What’s in This?: 5-Hour Energy Shots

This product contains 17 ingredients. 16 of them are basically useless.

We’re often told that you should never eat anything (or put anything on your body) if you don’t recognize everything on the ingredients list. But since most of us have no idea what xanthan gum or potassium benzoate are — or more importantly, what they’re doing to our bodies — we’re decoding the ingredients in the many things Americans put in (and on) themselves with the help of an expert.

This edition: 5-Hour ENERGY Shots, which are made from 17 separate ingredients that we’ve broken down in the exact order they appear on their website.

The Ingredients

1) Niacin: The producers of 5-Hour ENERGY claim that niacin (vitamin B3) basically helps the body convert food into energy, which is technically true. However, this energy-boosting effect really only applies to people who are already suffering from significant niacin deficiencies, which are “exceedingly rare” in the U.S. All of which means that the addition of niacin (and the following B-vitamins) in 5-Hour ENERGY is essentially pointless, something that Dana Hunnes, senior dietitian at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, previously told me. “We would pee out the B-vitamins that it contains,” she confirms.

2) Vitamin B6: Vitamin B6 plays some kind of role in almost every bodily function, from energy production to hormonal regulation. But again, unless your diet is extremely limited, that extra burst of vitamin B6 in your 5-Hour ENERGY will inevitably end up in the toilet.

3) Folic Acid: Folic acid (aka vitamin B9) helps the body produce red blood cells and DNA. Once again, this is more than likely a useless addition to 5-Hour ENERGY.

4) Vitamin B12: Similar to niacin, vitamin B12 helps the body convert food into energy. Surprise! The same insight provided by Hunnes also applies to this ingredient.

5) Taurine: This is the first ingredient listed as part of the “Energy Blend” found in 5-Hour ENERGY. Taurine is an essential amino acid, and some studies have found that it improves mental performance when combined with caffeine. Taurine also appears to be the catalyst behind the ongoing rumor that claims Red Bull (among other energy drinks) contains bull semen, which was debunked (thank God) by Snopes:

“The composition of that substance’s name — ‘taur’ being a Greek/Latin root for ‘bull,’ and the ‘-ine’ suffix denoting something derived from the preceding root — suggests to the casual observer that taurine is something made or excreted by a bull, possibly something like ‘bull urine.’”

6) Glucuronic Acid: Glucuronic acid naturally occurs in humans and acts as building blocks for certain proteins, and while the makers of 5-Hour ENERGY claim that it reduces lethargy, science seems uncertain: “The effects due to the interaction of substances on which little research has been done (e.g., glucuronolactone) are not well understood,” says one energy drink study.

7) Malic Acid: Malic acid occurs naturally in many fruits and vegetables, and proponents claim that it can promote energy production. However, science has yet to prove (or even come close to proving) that supplementing malic acid will actually give you more energy.

8) N-Acetyl L Tyrosine: The makers of 5-Hour ENERGY claim that this ingredient “transmits nerve impulses to the brain.” While this is true in some sense, supplementing these ingredients in an attempt to boost your brain function is, according to at least one study, basically pointless.

9) L-Phenylalanine: The claim for supplementing L-Phenylalanine is that it increases alertness, which again, was debunked by at least one study.

10) Caffeine: Finally, an ingredient that definitely does something! 5-Hour ENERGY contains the caffeine-equivalent of a 12-ounce cup of coffee.

11) Citicoline: The last ingredient in this “Energy Blend,” citicoline occurs naturally in humans and supports brain function, and yet again, science has shown that supplementing this ingredient does absolutely nothing.

12) Purified Water: Generally used as a solvent, purified water is just water that’s been distilled or deionized (aka demineralized) to remove impurities like bacteria and microorganisms.

13) Natural and Artificial Flavors: While natural flavors are literally flavors derived from an actual food source — i.e., cherry flavoring taken from a real cherry — artificial flavors are chemical compounds created in a lab that mimic a natural flavor in some way. While that may sound unhealthy, as physician and biochemist Cate Shanahan, author of Deep Nutrition: Why Your Genes Need Traditional Food, told us during our exploration of all 26 ingredients in nacho-flavored Doritos, these flavorings are added in such small quantities that they shouldn’t cause you any harm.

14) Sucralose: This is an artificial sweetener, more commonly known as Splenda. Unfortunately, studies suggest that sucralose increases the populations of bacteria in our gut that pull energy from our food and turn that energy into fat. Or in simpler terms, sucralose may make us fat. That said, there probably isn’t enough sucralose in the occasional 5-Hour ENERGY to plump you up.

15) Potassium Sorbate: Potassium sorbate is a preservative used for its antimicrobial properties, which stop the growth and spread of harmful bacteria and molds. A 2010 study published in Toxicology in Vitro found that exposure of human blood cells to potassium sorbate in the laboratory caused DNA damage. That said, a long-term study on humans is still required to decide whether or not we should be worried about consuming this ingredient.

16) Sodium Benzoate: Acting as another preservative, studies show that sodium benzoate may exacerbate hyperactive behavior in young children. For our purposes, however, maybe that’s not the worst thing — hyperactivity and energy drinks would seem to go hand-in-hand.

17) EDTA: Another preservative, calcium disodium EDTA “binds to metals like iron, which slows the rate of oxidation, and thus, the development of rancid aromas,” Gavin Lavi Sacks, associate professor and academic director of Cornell University’s Food Science & Technology at Geneva Program, told us during our exploration of the many ingredients in McDonald’s Big Mac. Because it binds to metals, studies performed on animals have shown that sustained consumption of calcium disodium EDTA can cause essential mineral depletion. As for what it does to people, human studies are still required to come to a real conclusion on whether or not we should be concerned about it.

The Takeaway

Here’s the gist: 5-Hour ENERGY contains the caffeine-equivalent of a 12-ounce cup of coffee, then the manufacturers threw in a bunch of useless ingredients to help convince consumers that this is, in fact, more effective than coffee. But according to Consumer Reports, who had access to an unpublished double-blind study on that exact topic, “We found little if any research showing that other ingredients on the label — including B vitamins and amino acids — would give the average person a boost. 5-Hour ENERGY will probably chase away grogginess at least as well as a cup of coffee.”

So yeah, maybe just stick with your regular cuppa Joe, unless you just really prefer consuming caffeine in shot form.