CAFFEINE RUSH + SUGAR SHOCK
Posted On Dec 08, 2016
Kicking back energy drinks and shots bestows a convenient boost, though the price is high for the lift they provide.
It’s 3 p.m., and your energy is flagging. You need a pick-me-up, quick. Your solution? An energy drink. You’re hardly the only one. Between 2006 and 2012, the number of adults in the United States drinking these boosted beverages rose from 12.7 to 17 percent. Although individuals between the ages of 18 and 34 are the biggest users, more and more underage consumers are jumping on the bandwagon.
Of the 73 percent of children (age 22 and under) who ingest caffeine, 6 percent consume energy drinks, according to a study in the journal Pediatrics. This growth has led to big business for manufacturers. In 2012, total U.S. sales for these products totaled more than $12.5 billion—a leap of approximately 60 percent since 2008, according to Packaged Facts, a consumer market research company. By 2017, sales are expected to hit $21.5 billion.
But wait: Should our kids really have access to these drinks? Should we, ourselves, be putting them in our bodies?
ENERGY DRINKS VS. COFFEE
Such drinks can rightfully claim that they bolster energy. Their main ingredient, caffeine, is everyone’s favorite nervous system stimulant.
According to Kathleen Miller, Ph.D., of the Research Institute on Addictions at the University of Buffalo, most energy drinks contain approximately 10 milligrams of caffeine per ounce. Meanwhile, a bevy of ingredients set energy drinks apart from coffee and tea. Common components include guarana—a plant that naturally contains caffeine—as well as ginseng extract. Ginseng is said to improve cognitive function, although University of Georgia’s Kelly Pritchett, Ph.D.—a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics— challenges the reliability of these claims.
Bitter orange—which contains a stimulant called synephrine, known to increase blood pressure and heart rate— is often used. Another frequent ingredient is taurine, an amino acid that’s been said to improve athletic performance. However, energy drinks containing taurine and caffeine have been connected with several deaths, according to the Journal of the American Pharmacists Association. Meanwhile, sugar is found in most top energy beverages. “Some energy drinks contain more sugar than a can of soda,” says Dr. Pritchett.
Vitamins are regularly part of energy drink recipes, although David Hammond, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Waterloo, points out that these vitamins are often added in excessive amounts. His research shows that some drinks have an average of 450 percent of the daily value (DV) for vitamin B6 and more than 1,200 percent of the recommended daily vitamin B12. Pritchett points out that exceeding governmental vitamin intake guidelines is not recommended. When a vitamin such as B6 is taken in huge quantities, the consumer risks toxicity, the symptoms of which can be numbness, fatigue, irritability, depression, and impairment of the nervous system.
THE ENERGY DRINK IMPACT
The aforementioned ingredients are present in smaller quantities than caffeine, though some are sources of caffeine themselves, which boosts the drinks’ total caffeine content. Because of these unpredictable caffeine levels, one risks consuming it in excess. Miller points out that up to 400 milligrams of caffeine (about four cups of coffee) per day appears to be safe for most healthy adults, while daily consumption of 500 milligrams or more can cause caffeine intoxication, which is indicated by symptoms such as irregular heartbeat, vomiting, and convulsions.
“Caffeine and other stimulant substances contained in energy drinks have no place in the diets of children and adolescents,” reads the website of the American Academy of Pediatrics (aap.org). The organization recommends that children avoid caffeine altogether and that adolescents limit their caffeine intake to no more than 100 milligrams a day, citing effects on children’s developing neurologic and cardiovascular systems as well as the potential for a physical dependence and addiction.
Meanwhile, manufacturers call these products safe with little to no real proof. “These ingredients haven’t been tested in the context of an energy drink where there’s caffeine and sugar,” says Michael F. Jacobson, Ph.D., of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). Jacobson notes that the American population consumes sugar in excess, which appears to be driving up rates of obesity and chronic health conditions such as heart disease, metabolic syndrome, and diabetes.
GONE TO MARKET
Expert concern extends beyond the contents of energy drinks, to marketing. “Energy drink manufacturers encourage individuals—especially teens and young adults—to live life on the edge by drinking large quantities of these products in short amounts of time,” Miller says. People are also mixing them with alcohol-a potentially lethal combo.
Alcohol makes a person slower, less perceptive, and sleepy. If you drink enough of it, you pass out. “When you add caffeine, you’re not as slow, you’re nowhere near as sleepy, but you’re just as stupid,” Miller says. “You don’t realize it, though. Because you have energy, you keep drinking.” According to a study in the Journal of Adolescent Health, when college students mixed energy drinks with alcohol, they drank more heavily and became more intoxicated. Behaviors like drunk driving and side effects such as dehydration and alcohol poisoning are tied to severe intoxication. (Jayde Dinsdale, a British 18-year-old, suffered three heart attacks after downing 10 Jägerbombs—a cocktail that mixes the liquor Jägermeister with energy drinks. The cause? Excessive caffeine consumption.)
Hard-partying young people aren’t the only ones who overdo the consumption of energy drinks. Fitness buffs and athletes often lump energy drinks together with sports drinks. They are, after all, promoted at all sorts of sporting events. But there are big differences between the two groups of beverages—one major one being the fact that sports drinks contain carbohydrates and electrolytes. “Sports drinks can help individuals who are exercising replace water and electrolytes for at least an hour,” Pritchett says. When energy drinks are paired with athletics, however, the mixture can be fatal. “Anything with high doses of caffeine dehydrates the body and constricts blood vessels and blood flow to the heart,” Miller says. In recent years, Brooklyn teen Cory Terry and 18-year-old Ross Cooney of Ireland each consumed Red Bull then died while playing basketball. Investigations have ensued in both cases.
SIP OR SKIP
The choice to toss back an energy drink is a personal decision. They are legal, after all. That said, Miller suggests avoiding them altogether if you have heart issues, are pregnant or nursing, or are caffeine sensitive. Meanwhile, there are better ways to increase energy. Sleep more. Stay hydrated. Eat a healthy diet. According to Pritchett, if you want energy, your body may simply need carbohydrates. Try eating peanut butter on whole-grain toast or a handful of unsalted almonds. If that doesn’t cut it, go for coffee. “At least you know what you’re getting,” she says.
If you love energy drinks and are otherwise healthy, Hammond says one a day is not necessarily bad. “Educate yourself about what you’re drinking, as not all energy drinks are created equally.” Read labels to note serving size, ingredients, and—when possible— caffeine content, says Lisa Johnson. She is the general manager of dietary supplements and sport nutrition for NSF International, a public health organization that tests and certifies numerous products, including energy drinks. Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s recommended serving size and don’t consume multiple servings in one sitting. Miller adds that it’s imperative not to mix these products with alcohol or take them close to physical exertion. For extra assurance, Johnson suggests checking if the product has been certified by a third-party testing organization.
From that point on, you simply have to pay thoughtful attention to your body. If you notice symptoms like irregular or rapid heartbeat, dizziness, or nausea, don’t ignore them. They could be signs of caffeine intoxication. Remember, these are red flags from your body. They aren’t meant to deprive you of pleasure; they are guides to help you make healthier choices.