The Real Dangers of Energy Drinks

By , Registered and Licensed Dietitian
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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