Top 10 energy ingredients

Top 10 energy ingredients

Judi Quilici Timmcke, PhD, knows that Americans want to be at their best at all times, but overloading them with caffeine isn't the answer. Formulators, manufacturers and marketers must find a way to deliver balance and healthy energy to consumers. Here's how.

I am not opposed to stimulants in moderation. In fact, caffeine has been shown to improve mental function and physical performance. The issue is balance. If you are a formulator, do it with dignity, using appropriate doses and proper information on labels of all the products you develop.

Why are there so many consumers who buy energy products? A few responses I have received from people are:

  • "I was feeling sluggish and felt I really needed energy so I bought two energy drinks. I have to stay awake at work. It gave me energy short term, but the price is so high I can't afford to keep buying them."

  • "I drink energy drinks for a short burst of energy, but find I am tired within an hour and want to drink more."

  • "My son drinks them, but I noticed that his energy only lasts a little while and then he is back lying around."

  • "When I am relaxed, I feel pain kick in or I have bad thoughts so energy drinks make me feel better."


The reality is that we need to be balanced and as formulators we should promote healthy energy and rest with a good diet and exercise.

As Americans we want to be all that we can be—at peak levels all the time and to get as much as possible done efficiently and perfectly until we lay down to rest—and then wonder why we may not be able to sleep. Many foreigners laugh at Americans and their interest in energy. In many other countries, employees rest in the afternoon.

When I have been asked to formulate energy products, I am told by marketing groups to be sure the formula is strong enough to feel an effect immediately. This is understandable, but safety needs to be taken into consideration. As one enters this competitive market, one should look at the definition of energy. It is the ability to feel vigor, force, potency, drive, zeal and push; to have available power to accomplish much; to do vigorous activity and a feeling of tension through the body caused by an excess of power. Hmmm . . . can we accomplish all this and still provide a safe product?

Many companies I have formulated for have their own markets to sell to, especially MLMs, but in general it appears that energy drinks appeal to more men within the age group of 13 to 35 years old. Formulators need to look at marketing requirements, but also to align formulation ingredients to the research that supports claims.

Energy product ingredient categories

Some of the leading energy formulas include sugar in different forms, caffeine, glucurolactone, L-taurine, L-phenylalanine, L-carnitine, creatine monohydrate, citicoline, malic acid, B vitamins, inositol, carbonated water, and herbs such as Ginkgo biloba, Siberian ginseng, Panax ginseng, açai, N-acetyl-L-tyrosine.

The "experiential" ingredients product formulators might choose tend to fall into the following categories - those ingredients that stimulate, increase blood sugar, cause flushing (increase blood to the periphery) or enhance brain neurotransmitter levels.

Experiential ingredients:

  • Caffeine: Ingredients that cause a surge of energy include caffeine from sources such as kola nut, guarana and yerba mate. Looking at the amount of caffeine in products, a cup of coffee contains around 150 mg; cola drinks around 30 to 40 mg; and two extra-strength Excedrin tablets contain 130 mg. Small containers of energy drinks such as 5-Hour Energy contain around 207 mg of caffeine. Rockstar, AMP, Red Bull, and Monster, which are all around 8 ounce containers, have approximately 72 to 80 mg of caffeine.1

    Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant and is consumed to increase focus, alertness and reduce fatigue. The effect of caffeine varies among adults and kids because of different factors such as tolerability and body weight. I remember health coaching a fire fighter I was working with who built up such a high tolerance for caffeine that he drank 30 cups of coffee a day to stay awake on his shift and had no problems sleeping afterwards. His kidneys were shot. Usually one will feel the kick of caffeine in less than an hour and it will last for around five hours.2,3 Administering caffeine to athletes showed that it can improve endurance and improve the speed of a sprint.4,5

  • Simple sugar carbohydrates: Sucrose, maltodextrin, fructose, glucose and other forms of simple sugars are added to energy products because of the initial "feel good" effect from the rise in blood sugar. Do companies include warnings for diabetics on their energy product label? They should. Although there is some conflicting research, in 2008, a double-blind, crossover study investigated the effects of diabetic patients ingesting a moderate amount of caffeine daily. In diabetics who drank caffeine, the average daily blood sugar levels elevated by 8 percent and after a meal their blood sugar levels shot up as much as 26 percent.6

  • Acetylcholine enhancers: Ingredients that enhance acetylcholine usually inhibit acetylcholinesterase. Included are acetyl-L-carnitine (ALC), DMAE (dimethylaminoethanol), fisetin (a flavonoid found in fruits and vegetables) and branded as Cognisetin, huperzine-A, vinpocetine, vitamin B6, phosphatidylserine, phosphatidylcholine, citicoline, choline, lecithin and others. Citicoline is positioned as a psychostimulant. Although these do not increase energy levels, the possibility of them increasing cognitive function would be the reason why a formulator would add them, although due to their price they are often not added at an effective dose.

  • Cellular ingredients: Ingredients involved in cellular energy, but without an immediate experiential feeling, include creatine monohydrate, malic acid, B vitamins, coenzyme Q10, L-carnitine, adenosine-5'-triphosphate (ATP) and ribose. Companies may add these ingredients into energy formulas, but there is no research that demonstrates they provide a quick burst of energy. If used, formulators will usually add small amounts because of price point.

    Creatine monohydrate is a dietary supplement that is used by athletes and bodybuilders, but is added to energy formulas to increase energy. It appears to increase the availability of ATP found within cells, but is not appropriate for an energy product. The research revolves around increasing power output for the athlete and has an effect on short duration, intense workouts most likely because it helps anaerobic and not aerobic metabolism.7

  • Malic acid: This compound is manufactured in the Krebs Cycle, which is one of the body's metabolic pathways and is also found in some foods. It would be proposed that formulators use it because it is involved in the production of ATP energy. Good story, but no proof of benefits. In 1995, one study administered malic acid to patients with fibromyalgia and it was suggested that it may help with some symptoms, but more research is necessary to determine benefits.8

    B vitamins are used as cofactors in energy production, but they do not actually provide energy to the body. In marketing copy, the role of B vitamins in the energy production process is explained, but companies get into trouble when they begin to make energy claims with them.9

Supplements that increase blood circulation:

  • Niacin: The purpose of using small amounts of the B vitamin, niacin, in an energy formulation is to increase blood flow to the surface of the skin, which produces the feeling of a warm rush and a consumer may say, "It gives me energy."

    I remember one company I worked for that did bench top work adding niacin into a formula, then trying it and then adding more, until they were completely satisfied that it had a large enough impact. What if a person has high blood pressure or has cardiovascular disease and takes the product with a few highly caffeinated cola drinks? Pop go the blood vessels.

    I do not recommend using niacin in an energy product. It is better used in the form of niacinamide with the other B vitamins in balance. Besides niacin, there are no known supplements that have the same immediate effect.

    Ginkgo biloba: As a standardized extract, Ginkgo biloba has been shown to improve blood flow, has antioxidant properties and has shown some indication that it helps to improve cognitive function. For a quick energy boost, ginkgo is not the answer.10

    Panax and Siberian ginseng: The ginsengs are known to have adaptogenic effects and are added to various energy formulas for uniqueness and for the traditional use of increasing strength and vigor. Although the research isn't the best, traditionally speaking Panax and Siberian ginseng may have benefits, as a standardized extract.

Other supporting ingredients

  • Amino acids have great benefits, but I am unsure the rationale behind the additions of small quantities of L-tyrosine, L-taurine, L-phenylalanine, and L-glutamine to the formulas, since there is no research to show that they have any impact on energy levels. L-carnitine is a remarkable amino acid for heart health at 1.5 to 2 grams. It shuttles fatty acids across the mitochondria to be metabolized. It helps stimulate the electron transport chain to produce energy for the heart. Formulators add amino acids to energy formulas for uniqueness, but it only adds extra cost.

  • Glucuronolactone: Many energy formulas include glucuronolactone because it is believed to improve mood. Glucuronolactone is a naturally occurring compound produced in the liver during glucose metabolism. It is absorbed and metabolized and is active in the body's detoxification system. There are consumer articles that state that glucuronolactone has been clinically tested and proven for alertness, mental performance and reducing sleepiness. What the articles do not tell you is that these studies did not study glucuronolactone alone, but with ingredients such as caffeine that produce a stimulating effect.11,12,13

Safety and responsibility

As a formulator, we have a responsibility to provide excellent formulas for the company we are working for, but we also must consider safety. Big picture, we need to recognize the fact that the consumer may be ingesting more than one serving of the energy product, may be drinking other beverages or products with caffeine or other stimulants, may have cardiovascular disease and/or high blood pressure, diabetes or other disorders.

Formulate with dignity by determining appropriate doses, preparing supplement facts panels to inform the consumer by calling out the caffeine amount, include warnings necessary for those with particular health disorders. In the directions, the formulator should use clear language, recommending not to over consume by taking multiple doses or combine product with other caffeinated foods or beverages or alcohol.

Judi Quilici Timmcke, PhD, is a scientist/technical consultant and product formulator for companies in the dietary supplements industry. She has secured for companies exclusive and patented ingredients, has testified in court as an expert, and also is a health coach.

Nawgan founder weighs in

Nawgan brand energy drink was developed by neuropsychologist Rob Paul, PhD. He takes your questions now Energy drinks are all the buzz, typically fueled by caffeine. While some Nawgan varieties have that, the can reads that it's "powered by Cognizin" brand citicoline. What's up with that?

Most energy drinks include taurine and glucuronolactone as primary ingredients to provide energy, albeit there is debate regarding the degree to which these ingredients support energy independent of caffeine. By contrast, we will soon publish a clinical trial demonstrating that Nawgan improves alertness.

Citicoline gets synapses popping as an aceytlcholine agonist. Other ingredients in this class include vinpocetine and phosphatidylserine. Why citicoline?

The science behind citicoline is exceptionally strong, and therefore we can define the necessary dose to improve alertness and we also have a large body of literature that supports the safety of citicoline. By contrast, the mechanism of action, necessary dose, and safety features are not well known for many other compounds.

Is there a problem with energy drinks using sub-therapeutic doses of functional ingredients?

Functional beverages of all types, including energy drinks, are vulnerable to both sub-therapeutic doses as well as excessive doses of ingredients. In the case of sub-therapeutic doses, there are a number of ingredients included in various energy drinks where the minimal dose needed to provide value has not been defined or cannot be readily achieved in a beverage. Inositol, Ginkgo biloba and phosphatidylserine have some limitations regarding these issues. Some drinks include ingredients at doses that exceed what the body can either absorb or integrate into downstream synthesis.

Select energy ingredient suppliers

Ajinomoto North America Inc.
Supplies a range of amino acids.

Albion Human Nutrition Division
Creatine MagnaPower is a magnesium creatine chelate, said to have better adbsorption than creatine monohydrate. Studies show it best regenerates energy needed for anaerobic performance.

Bartek Ingredients Inc.
Supplier of malic acid, a key component of both the KREB and glyoxalate cycles. Malic acid provides the cells with energy and carbon skeletons for the formation of amino acids.

BI Nutraceuticals
Supplies steam sterilized botanical ingredients including Panax ginseng and Ginkgo Biloba root and leaves. Also supplies niacinamide ascorbate and various amino acids.

Biotropics Malaysia
Supplies PHYSTA-brand Tongat Ali water extract. Studies suggest it supports energy, muscle strength and muscle mass.

Ribose plays a fundamental role in energy synthesis, promotes tissue recovery, restores the phsyological conditon of the muscle, reduces cell damage and limits free radical formation.

Bio Serae Laboratories SAS
ViNitrox is a natural polyphenolic ingredient sourced from grapes and apples. Studies support its role as a nitric oxide enhancer and vasodialtor.

AlphaSize A-GPC features a "mind-to-muscle" positioning in sports nutrition formulations, where it acts to optimize muscular power output, sharpen agility, and also delay mental fatigue.

Cyvex Nutrition, Inc.
Cognisetin brand fisetin — research has shown fisetin protects neurological function, supports cellular integrity and promotes neuronal cell growth. BioCosanol brand policosanol is a sugar cane extract said to improve blood circulation, and increase endurance during exercise.

Gencor Nutrients Inc.
Supplies Testofen, a natural testosterone booster. A study showed Testofen increased free testosterone levels 98 percent in the active group.

Hsu Ginseng
American ginseng grown in Wisconsin.

Improve USA Inc.
Supplies aloe vera gel, which studies show can increase the bioavailability of vitamin C and B12.

Interhealth Nutraceuticals Inc.
ZMA is an anabolic support formula containing highly bioavailable, patented zinc mono-L-methionine sulfate (L-OptiZinc), zinc aspartate, magnesium aspartate and vitamin B6. ZMA supports healthy testosterone levels as well as muscle strength and muscle power.

Kyowa Hakko USA
Sustamine, two amino acids bound together, is a true dipeptide that is much smaller than a complete protein and can be absorbed quickly to aid recovery. Also Coginizin-brand citicoline, shown to improve attention, recall and focus. Both have GRAS status.

Lonza Inc.
Carnipure brand L-carnitine plays an essential role in energy production. Carnipure is kosher and has GRAS status.

OmniActive Health Technologies Inc.
Capsimax is a proprietary encapsulated form of premium, highly concentrated natural capsicum (hot red pepper) extract. Studies show it helps manage appetite, supports healthy metabolism to burn calories, and helps increase energy expenditure in the body.

Pterostilbene, a compound found in blueberries and other fruits, is closely related to resveratrol. Pterostilbene promotes mitochondrial health and biogenesis which can lead to more productive sessions and quicker recover after workouts.

National Enzyme Co.
Supplies ZIP EX2, an all-natural three-tiered energy management ingredient with a blend of digestive enzymes, B vitamins and energy-support botanicals.

Advantra-Z patented Citrus aurantium is suitable for energy apps, as well as sports nutrition and weight management.

P.L. Thomas
RhodioLife brand rhodiola rosea extract, an adaptogenic herb that generates sustained energy and promotes wellness. Also supplies yerba mate.

TSI Health Sciences Inc.
PEAK ATP delivers the exact molecule the human body needs to create energy. It influences circulation without adversely affecting heart rate or blood pressure.

Xsto Solutions
Partners with Bioenergy Life Science to bring you D-ribose – the only ribose with FDA no objection GRAS regulatory status. Holds patents for energy use.


1. Alford C, Cox H, Wescott R. The effects of red bull energy drink on human performance and mood. Amino Acids. 2001;21(2):139-50.
2. Birks J, Grimley Evans J. Ginkgo biloba for cognitive impairment and dementia. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2009;21;(1):CD003120. Review.
3. Bishop D.Dietary supplements and team-sport performance.Sports Med. 2010;40(12):995–1017.
4. Bolton, Sanford (1981). "Caffeine: Psychological Effects, Use and Abuse" Orthomolecular Psychiatry10 (3): 202–211.
5. Conger SA, Warren GL, Hardy MA, et al. Does caffeine added to carbohydrate provide additional ergogenic benefit for endurance?.Int J Sport NutrExercMetab. 2011;21(1): 71–84.
6. Horne JA, Reyner LA. Beneficial effects of an "energy drink" given to sleepy drivers.Amino Acids. 2001;20(1):83-9.
7. Lane JD, Feinglos MN, Surwit RS. Caffeine Increases Ambulatory Glucose and Postprandial Responses in Coffee Drinkers With Type 2 Diabetes. Diab Care. 2008;31( 2):221-222.
8. Mintel Energy Drink Report. 2006;07.05.06.
9. Nehlig, A; Daval, JL; Debry, G. Caffeine and the central nervous system: mechanisms of action, biochemical, metabolic and psychostimulant effects. Brain Res Rev. 1992;17(2):139–170.
10. Russell IJ, Michalek JE, Flechas JD, Abraham GE. Treatment of fibromyalgia syndrome with Super Malic: a randomized, double blind, placebo controlled, crossover pilot study. J Rheumatol. 1995;22(5):953-958.
11. Seidl R, Peyrl A, Nicham R, Hauser E. A taurine and caffeine-containing drink stimulates cognitive performance and well-being. Amino Acids. 2000;19(3-4):635-642.
12. Stout J, Eckerson J, Ebersole K, et al. Effect of creatine loading on neuromuscular fatigue threshold. J Appl Physio. 2000;88(1):109-112.
13. Woolston C. B vitamins don't boost energy drinks' power. Los Angeles Times.,0,3939169.story.

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