Researchers say energy drinks may be counterintuitive

By Zareen Syed

As energy drinks increase in popularity health activists are calling for the Food and Drug Administration to regulate those drinks more stringently.

A May 5 study published by researchers at the University of Minnesota and Duke University discovered a link between weekly energy drink consumption, smoking and prolonged TV time.

The study, published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, gathered data from 2,793 young adults from 20 public middle schools and high schools in the Minneapolis and St. Paul areas of Minnesota during the 2009-2010 school year.

The data shows there has been a decline in consumption of sugary carbonated beverages, but energy drink consumption has tripled among adolescents. The study shows that most students use energy drinks for recreational activities, making the use of liquid stimulants counterproductive.

A 2013 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that 20 percent of teenagers who consume energy drinks believe they are harmless. Health experts are blaming poor labeling and a lack of education for the assumption. The increased consumption has intensified debates about a long-standing question: Are energy drinks safe?

One energy drink can typically contain as much as 500 milligrams of caffeine, which is the equivalent to roughly five cups of coffee, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Maribel Colon, holistic health coach and registered dietician in Chicago, said energy drink manufacturers profit from consumer ignorance. By omitting quantified amounts of caffeine on nutrition labels, they go unnoticed, she said, adding that companies that produce energy drinks often say their products contain about the same amount of caffeine as a strongly brewed cup of coffee.

Caffeine is not harmful in small doses, but in high concentrations can cause sleep disturbances, anxiety, restlessness, elevated blood pressure and frequent headaches, according to Kate Davis, Illinois-licensed dietician and nutritionist.

“Research proves that a calculated dose of caffeine enhances performance,” Davis said. “However, when it is taken in excess, it becomes an addiction instead of a supplement.”

Consuming more than 500–600 milligrams a day can lead to “caffeine intoxication,” which can cause insomnia, irritability, upset stomach, increased heart rate or muscle tremors, Davis said.

Davis said the FDA limits the amount of caffeine in soft drinks to about 71 milligrams per 12-ounce can. But energy drinks are usually sold as dietary supplements or food products, which do not have a caffeine limit, she said, adding that other ingredients in energy drinks advertised as having benefits—such as taurine and ginseng—are not regulated by the FDA.

Without considering the consequences of chugging a can, many students are choosing the sweetness of energy drinks rather than the boldness of coffee to stay awake. Nutrition experts are concerned that the mislabeling of caffeinated products will continue to keep consumers in the dark and going back for more, Davis said.

Arthur Whitmore, press officer of Food and Veterinary Medicine Trade at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, said the FDA is currently examining the consequences of caffeinated beverages and caffeine exposure in the United States.

He said they have analyzed research on the risk of caffeine consumption and assembled a committee of the National Academy of Sciences in a public forum to hear testimonies and determine a course of action to address the caffeine-related health concerns.

There are clear risks involved with avid energy drink consumption, said Colon. However, she understands the dependency some students face, especially when they are running on minimal sleep and a maximum workload.

“I was a student once. I tried everything from Adderall to energy drinks,” Colon said. “But I knew where to stop because I knew what would happen to my body if I didn’t.”