Are energy drinks safe?

Are energy drinks safe?

Kids downing hyper-named energy drinks, such as Monster, Amp and Rockstar, one after another has dietician Catherine Champagne worried.

“I’m concerned about the potential side effects, the jitteriness,” says Champagne, who does research at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, La., which focuses on nutrition and preventive medicine.

Champagne was recently invited to speak with Louisiana senators considering a proposed ban on the sale of energy drinks and other highly caffeinated beverages to children under 16. The state's Senate Commerce Committee shelved the measure, but Champagne still supports curbs on energy drinks for children.

The energy drink industry has exploded in recent years, with sales of leading brand Red Bull reaching nearly 4 billion cans in 2009. The beverages promise enhanced performance, but experts say they're a potential health hazard.

Consuming too much caffeine can cause what experts dub "caffeine intoxication" associated with nervousness, anxiety, restlessness, insomnia, upset stomach, tremors, rapid heartbeat, restlessness and pacing.

The FDA doesn't regulate energy drinks. But some products do carry warning labels, something the agency should require, say many health experts.

The amount of caffeine in energy drinks varies widely — from 80 milligrams in an 8.4 ounce can of Red Bull, about the same as a similarly sized cup of coffee, to 500 milligrams in a 1 ounce 5150 Juice, which can be mixed with any drink.

But caffeine is only part of the story since many of the drinks contain additives that act like caffeine such as taurine, an amino acid, and guarana, an herbal product.

"They stimulate and [in large quantities] they cause rapid heartbeat and raise blood pressure," Champagne says.

Energy drink companies, including Red Bull, defend the safety of their products, but do say they're not for everyone. "We do not recommend Red Bull Energy Drink to children [13 or under] or any other caffeine sensitive individuals," a company spokesman e-mailed Angie's List.

Critics say many of the drink makers appear to target children. Red Bull has a youthful website with a "Holy S***" category where web surfers can check out features like a biker ramping over a canyon. But kids aren't the aim, according to Red Bull's spokesman: "We believe our website appeals to consumers that share our passion for sports and culture."

Parents OK with their children consuming energy drinks should monitor how they tolerate the products and limit consumption accordingly, Champagne says. Although kids are her primary concern, she advises against anyone consuming more than one energy drink or shot at a time and urges extra caution for those with cardiovascular problems.

Champagne's certainly not buying the buzz about the drinks, which cost around $3 each.

"There's nothing [they] are going to give me that's worth extra money out of my pocket," she says. "That's the bottom line."

Inside the buzz

Caffeine and other additives in popular energy products:

  Drink size Caffeine Taurine Guarana
seed extract
Sugar Calories
Amp 16 ounces  142 mg 20 mg 150 mg 58 grams 220
Monster 16 ounces 160 mg 2,000 mg 0 mg 54 grams  200
Red Bull  8.4 ounces  80 mg 1,000 mg  0 mg  27 grams 110
Rockstar  16 ounces 160 mg 2,000 mg 50 mg 62 grams 280
5-hour Energy  2 ounces  138 mg  n/a*  0 mg 0 grams 4
NOS Powershot  2 ounces 125 mg  200 mg 0 mg  6 grams  30

 
* 5-Hour Energy contains 1,870 mg of an energy blend that includes taurine, but our calls requesting this specific amount went unreturned. Sources: Drink manufacturers, energyfiend.com, Journal of the American Pharmacists Association


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