FOOD, FACTS and FADS

Exploring the sense and nonsense of food and health

Energy Drinks Deliver a Jolt – Is Caffeine Dangerous?

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In 2007, there were a reported 5,448 caffeine overdoses in the United States, and fully 46 per cent occurred in people under 19.

There is no information as to how many of these cases involved energy drinks.  Countries such as Germany, Ireland and New Zealand, track energy drink related adverse effects, and have found liver damage, kidney failure, respiratory disorders, hypertension, heart problems and a small number of deaths.

The popular energy drink Red Bull hit U.S. shelves in the late ’90s, and today energy drinks are a multibillion-dollar industry with hundreds of brands with names, such as Monster, NOS, Full Throttle, AMP and Rockstar. From 2010 to 2011, sales of energy drinks in the United States grew 15.4 percent, according to Mintel, a market research group.

Many energy drinks contain a concoction of energy-boosting or focus-sharpening ingredients such as taurine, guarana, vitamin B, ginseng or ginkgo. You can buy these products in pocket-sized shots, tiny cans or large aluminum bottles. Many are sugar-free or have reduced calories.

There is some debate on whether energy drinks should be regulated pharmaceutically.  However, should coffee be regulated in the same way?  I think not.  It appears that energy drinks are marketed to children and adolescents, whereas coffee is considered an “adult” beverage and that marketing differences may be the cause for concern.

Recently, the University of New Hampshire considered banning energy drinks from their campus.  When UNH announced the possible ban, the assistant vice president for business affairs said in a statement that although the products are legal, they could become unsafe when over-consumed or mixed with alcohol. A UNH student was recently hospitalized in “an incident on campus involving energy drinks,” according to a statement.

Mixing alcohol and energy drinks can be a dangerous combination, Often the intense caffeine keeps a drinker awake and drinking when he or she should go to sleep. It can also give people a false sense of alertness and confidence that can lead to drunk driving or daredevil antics that result in injury.

The Food and Drug Administration banned commercial alcoholic energy drinks last November. The action came after several college students were hospitalized after drinking Four Loko, which had been nicknamed “blackout in a can.”

Johns Hopkins researchers report that energy drinks have doses of caffeine that can vary as much as six-fold, and that most give no hint on their labels of how much caffeine a product contains.  Energy drinks, based on the study, can range from 50 to 505 milligrams of caffeine – as much as 14 cans of cola.  A six-ounce cup of coffee contains from 77 to 150 milligrams of caffeine.  The researchers warned that energy drinks could contribute to caffeine dependency and side effects and called for better labeling

Parents can talk to their kids about the drinks, schools can eliminate them from vending machines, teachers and especially coaches can discuss their dangers and doctors can screen kids for energy drink consumption, much as they do for other harmful substances. This could help stop overconsumption, perhaps, but because these products are still legal, people want to choose for themselves whether they use them or not – but buyer, beware.

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