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Ranking the best energy drinks of 2021

Written by John Davis

Last updated: December 7, 2020

Feeling drained by your lunch break? Yeah, me too.

Before you go straight for the coffee, consider a more potent beverage, the energy drink. They’re tasty, refreshing, full of caffeine, and are specifically designed to sustain high levels of productivity and performance, whether physical or mental.

Our researchers reviewed the best energy drinks on the market, plus dug in-depth on the research into how they work to keep you energized and focused throughout the day.

Rankings

1. Proper Wild

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Proper Wild is a powerful, plant-based energy shot that provides long-lasting energy and focus without the jitters or crash.

100% plant-based, no preservatives, no artificial sweeteners, no added sugars and only 25 calories – Proper Wild’s Clean All Day Energy Shots are backed by science, only use clean ingredients and really work.

Every shot contains 180 mg of organic caffeine from green tea leaves and 120 mg of L-Theanine. That’s 2x more caffeine than a cup of coffee and 15x more L-Theanine than a cup of Green Tea. It’s this combination and correct ratio of Organic Caffeine and L-Theanine that provides focus and energy for hours with the jitters or crash.

By far the best tasting energy shot on the market, hands down.

They come in three flavors – Peach Mango, Blackberry and Ginger, but you can also try their variety pack to see what’s your favorite.

Bodynutrition’s overall energy drink category winner.

2.  VPX Bang Energy Drink

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VPX Bang is a potent energy drink blend that utilizes the power of creatine.

Sugar free and calorie free, Bang isn’t your typical high sugar energy drink. Sweetened with sucralose and loaded with caffeine, BCAAs, CoQ10, and other brain boosting ingredients, it gives you a surge of energy and spikes your focus better than most of its competitors.

Best tasting sugar-free energy drink on the market, hands down.

It also contains vitamin C, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, niacin and magnesium for a healthy energizing vitamin supply.

Containing 300mg of caffeine per can makes it one of the highest caffeine content per can drinks on the market, great for those who like strong caffeine doses without all the sugar and sweeteners.

Comes in tasty flavors like Sour Heads, Champagne, Blue Raz, Starfruit, Lemon Drop, and Power Punch for a nice variety.

3.  CELCIUS

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Tired of ultra-sugary cough-syrup-flavored energy drinks? CELCIUS has the answer: a light, seltzer-like sparkling energy drink, with 200 mg of caffeine alongside guarana and green tea extract. For either an afternoon pick-me-up or a fat oxidation accelerator, it’s the perfect re-imagining of the energy drink.

4.  5-Hour Energy

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Like Red Bull, this supplement spawned an entire category of energy products, the single-shot liquid energy supplement.  With almost 200 milligrams of caffeine, 5-Hour Energy provides a hefty jolt of the stimulant to get you going.

As for the name, five hours is actually a pretty good bet for its duration—the rate at which your body removes caffeine from your bloodstream is about five hours per half-dose, meaning that half the caffeine you take in has been removed and excreted within five hours of taking a dose (1).

This varies a bit from person to person; women who are on birth control are known to have a much longer elimination timeframe.  For them, this might turn into “12-hour energy,” so be careful!

5-Hour Energy also provides a massive dose of B-vitamins, some in amounts that might be too high if you already get a lot of B-vitamins in your diet.

5. A Shot of Genius

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A lot of energy drinks focus on physical performance, but what about boosting brain power? A Shot of Genius focuses specifically on that task, using the synergistic effects of caffeine and theanine to accelerate your brain’s processing power without giving you jitters and anxiety. On top of that, it contains powerful compounds to boost neurotransmitter levels.

6.  Zipfizz

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Powder-form single-use energy drink mixes became popular a few years ago, and Zipfizz is one of the best-selling energy supplements in that category.  It comes in single-use tubes which contain a powder.  Dump it into your water bottle and you have a ready-made energy drink.

Zipfizz contains 100 mg of caffeine in the form of green tea extract and provides a well-rounded blend of vitamins and minerals—it’s almost like drinking a daily multivitamin.

7. Nos High Performance Energy Drink

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 Nos energy drinks are named after the super fuel that powers some of the fastest cars on the world.

It’s a high performance energy drink, so you don’t want to take this anytime you feel like going to sleep in the next few hours. Nos will keep you up and awake, helping you stay aware and focused on whatever task is at hand.

It’s known as one of the best tasting energy drinks on the market, with a unique flavor unlike any of its competitors. Contains 260 mg of caffeine per can, higher than the caffeine content in a Red Bull, Rockstar, or Monster.

8.  Red Bull

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Red Bull is practically the grand-daddy of all energy drinks.  The wildly popular formulation is available all across the world.  Its energy recipe is based around a combination of sugar, caffeine, taurine, and B-vitamins.

Each 8.4 fluid ounce can provides 80 milligrams of caffeine—just slightly less than what’s in an average cup of coffee. Taurine, an amino acid that’s plentiful in your nervous system, is supposed to help your nerves grow and stay healthy.

The B vitamins included in Red Bull encompass B3, B5, B6, and B12.  These are provided with the hopes of enhancing energy production and efficiency at the cellular level in your body, and are responsible for the mild tingling feeling that you might get when you drink several B vitamin-containing energy drinks.

9.  Rockstar Sugar Free

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The tall can and flashy styling of Rockstar Sugar Free communicates its nature: it’s more of a drink than a supplement.

It’s nearly non-caloric, providing only 20 calories per 16 ounce can.  It provides a higher-than average 160 milligrams of caffeine per can, and a normal amount of B vitamins: 200% of your recommended daily intake of niacin, vitamin B6, pantothenic acid, and 400% of your recommended daily intake for riboflavin.

If coffee makes your stomach quiver, or if you like sugar-sweetened energy drinks but want to watch your weight, Rockstar Sugar Free is a good choice.

10.  Monster Energy

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Through aggressive sponsorship and marketing, Monster Energy has grown from a cult-following energy drink to one of the biggest juggernauts in the genre.

Unlike Red Bull, which comes in small, 8.4oz cans that are easily downed in a few gulps, Monster Energy comes in a larger 16 ounce can, clearly meant for longer sustained consumption.  It’s also heavily sugared, and in composition is more similar to a can of soda than an energy drink.

A full can of Monster Energy contains 210 calories, all of which come from sugar.  Unless you’re doing something highly active, like a team sports competition or a long hike, this amount of sugar is likely excessive.

11.  Amp Energy

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Amp Energy is an increasingly popular competitor in the standard-sized energy drink category.  It’s got many of the hallmarks of that genre: 16 ounce can and 150 milligrams of caffeine, but it’s flavored more like a traditional soft drink than many other energy drinks.

It has very little in the way of B-vitamins: only 20% of your daily recommended intake, which is ten times lower than that of many of its competitors.

It is also flavored with real sugar, meaning each can packs 220 calories, all of them from sugar.  Good news if you’re doing a 50-mile bike ride, but bad news if you are sitting at your desk.

Category winners

Best energy drink overall: Proper Wild

Proper Wild is sugar-free and gives you a rapid boost in energy with no crash, thanks to pairing caffeine with amino acids and B-complex vitamins. It’s hard to ask much more for an all-purpose energy drink, which makes Proper Wild our top pick.

Best energy drink for workouts: Zipfizz

Zipfizz is perfect for workouts—unlike many of its competitors, it delivers critical electrolytes including sodium potassium, and magnesium, but without loading you up with sugar. Plus, in powder form, it’s easy to mix into a water bottle whenever you need it. 

Best low calorie energy drink: CELCIUS

CELCIUS is calorie-free, tastes great, and contains powerful fat burners and energy boosters including guarana, caffeine, and green tea extract. It’s great both for weight loss and weight maintenance. 

Best energy drink with B complex vitamins: VPX Bang

VPX Bang contains all of the B-complex vitamins at solid doses, on top of a range of other vitamins and antioxidants. With this energy drink, you won’t be skimping on vital micronutrients. 

Best nootropic energy drink: A Shot of Genius

Looking to boost your cognitive performance instead of your physical performance? Go for A Shot of Genius—it uses a clever combination of caffeine, theanine, and choline derivatives to boost cognitive performance, increase neurotransmitter levels, and avoid negative side effects like jitters and anxiety. 

Best energy drink for women:  Zipfizz

Zipfizz comes out on top for women thanks to its sugar-free formulation and its modest caffeine dose (just 100 mg – about the same as a cup of coffee). It’s perfect for women who need an energy boost but want to avoid sugary, caffeine-heavy products. 

Who should buy energy drinks?

Energy drinks are great for boosting performance. This can be either physical performance or mental performance, so whether you have a tough day at work, a long gym session, or a late night studying, the right energy drink can make a huge difference.

Energy drinks also help maintain performance in situations where the environment is less than ideal. A lack of sleep is the biggest one: the extra energy and concentration from an energy drink can prevent or blunt the sluggish reaction times, foggy memory, and decreased cognitive performance that comes along with sleep deprivation.

Whether you want to augment or sustain your performance, physically or mentally, there is an energy drink out there for you. We’ll go in-depth later in this review on what specific ingredients are useful for which types of performance.

How we ranked

With energy drinks exploding in popularity, there’s been a big uptick of the options available on the market. When formulating our rankings, we were on the lookout for energy drinks that met several key criteria.

First among these was the sugar content: while sugar is good for short-term athletic performance in high-intensity events, too much of it is definitely bad news.

Not only is sugar harmful to your long-term health, but a sugar-laden energy drink will inevitably lead to a major sugar crash not too long after your insulin levels spike in response to ingesting a large amount of sugar.

We cut out products that had egregiously high amounts of sugar, and opted for sugar-free versions when possible. Monster Energy’s original formulation, for example, has a whopping 54 grams of sugar in a 16 ounce can.

We dropped this from our list of candidates, opting instead for the low-sugar version of Monster (and several of the other top brands). Notably, we did not cut out sugar completely from our rankings.

While the perennially well-selling Red Bull has a fairly high amount of sugar (27 grams per can, to be exact), moderately high amounts of sugar like this can be useful for athletic performance. So, we made sure to retain high-quality energy drinks that had an appropriate (but not excessive) amount of sugar for a pre-workout performance boost.

Next up was caffeine. This was a tricky criteria to evaluate, because on one hand, caffeine is one of the most powerful legal performance enhancers known in the nutrition world. On the other hand, too much can leave you jittery, nauseous, and anxiety-ridden.

Moreover, not everyone can handle the same amount of caffeine. Women have it particularly bad, partially because of their lower body mass and partially because some women’s bodies metabolize caffeine much more slowly than others. This is complicated by the fact that some low-quality energy drinks lean heavily (and in some cases, almost entirely) on caffeine for their effects.

In that case, why not just take a caffeine pill or have a cup of coffee? Keeping these potential issues in mind, we eliminated energy drinks that had more than 320 mg of caffeine in each can or bottle, and those that had less than 80 mg. We also cut anything without other proven nootropic or performance-enhancing ingredients.

Speaking of other ingredients, we looked for energy drinks that also featured B-vitamins and specific amino acids that have been linked to better physical performance and cognitive functioning.

At the same time, we made sure that we didn’t include any energy drinks that had excessive doses of niacin, which can cause flushing, redness, and irritation. Including a high dose of niacin is another trick that some energy drink manufacturers rely on to create the perception of more energy.

Lastly, we rated the remaining energy drinks on how well they integrated other, more cutting-edge compounds for better mental function or mood elevation, such as the neurotransmitter 5-HTP or the herbal supplement yohimbe. Our remaining top-rated energy drinks take the best advantage of these more experimental ingredients alongside mainstays like caffeine and B-complex vitamins.

Benefits

Broadly speaking, all energy drinks are caffeinated and usually provide something beyond just caffeine to boost your energy levels.  The most common among these extra ingredients are B vitamins, taurine, green tea extract, and herbal extracts like yerba mate extract and guarana.

Energy drinks rocketed to popularity after an obscure local drink in Thailand was reformulated and marketed to a global audience.  That drink, of course, was Red Bull, which is a market-dominating juggernaut among energy drinks.

More recently, competition has gotten fierce among companies vying for a share of the market.

There are varying levels of evidence that each of these can enhance your energy levels

Caffeine has the biggest role when it comes to boosting energy.  Caffeine is a stimulant, meaning it kick-starts your metabolism, increases your alertness, improve your reaction time, and increase your physical performance during exercise.

The amount of caffeine you consume is related to the strength of these effects, but as always, there can be too much of a good thing!

Taurine is another staple ingredient of energy drinks, but it might not be a very important one.  It derives its name from the fact that it was first isolated in the liver bile of oxen in the 1800s, but it’s far more common in your body than you’d think.  It plays a critical role in the development of the nervous system and ensuring its proper function.

By including taurine in energy drinks alongside caffeine, the hope is that the energy drink will elevate your nervous system to a higher performing level than with caffeine or taurine alone.

A highly detailed study published in 2012 by Grace E. Giles and other researchers at Tufts University attempted to tease out how caffeine and taurine interact to produce the reported benefits of energy drinks (5).

In their study, a group of volunteers were given a randomized series of four treatments: caffeine only, taurine only, caffeine and taurine, and a true placebo.  After administering each treatment, the researchers subjected the study subjects to a battery of cognitive tests.

As expected, caffeine had a consistent and significant beneficial effect on tasks like short term memory and reaction time.  Taurine had some beneficial effects too, but even when combined with caffeine, it contributed only in a small, varied, and unpredictable way to cognitive performance.

This study didn’t test all of the aspects that energy drinks purport to improve; physical performance or muscular strength or coordination, for example, were not evaluated at all.

However, this does give us some evidence that we shouldn’t consider taurine content to be the biggest factor in evaluating the benefits of an energy drink.

B vitamins could help improve the function of your central nervous system. These play a key role in the functioning of your nervous system too.  Like with taurine, the hope is that the B vitamins will interact synergistically with the caffeine to boost your energy levels and alertness to a higher level than possible with just caffeine.

One study published in 2012 in the journal Nutrition & Metabolism by a group of scientists led by Brandon D. Spradley found that a pre-workout supplement that combined caffeine and B-vitamins, along with a few other ingredients, did boost performance on agility and lower body muscular endurance during an exercise testing session (6).

However, it did not evaluate the role of each ingredient individually—it was compared against a true placebo, not a caffeine-only supplement.

B-complex vitamins could help elevate your physical and mental stamina, as well as your concentration. A range of B-vitamins are commonly included in energy drinks alongside the caffeine, taurine, sugar, and other popular ingredients.

Do these B-vitamins make a difference? Some research suggests that they do. A paper published in the journal Human Psychopharmacology tested the effects of a high-dose B-complex vitamin on self-reported physical stamina, mental stamina, and concentration levels over the course of a four-week study (7).

The subjects were split into two groups, one of which received a high-dose B vitamin supplement, and the other of which received a placebo. The subjects in the study rated their perceived mental states using a cell phone app on a regular basis, so the researchers got a steady read on the long-term trends in mental status.

Although there’s a strong potential for bias when mood status is self-reported in a study like this, the careful use of a placebo helped to prevent the placebo effect from contributing to the group differences. Presumably, both groups believed they had the potential to get some benefit from the supplement they were taking.

After analyzing the data, the researchers were able to show that the B-complex vitamin supplement was able to elevate both physical and mental stamina, as well as increase concentration.

Perception is everything when it comes to productivity, so this study provides strong evidence that the B vitamins play an important role in the performance boosting and mood elevating mechanisms of an energy drink.

Side effects

Like with many biologically active compounds, there are drawbacks to consuming too much of several of the compounds in energy drinks.  The two you need to be most concerned about are caffeine and niacin (vitamin B3).

Caffeine is, of course, a stimulant, and in high doses, it can have deleterious effects on your body: jitters, a racing heartbeat, and nausea are some common side effects of consuming too much caffeine.

In rare cases, high doses of caffeine from energy drinks have caused abnormal heart rhythms, which can sometimes even lead to death, as described in a case study published in 2013 by doctors in Turkey (8).

Medical reports caution that overuse of energy drinks, especially when combined with aggressive, strenuous physical activity, can cause heart problems even in young, healthy people (9).

According to the Mayo Clinic, most people can handle up to 400 mg of caffeine per day (10).  Many people, of course, consume more than this, and it’s likely that there is a wide range in individual tolerance, but this guideline is a good place to start.

Niacin, also known as vitamin B3, is also known to cause some problems when consumed to excess.  Doses of 35 mg or more are known to cause flushing, redness, itchiness, and a tingling sensation (11).

Some energy drinks come very close to this amount of niacin, so to avoid this, you shouldn’t take any other supplements with niacin in them, or consume more than one energy drink per day if it has a lot of niacin.

Recommended dosage

Though energy drinks seem like a food or drink, it’s important to remember they’re really more like a supplement.  Too much can cause problems for your health and well-being.  In most cases, you shouldn’t drink more than two energy drinks per day.

It depends somewhat on the brand—drinks with lower caffeine contents and lower amounts of niacin are safer to consume more often, but a highly caffeinated or niacin-rich drink consumed more than twice daily could cause problems.

Energy drinks are formulated in a “pre-made” dose; they’re already calibrated for what you need.

Usually, just one should do the trick!

FAQ

Q: Are energy drinks bad for your health?

A: Too much of just about anything can be bad for your health, and energy drinks are no exception. In rare cases, consuming enormous amounts of highly caffeinated energy drinks has led to dangerous heart arrhythmias and in a few cases, death from cardiac arrest.

These cases usually involve consuming a dozen or more energy drinks in a day. Beyond caffeine, niacin in excess can cause some short-term negative side effects including flushing, itching, and redness.

A few energy drinks get close to the daily intake limits of niacin, including, for example, 30 mg of niacin when the daily intake limit recommended by the Food and Drug Administration is 35 mg.

In these cases (which is not all energy drinks, it should be noted), drinking several in a day could put you in an unhealthy state of excessive niacin. Finally, perhaps the most serious but mundane health risk for energy drinks comes from their sugar content.

A 16 ounce can of some brands of energy drinks can contain upwards of 50 grams of added sugar, which is approximately double the total amount of added sugar intake per day recommended by the American Heart Association. Too much sugar, as you likely know, can lead to obesity, type two diabetes, and an increased risk for heart disease.

Q: What are the effects of energy drinks on your body?

A: The biggest effects of energy drinks can be chalked up to the physiological changes induced by caffeine, sugar, and some B vitamins.

Caffeine will increase your heart rate, boost your reaction time, and improve your performance on both physical and mental tasks. In too high of a dose, though, it can cause nausea, anxiety, jitters, and sleeplessness (though this last “side effect” is often a desirable outcome for some users).

Sugar has less of an upside and a bigger downside: unless you are doing a long aerobic workout or high-intensity interval workouts, you won’t benefit a whole lot from an energy drink with sugar. Sugar does not boost mental performance, or help with physical tasks like weight lifting.

Too much sugar can paradoxically cause a crash in blood sugar levels, because in response to an energy drink with a lot of sugar in it, your body excretes a huge amount of insulin into your blood.

As the insulin pulls sugar out of the bloodstream, your blood sugar levels crash, and with it, your mood and energy levels crash too.

B-vitamins can be a potent agents for elevating your mood, and longitudinal research shows that they can boost your concentration as well. However, too much niacin (vitamin B3) can cause flushing, itching, and redness, because it increases blood flow to your skin.

Q: What are the best energy drinks for the gym?

A: If you are hitting the gym, you definitely want an energy drink with a moderate amount of caffeine. If you plan on doing Tabata protocols or other high-intensity interval work, you’ll probably want some sugar, too.

Classic Red Bull is an excellent choice if you want to stick closer to the low end of caffeine content, as it provides 80 mg of caffeine and 27 grams of sugar, just enough to sustain you through a tough interval session without causing a blood sugar crash later in the day.

SK Energy Shot, with green tea extract and several amino acids to provide an additional ergogenic aid, is another great choice if you are looking for a higher caffeine content (210 mg per bottle).

Finally, if you are looking for something you can mix at the gym, the individual-use powder tubes of Zipfizz are another solid option, especially if you are trying to keep the sugar content low.

Q: What energy drinks have the most caffeine?

A: Among our top-ranked energy drinks, the ones with the highest caffeine content are VPX Bang and Redline Xtreme. These have 300 and 320 mg of caffeine per serving, respectively, which is is quite a strong dose of caffeine.

These definitely aren’t the right choice for slim or small people, nor will it work well for those whose caffeine tolerance is fairly low. But, if you have a large body mass, or if you have developed a fairly strong caffeine tolerance, either of these options are a good way to get the performance boosting effects of caffeine in a high dose.

Q: How much caffeine is in 5 Hour Energy?

A: 5 Hour Energy, one of the most popular energy shots on the market, has exactly 200 mg of caffeine per shot. This is a moderately high amount, equivalent to about two solid cups of coffee.

Five hours also happens to be the elimination half-life of caffeine, meaning that after five hours, you’ve still got the equivalent of 100 mg of caffeine in your body.

The relatively long half life of caffeine, combined with the dosage level found in 5 Hour Energy, explains a large part of why the effects of this powerful energy shot likely do last for the advertised five hours.

Q: How long does an energy drink last?

A: The duration of the effects of an energy drink, or how much “energy” it gives you, colloquially, will depend mostly on its caffeine content.

Since 50% of the caffeine in an energy drink is eliminated within five hours of consuming an energy drink, and because it takes about 80-100 mg of caffeine to have a significant performance boost on your body, some quick math shows that a typical energy drink with about 200 mg of caffeine should last for five to seven hours.

Something with less caffeine will necessarily last shorter, only a few hours in the case of a 100 mg caffeine energy drink.

Notably, other benefits of energy drinks like appetite suppression and mood elevation, may not last as long—most of the scientific research has been focused on the effects of energy drinks on objective measures of performance, and less has studied the time course of mood changes and similar subjective (though still important) effects.

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Recap

When it comes to physical performance, it’s hard to argue against caffeine. An energy drink with a reasonable amount of caffeine can produce a substantial boost in endurance and high-intensity performance.

Too much, though, can spell trouble, so if you are a female, or if you do not weigh very much, opt for a lower dosage of caffeine.

Taurine, though included in many energy drinks, does not appear to contribute much to physical or mental function, but B-complex vitamins do: they can boost physical and mental stamina, as well as elevate your mood and concentration.

Caffeine is also a must-have for boosting brain power and staving off the negative effects of sleep deprivation.

Largely speaking, energy drinks are an effective and safe way to boost your energy levels, increase your alertness, and increase your performance on physical and cognitive tasks.

Evaluate your options carefully, since the range of energy drink products on the market have some notable differences in their ingredients.  Choose the right one to fit your needs.

For BodyNutrition‘s #1 energy drink recommendation, click here.

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John Davis

John Davis is a Minneapolis-based health and fitness writer with over 7 years of experience researching the science of high performance athletics, long-term health, nutrition, and wellness. As a trained scientist, he digs deep into the medical, nutritional, and epidemiological literature to uncover the keys to healthy living through better nutrition.