Energy drinks contain anywhere from 75 to 500 milligrams of caffeine, far more than a cup of coffee or can of cola. Having become mainstream in today’s society, these drinks deliver a heavy punch with an addictive substance.
The drinks contain a blend of typical ingredients found in many sodas. They’re sugary and taste good, and what sets them apart are the extra ingredients, as much as 10 times the caffeine, coupled with sugar and nutritional supplements. They are then marketed to an audience which already thinks of itself as edgy and extreme, which may lead to serious effects on one’s health.
“Energy drinks are being marketed very specifically to young adults and, to a lesser extent, teenagers,” said Kathleen Miller, Ph.D., a sociologist and research scientist at the University of Buffalo’s Research Institute on Addictions. “They focus on encouraging young men to think about themselves the way they already do.”
Energy drink companies gear their products to a niche market, and then promotional efforts prod consumers to think of themselves as edgy or extreme, according to Miller.
If you look on energy drink websites, many of them sponsor extreme sports, which coincides with a company’s target market. Monster and Red Bull both sponsor sports such as Motocross, racing, snowboarding, skiing, skateboarding, wake boarding, skydiving and base jumping.
“There are a number of other mechanisms that energy drinks use,” Miller said. “One is just the packaging. If you look at your average energy drink, you’ll find that a lot of them [use] imagery right on the can that emphasize these kinds of messages.”
Cans display their names, such as Monster, Rage, Amp or Venom, against colors like red and black. The cans also feature aggressive images like the claw logo on the side of the Monster can, Miller said.
“My research shows people who frequently drink energy drinks are the same people [who] run into problems in a lot of other areas,” Miller said. “They are more likely to be drug users, more prone to drinking, smoking, fighting, taking risks in terms of their sexual behavior. Right across the board, there is a link between frequent energy consumption and high-risk behavior.”
This doesn’t mean energy drink consumption causes these behaviors, she said. It could be sensation seekers who do all of these things. There is a buzz one gets with drinking energy drinks. Caffeine is a notorious stimulant.
“Any substance dependence is defined by several characteristics,” said Dr. Daniel Evatt, addictions researcher at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions. “You become tolerant to the drug. That means it takes more to get the same effect than it used to take.”
By downing cans of the sugary substance with its massive amounts of caffeine, people consume hundreds of milligrams of caffeine, sometimes without realizing it. After addiction sets in, many people find themselves suffering from caffeine withdrawal if they don’t continue use of it.
“You can become tolerant to the effects of caffeine, and even have withdrawal symptoms with doses as low [as] 100 milligrams; that’s not very much caffeine,” Evatt said. “That’s half a cup of strong coffee.”
Evatt said it’s in a person’s intrest to try to avoid the caffiene addiction that many energy drinks may bring.
“It’s not that there’s not a safe amount or an unsafe amount,” Evatt said, “But it’s in someone’s best interest to not become tolerant and addicted to high levels of caffeine. Instead, just use of low levels to stay occasionally awake while driving .”
Low levels of caffeine consumption should suffice when trying to achieve an energy boost. High levels of caffeine can have adverse effects, such as caffeine toxicity, a condition more common in adolescents than adults because of adolescents’ inconsistent consumption of caffeine.
Caffeine toxicity, also called caffeine intoxication, takes place when a person has too much caffeine. Side effects of a caffeine overdose can include feelings of being sick to your stomach, difficulty concentrating, shaking and, in extreme circumstances, delusions and hallucinations, Evatt said.
The issue with caffeine, and by association energy drinks, is appropriate research has not been done, and there are unanswered health concerns about energy drinks.
“We don’t know the caffeine effects on someone who’s developmentally immature,” said Dr. Holly Benjamin, a sports medicine specialist and associate professor at the University of Chicago. “We don’t know if it affects the developing brain or developing bone. [Caffeine] has a very constricting effect; it can affect blood vessels and circulation.”
The issue of caffeine and energy drinks has caught the attention of major medical groups, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“The AAP is in the process of putting out a clinical report that says caffeine has no place in the diets of children,” Benjamin said.
By including all of these beneficial amino acids and other vitamins, the hundreds of milligrams of caffeine is overlooked.
“They make it look like a drink instead of a drug,” Benjamin said.
What worries many medical professionals is little transparency between the beverage industry and the consumer. The energy drinks’ caffeine content is rarely advertised within the nutritional facts, according to Benjamin.
“One of the keys about these drinks is they’re dietary supplements, which means they slide through a loophole and the content doesn’t get analyzed,” Benjamin said.
“The FDA does not go in and say, ‘These ingredients are safe to use together.’ We have no idea how some of these more arcane ingredients are interacting with each other.”
For the majority of the energy drinks typically found in local supermarkets, the caffeine content is not listed. Along with the unlisted caffeine content, the ingredients are unregulated and make the content of the energy drinks questionable.
“You don’t see warnings on these cans, and you don’t see the ingredients clearly spelled out because they’re not regulated,” Benjamin said. “I really think if you asked 100 people on the street which one had more caffeine in it, I don’t think they’d know, and I don’t think they have any idea of how many is too many.”