Energy Drinks: What Parents Should Know

Red Bull. Monster Energy. Full Throttle. Rockstar. Amp Energy Lighting.

No, these aren’t the names of high-efficiency fluorescent light fixtures, or accessories for Guitar Hero. They’re beverages — more specifically, energy drinks. While these are just a few of the most popular, there are many more; over 200 new brands were introduced in 2006 alone.

If you’re not familiar with them, it’s time to get familiar with them, because these drinks are marketed to our teenage and college-age children — and, more recently, women and youths — and there are definite risks that we (parents), and our children. should be aware of.

What is an “Energy Drink”?

It’s not the same as a sports beverage, like Gatorade, or Powerade. You might consider them “enhanced” sports drinks in some ways. Energy drinks generally contain sugar — in the form of sucrose, glucose, or high fructose corn syrup, with 21–34 grams of sugar per eight ounce serving. In addition to sugar, most energy drinks contain the same basic list of ingredients that include, guarana, taurine, ginseng and B vitamins. Other additives that claim to do things like “reduce the risk of cancer” and “prevent diabetes” are often present, but those claims are unsupported by science.

Here’s a breakdown of the primary ingredients:

GUARANA – A South American plant, also known as Brazilian cocoa. Basically, it’s caffeine. Guarana hasn’t been evaluated by the FDA for safety, effectiveness, or purity.

TAURINE – An amino acid that our body manufactures on its own from other amino acids. The amount of taurine that would be consumed with regular intake of energy drinks is far more than the amount in a normal diet, but there is little evidence of adverse effects.

GINSENG – A root most commonly found in East Asia. Claims are that ginseng improves athletic performance, improves mood, and energizes the immune system, but there is little evidence that it does any of these things to a significant degree. There is evidence, however, to link it to insomnia, heart palpitations, and headaches.

CAFFEINE – Rarely listed as an ingredient, most all of the top-selling energy drinks contain more than their fair share of caffeine, often hidden under the cryptic-sounding label, “proprietary blend.” The most popular brands contain from 150–280 mg of caffeine per can — the equivalent of two to three cups of coffee.  The FDA doesn’t regulate the amount of caffeine in energy drinks or cold coffee beverages. They do, however, regulate the sale of over-the-counter-caffeine-containing drugs that may contain up to 100–200 mg of caffeine. That’s an interesting, and perhaps alarming, difference.

ALCOHOL – Some of the most popular energy drinks are manufactured with alcohol – yikes! More on this later, but you should know that the alcohol-containing version of many energy drinks is less expensive than the non-alcohol-containing counterparts.

What’s the Big Deal?

There are several reasons that regular consumption of energy drinks is a concern. They are:

1. Adolescents who drink an abundance of energy drinks may be at risk for obesity and dental caries, given the significant amount of sugar (and calories).

2. The effects of caffeine can be significant. Notably, caffeine withdrawal symptoms have been reported in school-age children who drank as little as 120–145 mg of caffeine per day over a 2-week period. Recall that the most popular energy drinks contain between 150–280 mg per SERVING. Some brands contain upward of 500 mg in a single can.

3. Heavy caffeine use can lead to dehydration in athletes who do not adequately compensate with other fluids.

4. Caffeine intensifies anxiety, and is also associated with digestive problems, insomnia, heart palpitations, and elevated blood pressure.

5. There is a common practice, especially on college campuses, of mixing energy drinks with alcohol. One can of a caffeinated and alcoholic energy drink is equivalent to drinking a bottle of wine along with a few cups of coffee. Consuming more than one of these drinks can be extremely dangerous.

What Can We Do?

As with many products in the food and beverage industry, the marketing of energy drinks is slick, bold, and edgy.  We (parents) can be aware that the energy drink industry has successfully marketed these products to adolescents and athletes, and is even beginning to reach out to women and youth. We can be aware that manufacturers of energy drinks speak to young people in a language they “get,” that there are serious risks associated with consuming energy drinks, and  that most adolescents who consume the drinks lack that important knowledge. And, perhaps most importantly, we can take action by having a conversation with our children about the safety concerns and risks of consuming these energy drinks.

Anne Marie Kuchera, our Kids Plus Nutrition Consultant, is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Registered Dietitian.