Experts warn that energy drinks aren’t healthful pick-me-up beverages
By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant
Chugging energy drinks seems like an easy way for children and teens to get a quick burst of zip to power through a busy school day and perform well in their activities.
Area experts warn that energy drinks are not healthful pick-me-up beverages.
While they boast vitamin and mineral content—derived from supplements—energy drinks also contain unhealthful ingredients.
Supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. The various supplements in energy drinks may not be helpful at all or could be so high as to cause harm, especially when consumed by children. Since energy drinks are sold as “supplements” and not as beverages, the label claims can remain unverified.
“Essentially, all of the research around sports and energy drinks have been done by the industry that makes money off of the sales of these drinks,” said physician Holly Ann Russell, medical director of clinical and community-based programs at the Center for Community Health & Prevention at the University of Rochester Medical Center and Family Medicine Physician at Highland Family Medicine. “Thus, there are huge conflicts of interest.”
Like sports drinks, energy drinks contain excessive sugar and, Russell added, “don’t provide any nutritional value.”
One 16-ounce energy drink can contain as much as 62 grams of sugar, far beyond the maximum allowance for a day. The empty calories in energy drinks replace calories from nutritious foods and the sugar content contributes to tooth decay. Energy drinks’ boost also comes from a high concentration of caffeine.
“Caffeine is not great for kids,” said Heather Carrera, doctor of clinical nutrition and adjunct professor at Monroe Community College. “It’s a stimulant. It can cause heart complications and insomnia.”
Children should not drink any caffeinated beverages. Because most children find coffee too bitter, energy drinks seem a more appealing stimulant alternative. Unlike coffee, which does contain some naturally occurring antioxidants, energy drinks provide nothing proven beneficial.
Carrera said that their added supplements, herbs and amino acids have not been well-studied with children.
“There’s potential for health issues when it comes to unregulated things,” she said. “Energy drinks are not good for anyone, but especially for young kids who are growing.”
Children tend to overdo things they believe are helpful. If one drink is good, two or three must be even better! This line of thought can lead them to consume many times the intended amount for their size. Some energy drinks, known as “shots,” are already much smaller than a 12-ounce can of soda. Others are sold in containers similar to soda. Drinking several energy shots in a sitting would not challenge most children. The stimulants and supplements in high amounts can cause erratic heartrate and have been linked to death in children with previously undiagnosed heart problems. The FDA does not require energy drink labels to bear any warnings as energy drinks are categorized as “generally recognized as safe.”
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health states on its website that “large amounts of caffeine may cause serious heart and blood vessel problems such as heart rhythm disturbances and increases in heart rate and blood pressure. Caffeine also may harm children’s still-developing cardiovascular and nervous systems.”
Teens who consume alcohol and energy drinks together place themselves at higher risk for alcohol poisoning. Because the energy drinks can keep them awake longer, teens are not as prone to pass out from drinking. This denies their bodies the opportunity to get rid of the excess alcohol. Since the energy drinks keep teens awake, they can drink to the point of alcohol poisoning, all while not realizing how intoxicated they have become.
Names like Red Bull, Monster and 5-hour Energy makes them appealing for children and teens. Many are placed near the gum, candy and snacks at store registers—exactly where children look for a treat while shopping with their parents or where teens want to grab a snack after practice. Energy drinks’ ubiquity at convenience stores makes it easy for children to find, buy and consume them.
Carrera also wonders why children even reach for energy drinks in the first place.
“What’s going on that they don’t have the energy to get through their day?” she asked. “If they’re dependent on an energy drink, why do they lack energy? Are they eating enough, sleeping enough?”
Children who lack energy may not receive enough exercise or exposure to sunlight. For the latter, Carrera encourages parents to make sure children spend enough time outdoors to help set a proper the circadian rhythm: the wake/sleep cycle.
Russell encourages children to hydrate with water and eat a healthful diet with the goal of five servings of fruits and vegetables a day.
“Most children in the US do not get enough fruits and vegetables,” Russell said. “Additionally, children benefit from whole grains that are high in fiber which will keep their blood sugars steady and lean protein. It does not have to be meat; many kids love nuts as a healthy snack.”