The buzz on energy drinks

I’m going to date myself here: I remember when Jolt Cola became popular. I was in college, and people were buzzing—pun intended—about this new drink that contained all the sugar and twice the caffeine of a normal cola. It sounded crazy to me—who would drink such a product?

Many people, it turns out. Twenty-five years later, the production and consumption of energy drinks has exploded, and the contents of the newer drinks make Jolt look quaint by comparison. Energy drink sales in the United States were about $5.4 billion in 2006, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association; that same year, 500 new energy drink products were introduced worldwide. You may not be able to name more than a few, but chances are, your children can, even if they aren’t drinking them. When product manufacturers put Super Mario and Family Guy characters on the cans, it’s clear they are targeting children and young adults.

My morning beverage of choice is coffee, so I hadn’t paid much attention to the growing energy drink industry until I attended a recent talk by Jay Jaffee, chemical health coordinator with the Minnesota Department of Health. Jaffee spoke to a group of parents, educators, and health care workers about why energy drinks are bad for children, and why parents should set and enforce rules about their consumption.

Energy sap

What’s wrong with energy drinks? First of all, they contain caffeine, one of the most popular drugs used by Americans. Nearly 80 percent of U.S. adults drink coffee every day, and many others drink caffeinated beverages like tea and diet soda. Caffeine is a stimulant: it can raise your blood pressure, increase your heart rate, increase feelings of stress and anxiety, and cause sleep disturbances. It’s not harmful in moderation—but there’s nothing moderate about energy drinks.

As Jaffee explained, the amount of caffeine in energy drinks ranges from 50 to more than 500 milligrams per serving, and many cans contain more than one serving. In comparison, a 12-ounce can of cola has 34 to 54 milligrams of caffeine, and a six-ounce cup of coffee has 77 to 150 milligrams.

“Most people don’t slam their coffee down; if it’s hot, it’s going to burn, and if you’ve spent four dollars on it you’re definitely not going to slam it down,” Jaffee said. “With energy drinks, they’re putting it all in their system at one time.”

Energy drinks also contain sugar, and the combination of sugar and caffeine negatively affects the body’s blood glucose level, creating carbohydrate cravings that lead to weight gain, Jaffee said.

As if the caffeine and sugar content weren’t worrisome enough, energy drinks often contain other ingredients like guarana (a potent source of caffeine) and Panax ginseng, a stimulant that may have hormone-like effects.

“Panax ginseng is not recommended for children, period. It’s not recommended for people taking alcohol, and it’s not recommended for people taking caffeine—oops, there’s a problem right there, since they put it in the can with the caffeine,” Jaffee said.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommended last summer that children and adolescents should never consume energy drinks because the stimulants they contain pose potential health risks. It also said that most kids don’t need sports drinks, and that water should be the principal source of hydration for children and adolescents.

“It’s going to take a while for this to filter down to enough pediatricians, parents, and children but it’s a start,” Jaffee said.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not have guidelines on children and caffeine use, but Canada’s government does. Health Canada recommends not exceeding these maximum daily amounts of caffeine, based on the average body weights of children: 45 milligrams for children ages four to six (about one can of cola); 62.5 milligrams for children ages seven to nine (about one and a half cans); and 85 milligrams for children ages 10 to 12 (nearly two cans).

Jaffee recommends that parents think about the messages they send with their own caffeine consumption and be role models for healthy choices. Don’t assume that your children know how you feel about the use of caffeine and energy drinks. Talk to them about the negative health effects, set limits on caffeinated beverages, and enforce those limits.

“Let kids know how much they can have and enforce that. Don’t think that if you tell them what I shared today they’re not going to do it—there are too many forces working against them,” he says.

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