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Energy Drinks: Danger in a Can

March 28, 2011

With the latest sales figures from 2009 at over $6.9 billion dollars, it seems everyone has tried an energy drink at some point. With claims to improve concentration, energy, stamina, even athletic performance and weight loss it’s not a wonder this is the fastest growing beverage market with sales expected to top $9 billion in 2011. But are these claims true? More importantly, are these drinks safe?

While occasional consumption of these beverages likely won’t produce ill effects for an otherwise healthy adult that may not be the case for those who drink them chronically or already have preexisting conditions such as diabetes, liver, kidney, or heart disease. That goes for kids who drink them regularly as well.

In a recent review, researchers looked at the safety of such drinks. Below are some of the highlights from the report from Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy for Pediatrics, which concluded “Energy drinks have no therapeutic benefit, and many ingredients are understudied and not regulated.”

  • 30-50% of adolescents and young adults consume energy drinks
  • Many energy drinks contain high and unregulated amounts of caffeine and other ingredients
  • Consuming these drinks have been associated with serious adverse effects, especially in children, such as heart palpitations, seizures, mania, cardiac arrest, and even death

CAFFEINE OVERLOAD

The active ingredient in energy drinks is caffeine. Most energy drinks fall within the range of 50 to 300 milligrams of caffeine per can. The general guideline for caffeine intake per day for kids is around 100 mg and around 400 mg for adults. For adults, caffeine toxicity begins around 1000 mg and can be deadly at amounts greater than 3000 mg. These estimates can vary depending on health and other preexisting conditions, however. For children, the toxic or lethal amounts could be far less.

Many energy drinks offer 3 to 5 times the amount of caffeine contained in the average cola. But that is just through comparative analysis of listed amounts. Many energy drinks contain even more caffeine through additives such as guarana, which typically contains around 40 to 80 mg of caffeine. The caffeine content from these ingredients, however, is not required to be listed by manufacturers making actual caffeine amounts likely higher than listed on the can.

WHERE’S THE REGULATION?

Because energy drinks are classified as dietary supplements and not categorized as food like soft drinks, they do not fall under the same regulation and do not have caffeine content limited by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

ACCESS FOR ALL

While most energy drinks are marketed to teens and young adults, anyone can drink them. This is particularly worrisome because children cannot tolerate the same amounts of caffeine and negative effects can be reached with lesser amounts. What many people don’t realize is that caffeine is a drug and like other drugs, needs regulation. Interestingly enough the review points out that caffeine “may be the only psychoactive drug legally available over-the-counter to children.”

POTENTIAL EFFECTS OF CAFFEINE

Caffeine intake within recommended guidelines like those mentioned above typically does not result in adverse effects. However, amounts greater than recommended often do. Those sensitive to caffeine, or with medical conditions like heart disease or diabetes, or pregnant women may experience problems with caffeine even within normal ranges.

  • Common symptoms of caffeine toxicity include confusion, irritability, anxiety, insomnia, tremor, rapid heartbeat and stomach pain
  • High doses of caffeine have been shown to exacerbate cardiac conditions including an increase in blood pressure and changes in heart rate
  • Additional calories and high levels of sugar found in many energy drinks may also contribute to weight gain, dental caries, and glucose intolerance in both children and adults
  • Intakes of caffeine >300 mg have been associated with miscarriage and low birth weight in pregnant women

PRACTICE SAFE CONSUMPTION

If you do consume energy drinks, follow these tips for safe consumption.

  • Check with your physician if you have diabetes, kidney or heart disease or take any medications that may interact with the ingredients in energy drinks
  • Never mix energy drinks with alcohol
  • Stay within the recommended caffeine range of <100 mg/day for kids and <400 mg/day for adults
  • Consume caffeine earlier in the day as it can stay in the body up to 10 hours and interrupt sleep

References:

  1.  Seifert, Sara, Judith Schaechter, Eugene Hershorin, and Steven Lipshultz. “Health Effects of Energy Drinks on Children, Adolescents, and Young Adults.” Pediatrics 127.3 (2011): 511-528. A NetMed Pediatrics Guide . Web. 20 Mar. 2011.
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