The back of a Red Bull Energy Drink claims to “improve performances, especially during times of increased stress or strain, increase concentration and improve reaction time.”
That assertion piques the interest of millions who drink the energy drink hoping to achieve those results by simply consuming eight ounces of the yellow liquid.
“I don’t like taking it a lot,” Elon University senior Ian Taylor said. “But sometimes I feel like I have to.”
Elon associate psychology professor Mat Gendle and his students also had an extra interest in the claim, although for a different reason.
Ultimately, they decided to scientifically test the claims.
“If you look at the ingredients in Red Bull, there is nothing in there that is magical,” Gendle said. “It’s not like the thing has cocaine in it.”
For the next two years, Gendle and his students worked to find a real-world way to test Red Bull and its claims.
One of the first tasks: replicating the taste of Red Bull, without using any of the energy drink’s ingredients.
After trying all sorts of concoctions, one of Gendle’s students suggested doing it the way her father does when he runs out of Red Bull at the bar he owns: Take Vernor’s ginger ale and drop a raspberry Smartie candy in it.
The team finally decided to use Diet Vernor’s and raspberry syrup.
“It didn’t taste exactly like Red Bull,” Gendle said. “But you would think it came from some type of energy drink origin.”
Once they nailed down the placebo drink, it was time to dole it out.
The students who voluntarily offered to be a part of the study came in twice, once getting the placebo drink and once getting either Red Bull or Sugar-Free Red Bull.
A computer test gauged their attention and reaction times on both visits.
“There is nothing in Red Bull that would tell someone who knows anything about brain biology, ‘This thing will have remarkable effects,'” Gendle said. “But it is in fact the case in certain circumstances that glucose, other sugars and caffeine do enhance reaction time.”
Gendle, who was trained in neurotoxicology and neuropharmacology, said he and his team figured ahead of time that the experimenters might see a little change in reaction time, but nothing major, nothing that would have real-world relevance.
But the results were surprising from previous assumptions.
The test subjects ended up incurring a placebo effect.
The students who received the placebo blend acted as though they were having an energy drink.
“Their performance did get better because of the effect, so that performance washed out whatever tiny effect they would have gotten from the Red Bull,” Gendle said. “The groups were then identical.”
The study, which was published online June 30 and appears in the latest issue of The Open Nutrition Journal, said the effect of drinking Red Bull was no greater than any other caffeine enhancement, such as coffee, would have contributed to the reaction time of the participants.
The conclusion of the study reads, “Our results indicate that, although Red Bull may improve cognition in certain clinical settings, one can, when taken by university students at the end of a busy weekday, does not significantly improve reaction time or visual attention.”
Taylor echoed the findings of the study on a personal basis, saying that it doesn’t help him concentrate so much as it just helps him to stay awake, even though there is a crash after the sugar runs out.
“The take home message here is if you think it is going to work, it is going to work,” Gendle said.