Red Bull is one of the most popular energy drinks, and while it’s great at providing a quick burst of energy, many consumers are curious about whether it’s bad for you. This is a reasonable concern, given that many energy drink products have some questionable ingredients.
But does Red Bull contain ingredients that are shown to be harmful to human health in clinical studies? What’s actually in a Red Bull? Are the sugar free versions healthier? And is it even possible to have a healthy energy drink?
In this article we’ll answer all of these questions and more as we review every ingredient in Red Bull’s original formulation and Red Bull Sugarfree. We’ll highlight some questionable additive ingredients, explain which of the two formulations we consider to be healthier and give our take on whether healthy energy drinks are possible.
Red Bull Original Ingredient Review
Caffeine is the core active ingredient in Red Bull, as would be expected for an energy drink. There is 80 milligrams (mg) of caffeine in a regular-sized Red Bull, which is a safe and effective dose. This is slightly less caffeine than in one cup of coffee.
Sucrose and glucose are the two types of sugar in Red Bull, and are the main reasons we consider this energy drink to be unhealthy.
A 2019 medical review found that excess added sugar consumption is associated with increased risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and more. The vast majority of Americans already consume too much added sugar from their diet, which is why we recommend avoiding added sugar entirely in energy drinks.
Isolated, processed sugar ingredients tend to have a more unfavorable impact on blood sugar levels than whole foods which are high in sugar. A clinical trial found that sucrose causes higher blood sugar readings than honey.
Citric acid is a preservative and flavor enhancer that’s typically derived from a fungus called Aspergillus niger and which appears to cause whole-body inflammatory reactions in a small subset of individuals as well documented in our review of another energy drink brand called Celsius.
Natural and artificial flavors are what give Red Bull its taste, and artificial flavoring agents were shown in a 2018 clinical trial to be toxic to animals.
Colors is also listed as an ingredient, but it’s not described whether the colors are naturally-derived or synthetic. We urge Red Bull to clarify this, because artificial food coloring agents have documented toxicity concerns. We have never seen this ingredient described this way in any of our hundreds of Illuminate Health reviews.
Overall, in our opinion, Red Bull is bad for you. The drink contains a wide range of questionable additive ingredients that are shown in clinical trials to have a negative health effect. Red Bull also contains a significant amount of added sugar.
An animated video published by Wired is under two minutes long and explains the effects of some Red Bull ingredients on the body in a visually engaging way:
Is Red Bull Sugarfree Healthier?
Red Bull Sugarfree contains some of the same questionable ingredients that we highlighted in the previous section and recommend avoiding: citric acid, natural and artificial flavors, colors.
The main difference is that this energy drink has no sugar and is instead sweetened with two artificial sweeteners.
Acesulfame K has been shown in animal studies to cause negative changes to gut health and to cause weight gain.
Aspartame is broken down during digestion into a compound called formaldehyde which may damage DNA, as we documented in our recent article on “Is Diet Coke bad for you?”
While we don’t recommend either drink, we do consider Red Bull Sugarfree to be a healthier option than Red Bull, especially for overweight and obese individuals, because processed added sugar is arguably the single ingredient associated with the most negative health effects in medical literature.
Can Energy Drinks Send You To The ER?
A YouTube video published by Dartmouth Health claims that energy drinks are sending “so many” consumers to the ER, and documents the potential risk of some of the ingredients:
Red Bull’s Failure to Publish Full Ingredient Info on Website
At the time of writing this article, the product pages on Red Bull’s website do not include the full list of ingredients. The full ingredient lists we shared in the previous sections were from product listings on the HEB (a national grocery brand) website.
The Red Bull website only lists some of the ingredients as seen above. Notably, natural and artificial flavors, colors and citric acid are missing.
In our opinion, this is a serious consumer safety issue because consumers may have a sensitivity or allergy to one of these ingredients which are not listed.
It’s true that the full list of ingredients exists on the physical can, but it’s the ethical responsibility of a food or beverage manufacturer to publish the full list of ingredients on their website. Without this information, it’s impossible for consumers to make an informed purchase decision.
We urge Red Bull to clearly and transparently publish a full ingredient list on each of the product pages on their website.
We Tried Red Bull Ourselves
As the author of this article, I wanted to try Red Bull myself to share my thoughts on its taste and the overall product experience.
I purchased a can of Original Red Bull from my local Walmart, and drank it this morning since I was somewhat tired from going out and having a few drinks with friends on Halloween.
I've actually never had a Red Bull in my life prior to this morning, and the taste is terrible in my opinion. It tastes like a carbonated, sickly sweet cold medicine. Perhaps I don't like cherry-flavored drinks generally but this is awful.
The energy boost is legitimate though, and I'm impressed an hour after drinking it how my energy levels have steadily increased but without jitters.
I didn't expect to get much of an energy boost because I drink coffee and this has less caffeine than one cup of coffee, but there must be other active ingredients working synergistically with the caffeine.
I do not plan to purchase Red Bull in the future, and rate it 4/10 mostly because the taste and because I consider it to be unhealthy.
Our Clean Energy Picks
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Performance Lab Energy is our top multi-ingredient energy supplement pick.
This supplement contains acetyl-l-carnitine which can "improve energy status" according to a medical review published in the Neurochemical Research journal, as well as CoQ10 which is produced by the body but decreases with age, and "is an effective and safe treatment for reducing fatigue symptoms" according to a 2022 meta-study.
Interested consumers can check out Performance Lab Energy at this link to the product page on the brand's official website.