"Caffeine is a diuretic -- and so is any kind of soda that has caffeine in it. Coffee, tea and these energy drinks -- (they) all will make you more thirsty and will dehydrate you, because it slows the body's ability to absorb water."

Simper said large doses of caffeine -- which take 15 to 45 minutes to be absorbed and leave the body four to six hours after ingestion -- can be dangerous.

"Some of the side effects of caffeine alone are an increase in heart rate and blood pressure -- which could lead to heart palpitations and even heart attack in some cases. Caffeine dehydrates you and prevents you from sleeping," Simper said.

When mixed with alcohol, energy drinks can make someone think they are less drunk than they actually are.

"When you combine a stimulant like caffeine with a depressant like alcohol, what happens is that it lessens the effect that the alcohol has on our metabolism," Simper said. "So you will have a tendency to drink more alcohol and not feel the effects, which, obviously in the long run -- especially if you're driving -- is not a good thing."

Stephanie Sanborn, an Illinois State University student and dietetic intern at Methodist Medical Center in Peoria, said that while a little caffeine can increase alertness and improve reaction time, a large dose will actually decrease your fine-motor skills and can make you jittery.

"And it's also important if you take any prescription medications or even over-the-counter medications, that some of these drinks do have herbal components to them," she said, "so you want to make sure that that won't interact with your medication."

Simper also said the drinks are loaded with sugar.

"We recommend that you have less than 12 teaspoons of sugar (a day), and most of these have anywhere from 14 to 16 teaspoons of sugar in one," she said.

Selling Fast

Despite the health warnings, the energy drinks still are flying off cooler shelves. On a recent Thursday, the Huck's gas station on Alta Road in North Peoria was out of the Bawls energy drink, and the store's next shipment wasn't due until that Saturday.

Manager Bessie Murphy said she sees a lot of construction workers buying the energy drinks, especially "if they stayed up too late the night before or something." Monster is probably the best-selling energy drink there, she said, but lately she's been selling a lot of Buzzed, a fairly new drink that is on sale: two cans for $3.

Most of the drinks sell for about $2 or $3 each. Chris Myers, a network administrator with Nerds on Call, said he drinks about one can of Amp a day.

Myers said there was some chatter amidst the employees about contacting a company to see if they could get a vending machine of energy drinks somewhere near the store for easy access. The Nerds on Call employees spend hours and hours at a computer a day, and sometimes they need that extra kick.

Although the employees drink a lot of plain soda, they embrace energy drinks as well, Myers said.

"Nobody turns one down if I walk in with a couple."

>>>>>

BAWLS

The buzz: Packaged in a bright-blue ribbed bottle, Bawls was created by a college graduate who was looking for an alternative to coffee, according to the company Web site, www.bawls.com. The drink is made with guarana, a berry native to South America. Its extracts reportedly can have more than twice the amount of caffeine in coffee. Bawls is popular with extreme-sports enthusiasts like snowboarders and skateboarders, said Mike Walters, account executive with Specialty Distributing Co. The company also markets to BMX racers, computer gamers and paintball players.

Caffeine content: 80 milligrams of caffeine per 12 ounces.

Tastes like: We've heard this drink compares to cream soda. We think the fizzy clear liquid tastes like Sprite and cream soda mixed, or maybe like a white jelly bean.

JOLT

The buzz: Remember that '80s soda with the motto: "Twice the Caffeine"? The beverage company has managed to reinvent itself and claim a big piece of the energy drink pie by marketing to the computer industry. Since 1991, Software Development magazine has doled out Jolt Awards as recognition of excellence within the industry. According to the Jolt Web site, www.joltenergy.com, some alcoholic drinks containing Jolt include a Jumper Cable (rum and Jolt Cola) and Krac (Crown Royal whiskey and Jolt Cola).

Caffeine content: 72 milligrams of caffeine per 8-ounce serving. The 23.5-ounce "battery bottle" cans of Jolt contain nearly three servings.

Tastes like: We think Jolt Blue tastes like liquid cotton candy with carbonation.

RED BULL

The buzz: Launched in Austria in 1987 by businessman Dietrich Mateschitz -- now the 287th richest person in the world, according to Forbes magazine -- the honey-colored fizzy beverage made its North American debut in 1997. Red Bull has become so popular that it is now viewed as too corporate and too mainstream by some, but it still dominates the energy drink market, thanks in part to bar and nightclub staples like Red Bull and vodka and Jagerbombs (shot of Jagermeister liqueur in a glass of Red Bull). From the beginning, Red Bull was marketed as the drink that "gives you wings."

Caffeine content: 80 milligrams per 8.3-ounce can.

Tastes like: Very fizzy and a little tart, a little sweet.

AMP

The buzz: Pepsi's debut into the energy drink world, Amp is marketed under the Mountain Dew brand name and contains guarana extract. Amp isn't as original as some of the other energy drinks; the can looks a lot like a can of Mountain Dew. There's also a cherry-flavored version, called Amp Overdrive. The Web site, www.ampenergy.com, has a section devoted to budding bands and includes a "6 pack" song sampler for each band.

Caffeine content: 71 milligrams in 8-ounce serving. The 24-ounce "big rig" can has 214 milligrams of caffeine.

Tastes like: Can you say Green No. 5? The beverage is fizzy and citrus flavored, and although we examined it in daylight, we're thinking the neon food coloring might make it glow in the dark.

MONSTER

The buzz: With a motto like "Unleash the Beast," it's a bit of a surprise that Monster energy drinks are the creation of Hansen's Natural, a California beverage maker known for natural sodas and fruit smoothies. Monster products rank No. 2 in the energy drink market behind Red Bull and claim 20 percent of the market share, according to Forbes magazine. Other products include Monster Lo-Carb, Monster Khaos -- which has fruit juice concentrate -- and Monster Assault, which is marketed to teens. On the can is a warning, "Consume Responsibly - Limit 3 cans per day."

Caffeine content: 80 milligrams per serving (two servings per can).

Tastes like: We think Monster Assault tastes like tart, extra fizzy Dr. Pepper.

ROCKSTAR

The buzz: The son of two herbalists, Russ Weiner mortgaged his California condo in 2001 to launch Rockstar energy drink when he was 29, according to an interview in the Los Angeles Business Journal. A fan of Red Bull who wanted more for his money, Weiner set out to create the first 16-ounce energy drink. The drink's motto is "Party like a Rockstar," and the Web site pictures celebrities ranging from Fergie to Weird Al Yankovich clutching cans of it.

Caffeine content: 80 milligrams per 8-ounce serving (two servings per can).

Tastes like: Very tart with a hint of vanilla. It looks like a light beer when you pour it into a glass.

>>>>

CAFFEINE CONTENT

Wondering just how much of a jolt that energy drink will give you? Here's the content of some other beverages for comparison:

Cup of coffee, brewed: 135 milligrams

Can of Mountain Dew: 55.5 milligrams

Can of Coca-Cola classic: 34.5 milligrams

Green tea: 30 milligrams

Source: Center for Science in the Public Interest