Search This Blog

Monday, November 29, 2010

What's in Red Bull?

From a quick glance at the Red Bull website, one could easily be forgiven for having no clue what Red Bull is.  Their homepage reads like a compendium of “extreme” ethos, offering links like “athletes and teams”, “world series” and “music and culture”.  There are photos of mixed martial artists, videos of racing biplanes, music modules and an aggregation of stories about video games and upcoming “extreme” events.  There is no mention, however, of an energy drink called “Red Bull”.

This blog now has more product shots of
Red Bull than you will find on their homepage.

For that, you have to click on a small and unobtrusive tab marked “products” whereupon you will be whisked away to a very scientific and sanitary looking page that will give you the “facts” about their staple product.  They use the page to fulfill legal requirements about ingredient transparency and to combat the myriad of online myths about their company.  Where there is room to spare, they chock it full of promises worded with careful precision to suggest but never legally guarantee the orchestra of benefits contained in a can of Red Bull.

Wings, sure, but can it give you bleu cheese dressing?

If the company is to be believed, in addition to “giving you wings”, their energy drink can:

-       Increase performance
-       Increase concentration and reaction speed
-       Improve vigilance
-       Improve emotional status
-       Stimulate metabolism

At a glance that seems more like a magical potion than a beverage, but upon closer examination you’ll note that only one of those claims even makes logical sense.  “Increasing performance” is so vague it cannot possibly be tested.  Improving vigilance is even more laughable.  Improving emotional status is a pseudo-scientific way of saying “makes you happy” and it’s hard to imagine anything you consume that wouldn’t in some way or another “stimulate metabolism”.  This leaves only the claim that in increases concentration and reaction speed, but that could be said of any caffeinated beverage.

Pictured: Increased vigilance.

So what does Red Bull do?  In hopes of finding out more, we can click on the “Ingredients” tab and it will lay out the gritty details of what goes in every can.  Luckily for us, it’s an annotated list that provides plenty of the grandiose claims we saw on the “benefits” tab we just left so we can start to see where all the magical powers come from.

To my surprise, there was no eye-of-newt or wing-of-bat.  Instead, there is this simple formula:

-       Taurine
-       Glucuronolactone
-       Caffeine
-       B-Group Vitamins
-       Sucrose
-       Glucose

I must admit that my skepticism of Red Bull’s claims comes from a completely unscientific place.  Taurine earned its name by being first isolated in ox-bile and that’s far too close to being bull crap not to raise an alarm in my head.  Despite the convenient factoids that Red Bull provided, I took it upon myself to do a bit of further research on their claimed benefits.

 #1) Taurine 

Before we examine what taurine is, let me spend a few words on what it isn’t.  Taurine is not a poison and it does not come from bull testicles despite rampant claims to the contrary.  Taurine is a naturally occurring amino acid that is contained in the tissues of many mammals, including humans.  It is an essential part of digestion, which is why it is chiefly found in bile.

To Red Bull’s credit, the taurine they use is artificially synthesized and not extracted from bile as some alarmist websites claim.  These same sites claim that taurine is poisonous, which is frightening if true considering that it is already in your body from the moment that you’re born.

Pictured: Taurine (Added to give
the illusion of educational value)
Those claims are only slightly more ridiculous than the claims made by the energy drink companies.  Red Bull points out that in times of stress or physical exertion your body can lose taurine, implying (but not saying) that replacing it by drinking Red Bull would help to speed up your body’s natural detoxification process.

The problem is that there is no science to support this declaration.  While there is no definitive answer as to what the dietary benefits of taurine are, there is every indication that it is completely neutral.  Your body produces taurine in a highly regulated way and there is simply nothing to suggest that your body will supplement its own production with taurine that it is added through an energy drink.

It seems counterintuitive to say that consuming taurine does not increase the amount of taurine in your system, but this is probably true.  Let us use brain tissue as an analogy.  We are certain that gray matter is essential to cognitive function, but eating brains won’t make you any smarter.

The jury is still out on taurine and probably will be for some time.  As of yet, no respectable study has suggested on any level that there is any benefit whatsoever to consuming taurine.

 #2) Glucuronolactone 

In addition to being really hard to say five times fast, glucuronolactone is a carbohydrate that was not developed as a chemical weapon by the US during Vietnam.  I feel that it’s necessary to mention that because there are a number of urban legends to the contrary.  Red Bull lauds it as a key component in detoxification and offers cryptically that it “support[s] the body in eliminating waste substances from the body”.

Another beverage that "support[s] the
body in eliminating waste substances..."

Again, these claims are high on ambiguity and low on empirical evidence.  While it is certainly true that glucuronolactone is essential to the digestive process, there is again no sound science that supports the notion that supplementing the body’s natural supply through diet will have any effect.

Glucuronolactone is already present in your diet in trace amounts, but a can of Red Bull will provide you with something like 500 times as much as you normally consume so it is probably best if this addition does not have a real effect.  There are no definitive studies on the effects, dangers or benefits of it, so any claim made about its consumption would be careless and speculative.

 #3) Caffeine 

Here we find the source of the “buzz” Red Bull aficionados love.  Red Bull contains about three times as much caffeine as an equivalent volume in Coke or Pepsi.  The can will tell you that it contains about as much caffeine as a cup of coffee, which is true if you take your coffee pretty strong.  Those who drink both Red Bull and coffee will point out that there must be some effect from the taurine and glucuronolactone because they get a much more potent buzz from a can of Red Bull than they do from getting the same amount of caffeine from their coffee.

Drink Caffeine!

The real difference maker there is the speed at which you consume a cold drink compared to a hot drink.  With coffee you generally take the caffeine in over a longer period of time and thus it lacks the punch of a hastily chugged Red Bull.

Caffeine does have a number of physical and psychological benefits but it contains equivalent dangers.  No respectable medical professional would recommend a high caffeine diet to deal with chronic fatigue, but that is precisely what Red Bull offers.  It is especially careless that they so heavily market their product toward aspiring athletes given that high caffeine intake can be extremely dangerous when dehydrated.

 #4) B-Group Vitamins 

Apparently the Red Bull folks figured they needed something familiar and healthy sounding to stick in under caffeine and B vitamins are a cheap addition.  Even massive intake of B vitamins has only the slightest effect (if any) on the human body.  A whole industry has cropped up to save us from our delusion of being vitamin-deficient and Red Bull found welcome space on the bandwagon.

The truth is that the negligible amount of B vitamins in a can of Red Bull has absolutely no effect on your health.  All but a trace amount will pass in your urine without being absorbed and what little remains will have no measurable effect.  The same would be true even if there was a tenfold increase in the volume of vitamins Red Bull contained.

 #5) Glucose and Sucrose 

Here, we finally find the source of all that energy that Red Bull promises.  The caffeine gives you the buzz and the dubious increase in “vigilance”, but the actual boost of energy comes from good old-fashioned sugar.

A single serving of 8.3 ounces contains about 27 grams of sugar (3.25g per oz).  Compare that with the 39 grams of sugar in a 12 ounce serving of Coca-Cola (3.25g per oz.) and you’ll see the source of Red Bull’s ephemeral energy.  There is, of course, nothing else in the product that could remotely be claimed as a source of energy.  Red Bull’s propaganda only claims that the other ingredients aid in detoxification so sugar can be the only wing-giving component.

Pictured: Energy

Of course, if Red Bull admitted that all of the energy and vigilance came only from the sugar and the caffeine they could hardly justify charging three times the cost of a soda.  It would also be damn hard to make the claim that caffeine and sugar are “appreciated throughout the world by top athletes, busy professionals, active students and drivers on long journeys”.  In fact, in light of the true source of the energy it would seem careless and even dangerous to make such claims.  None of us would be comforted by the thought of drivers on long journeys relying on sugar and caffeine for their vigilance.  Despite that, Red Bull’s website specifically states that its product is great for “overworked taxi drivers”.

If only they had Red Bull in '76...

Just as careless are the claims that Red Bull is great for athletes.  Drinking high amounts of caffeine and sugar during exercise is dangerous in that it does not hydrate the body.  Instead, the high sugar content will simply exacerbate the loss of fluids that was already taking place.  Because of this effect and the profiteering claims, several deaths have been linked to the consumption of Red Bull.  The company has since backed away from the claims that athletes in the midst of intense physical exertion should consume their beverage.  Still, they happily proclaim that Red Bull is used by “surfers in the summer and snowboarders in the winter”.


Red Bull is not a slow-acting poison, but it is also not an “energy drink”.  It’s a can of soda with a few alt-med placebos added to increase the perceived value.  A proper study of the effects of Red Bull and its constituent ingredients has not yet been performed.  A truly scientific survey would test the actual product against a number of controls that eliminated one of the main ingredients.  You would have to test (a) Red Bull against (b) Red Bull with no taurine, (c) Red Bull with no glucuronolactone, (d) Red Bull with no sugar, (e) Red Bull with no caffeine and (f) something with none of those ingredients that still tasted like carbonated Nyquil.

This study would be relatively expensive as it would require large samples in each of the six categories and separate studies would have to be conducted to test each claim.  That being said, the founders of the company are among the 300 wealthiest people on the planet and if they had any desire to find out exactly what their product did, they could fund the study with the money in their couch cushions.

The kind of couch cushions you might find
gold doubloons in. 

There is an obvious reason why they don’t.  There is no incentive in proving these claims so long as people seem willing to accept them without evidence.  Their lawyers have carefully crafted the claims to insure against litigation and so long as people don’t start dropping dead from drinking the stuff they’re insulated.  Such a study could and probably would show that there is no effect from Red Bull that couldn’t be achieved by chugging an iced coffee and if that’s proven then their multi-billion dollar industry could potentially dry up tomorrow.

This goes beyond typical corporate greed.  If a pharmaceutical company came out with a product that it claimed gave you energy and increased your “performance”, we would be outraged if they refused to do studies sufficient to prove those claims.  We should be no less vigilant with any company that produces a consumable product.

A number of countries have banned Red Bull because of the dearth of scientifically credible validation of their claimed benefits and assurances of safety.  While a few of these bans have been lifted, there are still a number of questions about the safety of the product and what constitutes too much.  Because no recommended daily allowances have been established for things like taurine and glucuronolactone it is hard to say how much one has to consume before they risk adverse health effects.

Pictured: Adverse health effects.

While a number of exaggerated assertions have been made about the dangers of energy drinks, not all of the warnings come from alarmism.  At best, Red Bull is no better than a caffeinated soda when it comes to providing energy and the can of soda has the advantage of being both cheaper and better tasting.

Red Bull has developed a worldwide customer base that will not be swayed by a simple lack of scientific evidence.  They drink Red Bull, they get energy and they know that it is a different type of energy than they get from drinking a can of Pepsi.  As unscientific a method as this is, it’s all that some people need, which is why the founders of Red Bull are able to make billions in profit by adding something they found in ox-bile to a can of soda.

Aaron Davies

I chose to pick on Red Bull exclusively in this piece, but there are hundreds of other energy drinks out there making equally glib and baseless claims.  Red Bull is the biggest, but it is not the worst.  Look for a future blog that will spread the cynicism more evenly across the whole energy drink industry.


  1. Thank you for that! Be sure to attack Five Hour Energy next go round. I'm trying to get my wife to drop these money hogs from her diet....

  2. Will do! Red Bull is the most popular, but I definitely have to do another so that I can mention what a load of nonsense the guarana and ginseng additives are as well.