The Real Dangers of Energy Drinks

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By: , – Registered and Licensed Dietitian
2/15/2013 6:00 AM   :  30 comments   :  19,239 Views

See More: drinks, caffeine,
Recently my teenage son and I found ourselves killing time at the grocery store while waiting for the pharmacy to fill a prescription.  Surrounded by an array of protein supplements and energy drinks, my typical "tell mom only what is absolutely necessary" son was full of questions and comments.
 
Our discussion about energy drinks was interesting--and somewhat disturbing--on several levels. As any mom knows, it is important to not pass judgment or show signs of shock if you want the conversation to continue. This little discussion led me to the following conclusions:
  • Energy drinks are very popular with teens and young adults (no surprise there)
     
  • It is a generational thing: I have my coffee; they have their energy drinks.
     
  • Shop-lifting the energy shots (the small, concentrated bottles, including 5 Hour Energy, which I've written about in the past) is common. Some stores are placing these under lock and key.
     
  • Savvy marketers have convinced our teens and young adults that energy drinks can provide them with a mental and physical edge.  Therefore they are being used in large quantities both on a daily basis and before academic testing and sporting events. 
All this got me thinking again about the energy drink phenomenon. This fast-growing beverage category now reaches more than $10 billion annuallyBut what is the impact on the health of adults, teens and children? 

We don’t know the complete health implications of energy drinks. It probably depends on your specific health conditions and the amount you consume. Last year, the US Food and Drug Administration began investigating reports of several deaths linked to the use of these type energy drinks.  Caffeine, a stimulant and the most active ingredient in these energy concoctions, provides the energy-boost that one experiences. Caffeine has been shown to improve mental focus, alertness, anaerobic performance, and/or endurance performance. 

The Caffeine Connection: Who really knows how much caffeine is in that bottle or can, and we often don't know exactly what else is in there, either.  Most energy drinks don’t include this information on the label.   Caffeine, a substance that is generally recognized as safe (GRAS) is not considered to be a food additive, and can therefore be added to foods without FDA approval.  Even when brands do list caffeine content, that information is questionable: Consumer Reports found that many drinks contain more caffeine than listed. 

Not knowing the amount of caffeine can be dangerous!  There is the risk of caffeine toxicity, the symptoms of which include jitteriness, sleeplessness, nervousness, rapid pulse, abnormal heart rhythms, increased blood pressure, even seizures and death. As a dietitian, I tell people to read the label, but if the label is not reporting or inaccurately reporting the info, that’s really no help. Don’t you feel you have the right to know how much of the active ingredient is actually in your energy drink?  I do!

The Other Stuff:  The other ingredients in these secret concoctions can include:
  • Sugar: a source of quick energy but also a source of additional, often unwanted, calories.
     
  • Taurine: a derivative of the amino acid cysteine. Taurine is added to make people believe it's an important protein, but adequate amounts are easily obtained through meat and seafood sources in the diet.  The substance was first discovered in the bile of an ox in 1827.
     
  • Guarana: a plant with seeds that contain a concentrated source of caffeine.
     
  • B-vitamins: a grouping of water-soluble vitamins with many bodily functions such as the digestion of food, production of energy in body cells, functioning of enzymes. B vitamins are added for better access of energy from food, but healthy adults can easily obtain adequate amounts through food intake.
 
If you believe the marketing, these added ingredients have magical powers.  Detoxifying agent,  no crash later, stimulates metabolism, improves overall wellness… these are just a few of the health claims made by the companies manufacturing energy drinks.  However, a 2012 review of the scientific literature published in Nutrition Reviews evaluated the various ingredients in energy drinks and found no evidence to support these type claims.  Only the ingredients providing caffeine (guarana) and the sugar (carbohydrates) can be backed by scientific research.  
 
Bottom Line:  While you may consider energy drinks to be a harmless pick-me-up, they can be a source of excessive caffeine and calories. 
  • An occasional energy drink is probably fine for most adults. But do apply common sense and take a moderation approach--no more than 1 a day.  Safe daily caffeine consumption has been studied; a healthy adult can consume up to 400 milligrams per day, the amount in about 3 cups of coffee
     
  • Adults should always consult with their doctor before consuming energy drinks—especially people with conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, liver disease, or neurological disorders. There could be ingredient-medication interactions, or the ingredients could make your condition worse. If pregnant or thinking of becoming pregnant, talk to your doctor about the use of energy drinks.
     
  • Never mix alcohol with energy drinks, for the results can be dangerous as reported in the French journal Archives de Pédiatrie.
     
  • The American Academy of Pediatrics states that energy drinks are not appropriate for children or teenagers, and should never be consumed. This mom agrees.
 
Above all, manufacturers should be required to list the amount of caffeine on all product labels. Come on--if you have nothing to hide, why are you so unwilling to give it to me straight and reveal the exact amount of caffeine that my body is receiving from a shot or can.
 
Do you consume energy drinks? Do you believe that they are dangerous?
 


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Comments

  • SAHAVAN05
    30
    Help support my petition to stop energy drink sales to children in Florida. Please pass along as well. We need at least 100 signatures...just need 31 more!
    https:// www.change.org/petitions/sen-bill-n
    elson-it-should-be-unlawful-for-any
    one-under-the-age-of-18-years-old-t
    o-consume-energy-drinks-due-to-shor
    t-and-long-term-health-effects-thes
    e-dangerous-stimulants-are-becoming
    -easily-accessible-each-day
    - 8/15/2014   8:19:10 AM
  • 29
    I drink Monster quite often. I know it's not especially healthy, but it's never given me any of the problems listed above. I limit myself to one a day and I'm fine. - 7/12/2014   6:40:45 PM
  • 28
    Took Vivarin once during my freshman year of college. That was the first and LAST time. Never again. Never touched any of those other "energy" drinks or pills either, and never will. - 6/26/2014   11:17:55 PM
  • 27
    When I am on a long drive back to my hometown I will down one 5hr energy around noon because that is typically when I start feeling sleepy...I do notice that about a half hour or so I feel more alert. I dont notice any other issues, but Im not drinking these things on a regular basis either...at most it is 2 within one week and that might happen 5 times a year. I worked a Nascar race last August and the 5hr Energy Team gave my partner and I each a box of 12. I still have them... - 4/11/2014   11:34:13 PM
  • 26
    Any drink or food that is dangerous should come with a warning sign much like the warnings on medications and cigarettes. - 2/18/2013   9:50:21 AM
  • 1GNPARKER
    25
    Since I can't have caffeine, these energy drinks don't entice me at all. - 2/18/2013   12:20:36 AM
  • 24
    My adult children use these energy drinks (Red Bull) and I tell them it is a waste of money. Buy a bottle of "Jet" which is just caffeine pills for about $3 if you MUST have this stuff, and make them last a couple of weeks and drink a can of cola. That five hour energy drink is just a waste of money. - 2/18/2013   12:16:58 AM
  • 23
    glad i don't go in for this stuff water is the best drink i think - 2/17/2013   11:18:26 PM
  • 22
    Even when I was the age most energy-drinkers are, I stuck to water, milk, tea, and coffee (with an occasional beer or glass of wine). Soda was a rare beverage in my diet b/c I didn't like the way it made me feel.

    Haven't changed much. I don't have a personal desire to overstimulate my life, and when I do, I'll go for chocolate. - 2/17/2013   3:51:44 PM
  • 21
    That's the way I felt with prescribed diet pills in the late 60s. Can't remember what they were. Stayed wired all day, and also felt like I had spiders crawling up and down my back. Can't believe I survived those pills and the VERY low calorie diet he prescribed.

    It is so scary that we are becoming the society of the science fiction movies I grew up with where everyone survived on those spaceships with manufactured "food" and "drink," and we think it's okay, even wonderful.
    - 2/17/2013   1:32:03 PM
  • 20
    I remember that when I was a young adult that our fix was the caffeine pill magnums (I think that was what they were called.) I tried them once while working grave yard shift at a hospital and thought my skin was crawling and I was going to jump right out of my skin. My heart was beating out of my chest, i had cold sweats and I couldn't sit still! I surely didn't think it helped my concentration or brain functions! I never understood why anyone want to take those things. I don't understand the energy drinks now. - 2/16/2013   9:24:40 PM
  • 19
    Getting your energy out of a can or bottle. ****NO**** not the way to go! - 2/16/2013   4:53:56 PM
  • 18
    I've never had an energy drink and have no desire to try one. I agree that if the caffeine amount is going to be listed on the label it should be accurate. As Becky wrote, what do the manufacturers have to hide? - 2/16/2013   12:48:30 PM
  • LOVE2GO2
    17
    I watched a young girl get sky-high and then collapse after consuming an energy drink. I've seen others become totally addicted. I think they are dangerous! - 2/16/2013   11:40:30 AM
  • VANANDEL
    16
    I rarely have an energy drink, but on a 100-Mile "Century" last year they had the little 5-hour energy drinks at one of the rest stops. I had one of them, and I could feel the boost of energy within minutes. Given we still had 60 or more miles to go, I'm sure it didn't hurt me, and it probably helped. But I would not have such energy drinks in other situations. On this particular ride, the temperature rose above 100 degrees in the last 15 miles of our ride. I did wonder if the energy drink made me even hotter than I would have been?!? - 2/16/2013   10:34:39 AM
  • 15
    These have always looked a little suspicious to me. The article was very informative and confirmed what I thought: energy drinks are an unhealthy, unnecessary scam. A cup of coffee will do for me, but I only drink it once a week on Saturday mornings to help me get the chores done. Too bouncy for me to drink more often. An energy drink would have me in the ER with cardiac issues! - 2/16/2013   10:06:47 AM
  • 14
    I think they are a waste of money and have never tried one. - 2/16/2013   8:35:06 AM
  • 13
    Because of the high sugar and in some cases ultra high caffeine content, I won't touch the energy drinks. I personally feel they do more damage to the body than regular soda.

    One thing this article doesn't mention is how many people mix these energy drinks with alcohol. I believe Red Bull and vodka is a popular drink these days. Mixing alcohol and these energy drinks is dangerous and yet people continue to do it because they love the buzz they get.

    Even without the alcohol many people enjoy the rush. There really are healthy ways to increase your energy without these drinks. Too many people are relying on these for energy and that's not healthy. - 2/16/2013   6:11:42 AM
  • 12
    They spook the heck out of me. If a combination of water, nutritious food, exercise and sleep can't give me energy - I need to change things there - not go buy a panacea in the form of a magic elixir. - 2/16/2013   6:06:17 AM
  • 11
    I have never had an inclination to try one of those drinks and I say I never will. I do not think children and teens should drink them at all either - 2/16/2013   3:43:35 AM
  • 10
    A recent post on Facebook: "I don't eat anything that has a commercial." I couldn't agree more; mostly junk is advertised. - 2/16/2013   12:16:54 AM
  • 9
    Amazingly enough, I've never had one, and really don't have any desire to try one. Very happy with my coffee and tea! - 2/15/2013   4:38:53 PM
  • 8
    I have gone cold turkey with caffeine this week, having had up to 8 energy drinks a day and at least 2 litres of diet cola daily. These drinks are addictive. Not only do I have cavities in my teeth for the first time, since I have been drinking these, but the withdrawal symptoms so far have been seriously unpleasant - headaches, extreme tiredness and constant aches in my leg muscles. - 2/15/2013   11:53:56 AM
  • 7
    I drink a (sugar-free) energy drink every day in the mornings. I use it in place of coffee. Most of the time I only have one per day.

    My 13 year old doesn't drink them but I can see how he might want to in the future.

    In my opinion, the biggest danger with energy drinks is irresponsible consumption. Drink too many and you could be in trouble. Drink it with alcohol and you could be in really big trouble.

    I would definitely (obviously) be against a ban, though. I need it in the mornings! - 2/15/2013   11:37:19 AM
  • 6
    Not exactly an energy drink, I used to drink Starbucks Refreshers. Then I just recently found out I have diabetes. I think come late springtime, the most I could do is order a tall with lots of ice. Keep it no more than 30 calories in a glass. Or avoid it entirely by that time. Nothing like being as medically compliant as you can while having diabetes, for your tastes to change.

    But any sugar free energy drink I ever had has increasingly wiped the floor with me--over a 6 year period, and now at my age. And despite not having enough energy pre-diabetes treatment. - 2/15/2013   11:33:37 AM
  • 1954MARG
    5
    As usual, almost anything marketed as "performance boosting" is expensively packed sugar + an overpriced ingredient, in this case, caffeine. The best energy boosters are three meals a day, regular exercise and sleep. There are no shortcuts to success, only shortcuts into the pockets of the gullible. - 2/15/2013   10:49:26 AM
  • DESERTMOTH
    4
    I started drinking energy drinks when I had a mid day slump during jury trials. They helped more than coffee but I do know they are terrible for me so I rarely use them anymore. I have not gotten to the point of never using them but I suspect I will. They do not go long with my desire for a healthy body - 2/15/2013   10:02:52 AM
  • 3
    Great blog.My grandson is aware of the dangers and will not drink any of them. - 2/15/2013   9:11:49 AM
  • 2
    I am glad that no one in my house drink these energy drinks. - 2/15/2013   8:54:02 AM
  • 1
    I agree with this, I have 2 children in the teen and young adult age and while my son has had the occasional energy drink we have had many discussions and he would drink no more than 1 a day. He would tell me of articles where people have died from the consumption of energy drinks. I think they are dangerous to a point and believe communicaiton between kids and parents is important. Glad to read that you were able to discuss with your son. - 2/15/2013   7:25:49 AM

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