Ingredients For Energy & Sports Beverages

Wednesday, September 20th, 2017

Energy is a buzzword in the nutritional ingredients industry and it has been this way for quite some time. Despite its relatively long-standing presence, it is not going away. What ingredients can propel this trend? By Dr Elaine Drummond, product technology manager, bioactives, Glanbia Nutritionals

In the US alone, the energy drinks business has grown to approximately US$9 billion, which is impressive given that this market only took off around 1997. It was then that Red Bull introduced the concept of combining taurine with caffeine, something which had been commonplace in parts of Asia for a long time. Since then, the energy sector has grown to incorporate many more ingredients, and beverages have become the winner in terms of preferred delivery method.

Although energy is a massive stand-alone category, there is a significant overlap with the sports performance sector. Ingredients that can boost energy will also improve performance, focus and stamina, as is expected by the consumer of a sports-related drink. Many ingredients typically associated with performance are effective due to their energy promoting properties.

Energy Ingredients

Sports performance beverages mostly stand out due to their protein content, which is not strictly a necessary feature of an energy beverage, although this concept is gaining popularity. For the purpose of discussing energy and sports performance, let us simply target the ingredients that are shown to improve feelings of energy and enhance performance or activity.

There is a definite desire for sustained energy and natural caffeine alternatives in energy and sports drinks. Ingredients such as green coffee bean, green tea extracts, yerba maté, guarana and guayusa all provide natural sources of caffeine, which increases energy and alertness. For sustained energy, L-carnitine, L-tartrate, isomaltulose and choline promote a more balanced and longer lasting energy source during exercise.

The following encompasses some of the more commonly used energy boosting ingredients and their effect on the body as found through various studies. It is noteworthy that not all of these will be permitted for nutritional beverages in every region and the manufacturer should be cautious; always checking with local regulatory advisors.


L-carnitine has been a key player among energy ingredients for decades. Previously a go-to for athletes, it has now successfully permeated the daily pick-me-up market due to its presence in a number of widely marketed energy beverages. Carnitine works by enhancing the body’s ability to shuttle fatty acids into the mitochondrion (a powerhouse located in every cell that handles the distribution of energy).

Here these fatty acids can be utilised to generate energy. At the same time, the carnitine helps shuttle waste products out of the cell. There are studies showing carnitine’s ability to decrease muscle soreness and pain post-exercise.

Isomaltulose (Palatinose)

Isomaltulose is a slowly digested form of carbohydrate (disaccharide). It is an enzymatically modified form of sucrose. Through a slower rate of digestion, energy release may be more controlled relative to sucrose. Carbohydrates, such as isomaltulose, can improve physical performance, particularly during endurance exercise


When co-ingested with a carbohydrate containing beverage, caffeine was shown to help improve exercise endurance by increasing the rate of carbohydrate absorption. Caffeine may reduce perceived exertion and muscle soreness associated with exercise.

Green Tea Extract

This is one of the natural sources of caffeine mentioned previously. It is high in polyphenols, called catechins such as epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), which are natural antioxidants. It also contains l-theanine which is known to block the binding of L-glutamic acid to glutamate receptors in the brain and thus helps reduce stress signals.


Supplementation with taurine has been found to enhance exercise performance (workload, endurance, oxygen capacity) in animal and human subjects. The thinking is that it helps prevent depletion of taurine levels which are needed to maintain energy production.

Staying Healthy Inside Out

Antioxidants, a staple of the beverage world, are also becoming popular in energy drinks. The purpose of antioxidants is to protect the cells in the body from damage caused by oxidative stress, namely free radicals. This process is inherent in daily living and the body is actually equipped with its own antioxidant compounds.

However, modern living tends to up the ante when it comes to attacks of oxidative stress: think pollution, cigarette smoke, alcohol. Our bodies have not yet evolved to handle this degree of stress. Therefore adding antioxidant ingredients to the diet makes sense. Many polyphenols also act as vasodilators, which increases blood flow throughout the body and makes for quicker transport of oxygen, glucose, and other materials required for cellular energy production.

Polyphenols are well known for their antioxidant and vasodilatory potential—one such example is pterostilbene, commonly found in blueberries, an ingredient closely related to but more bioavailable than resveratrol, the red grape polyphenol that makes us feel less guilty about that glass or two of red wine!

Amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, cannot add a caloric value on their own so they do not contribute directly to energy. However, there is an argument to be made in their inclusion in performance beverages given their ability to activate key pathways that assist muscle cell growth and repair.

Of these, the branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) are most important, namely leucine, isoleucine and valine. And among the three, leucine is the “king”. It directly stimulates the activation of a pathway known as mTOR (mammalian or mechanistic target of rapamycin), which basically tells muscle cells to grow in response to weightbearing exercise.

Isoleucine and valine are important in an indirect way because they help the cell to take up and use glucose and lipids to fuel this process. All in all, the BCAAs are an integral part of a performance or recovery formulation.

In With Vitamins

Considering other micronutrients that play a role in energy beverages, one cannot ignore the B vitamins. These are useful in that they participate in a multitude of energy pathways in the body and being water soluble, they are well positioned for use in beverages.

Vitamin C may also be counted as another water soluble ingredient that can assist recovery due to its antioxidant and immune-boosting properties. These ingredients can carry bitter notes so masking is necessary; however, often the presence of flavours in the beverage will address this issue.

An added benefit for the manufacturer in including vitamins is the ability to make a nutrient content claim on the label based off a percentage of the recommended intake that is relevant to the region. This gives the consumer a recognisable health benefit in addition to the energy-inducing ingredients that they may be less familiar with.

The following outlines the general roles of these vitamins in energy metabolism.

  • B1 (Thiamine): Helps the body extract energy from food and maintains healthy nerves
  • B2 (Riboflavin): Supports energy release and red blood cell production
  • B3 (Niacin): Assists the extraction of energy from food, and maintains healthy circulation and nervous system
  • B5 (Pantothenic acid): Needed to form coenzyme-A, which helps synthesise fatty acids and helps metabolise food for energy production
  • B6 (Pyridoxine): Helps control hormonal changes in women as well as regulating energy production
  • B7 (Biotin): Aids energy release and is important for formation of health skin, nails and hair
  • B9 (Folic acid): Helps the formation of DNA, and is especially important in pregnant women as it is essential for the development of a healthy neural tube in the foetus
  • B12 (Cobalamin): Important for maintenance of a healthy nervous system and energy release from food
  • Vitamin C (Ascorbic acid): Vital for formation of collagen and absorption of iron. It is a potent antioxidant so it can protect tissues from free radical damage

Continuing The Energy Trend

Nobody out there is saying, “stop, I have enough energy to do what I’m doing”, and that is unlikely to happen. Rather, the ever-increasingly fast pace of modern life is requiring us to have more energy, less down-time and, on top of all that, to maintain top performance.

This market is ripe for more growth and manufacturers will need to keep on top of trends to be sure they take advantage of strong consumer interest. The list of potential ingredients is lengthy—we can have a lot of fun and ingenuity here to deliver to the consumer that all important daily pick-me-up in new and interesting ways. There is no need to ditch the morning coffee, but there are many more ways to get energised and stay on top of the game!