Red Bull “gives you wings,” right? It “boosts your immune system, enhances your performance and helps you stay awake.” This is what energy drink manufacturers want us to believe, and they plaster these misleading messages all over sporting events, music venues and video games. It’s no wonder that up to 30-50 percent of adolescents and young adults have consumed energy drinks.
But are they safe for young people to drink? No. It’s important that parents educate themselves about these harmful drinks and talk to their kids about the health risks.
Energy drinks are loaded with caffeine – often twice as much as coffee and eight times as much as a soda. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn’t regulate the caffeine content in popular energy drinks because the beverage makers claim that these drinks are “natural dietary supplements” that aren’t subject to food regulations. Some drinks don’t even list the caffeine content on their label. Instead, it’s part of their secret “proprietary blend.”
Many energy drinks also contain guarana, a South American plant with a more potent form of caffeine. One gram of guaranine (a derivative of guarana) is equivalent to 40 milligrams of caffeine.
Too much caffeine has adverse health effects, including increased heart rate, high blood pressure, palpitations, insomnia and dehydration. Caffeine withdrawal is associated with headache, fatigue, anxiety, tremors and irritability.
Energy drinks also contain other substances touted to improve energy, such as taurine, ginseng, vitamin B, carnitine and bitter orange. Unfortunately, the safety and effects of daily consumption of these additives are not well known.
Energy drinks are especially dangerous when mixed with alcohol. Manufacturers sell mixes in packaging similar to nonalcoholic energy drinks, and teens also create their own cocktails by mixing energy drinks with hard liquor.
This is dangerous, because combining high-caffeine energy drinks with alcohol may give teens the perception that they aren’t drunk when they actually are. As a result, they often drink too much. In 2010, several adolescents at a university were hospitalized, and one nearly died, after consuming alcoholic energy drinks.
In 2011, a clinical report published by the American Academy of Pediatrics stated that “rigorous review and analysis of the literature reveal that caffeine and other stimulant substances contained in energy drinks have no place in the diet of children and adolescents.”
It’s important to note that sport drinks, such as Gatorade, are different from energy drinks. Sport drinks are beverages that contain water, carbohydrates, electrolytes and minerals meant to replenish fluids and electrolytes lost through exercise. Sport drinks should not be used for general fluid consumption because they contain excessive sugar and calories. They are only recommended for athletes who participate in prolonged (longer than one hour) vigorous physical activity or for children who have dehydration (i.e., from vomiting or diarrhea).
So the next time your child is thirsty, offer a glass of water or milk and explain the health risks of energy and sports drinks. If you have questions, call your child’s pediatrician.
Stephanie Nguyen, M.D., is a pediatrician at the Palo Alto Center of the Palo Alto Medical Foundation. The Palo Alto Medical Foundation and column editor Arian Dasmalchi provide this monthly column.