Taking the Hype Out of Energy Drinks

Trying to keep kids from growing up too quickly is a battle every parent knows. Some boys and girls want to join social media too early or wear clothes that push boundaries (eek!). Parents have to figure out where to draw their lines in the sand every day, but most probably don’t spend too much time thinking about what their kids drink, as long as it doesn’t contain alcohol.

This month, we’re shining a light on something many moms and dads may need to reconsider. We’re taking a look at energy drinks, their impact on kids and how parents can steer their children in a healthier direction.

In February 2018, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) released new recommendations about the dangers of energy drinks for at-risk populations, including children and adolescents, as well as adults with cardiovascular and other health issues. Researchers published an article in Current Sports Medicine Reports the same month focusing on energy drinks and their potentially dangerous side effects. They point to an ever-growing, multi-billion-dollar industry that often aims its marketing at children and teens, with limited research available on the drinks’ safety.

Ashley Gair, M.D., pediatrician and physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Plano, says parents should steer their kids away from energy drinks and toward water.

“In general, I tend to recommend parents give their kids water for hydration,” she explains. “Other drinks tend to be high in sugar as well as other things, such as caffeine. Sports drinks are appropriate for when kids have exerted themselves outside, but they can be full of sugar and are recommended only in moderation.

“We do not recommend kids have regular caffeine intake, which is what energy drinks tend to have. Overall, to avoid excess sugar as well as unnecessary caffeine, we do not recommend that kids use energy drinks. Water is the best drink to offer your kids!”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration states that up to 400 mg of caffeine per day, or four to five cups of coffee, is allowable for adults. Caffeine is limited to 200 mg per dose in over-the-counter products, but energy drinks are not limited because of how they are classified by the FDA, either as dietary supplements or beverages. Because energy drinks contain varying amounts of caffeine, taurine, glucuronolactone, vitamins, herbal blends and amino acids, they have the potential to have a significant negative impact, including sleeplessness, anxiety, seizures, cardiovascular events and even death.

While the claims of increased energy and the ability to boost athletic performance may be little more than clever marketing, problems arise when children consume these products that aren’t made for them. Between 2000 and 2012, the U.S. Poison Control Center reported 5,103 exposures to energy products including 552 adverse events, with children younger than age 6 making up 45 percent of the reports.

Researchers in the Current Sports Medicine Reports article explain that negative effects due to energy drink consumption are most likely to affect cardiovascular and neurological systems, as well as gastrointestinal, renal, endocrine and psychiatric systems. These adverse outcomes can be more pronounced in children and adolescents due to the high concentration of caffeine as related to their smaller body size, as well as the likelihood that their systems aren’t accustomed to these potentially heavy and frequent doses of caffeine.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommended as far back as 2011 that kids shouldn’t ever consume energy drinks because of their high caffeine content (up to 500 mg, or as much as 14 cans of soda) and that they should also rarely consume sports drinks due to their high levels of sugar, which can contribute to obesity and tooth decay. Pediatric experts called for increased education for patients to explain the difference between energy and sports drinks and to encourage water as an appropriate source of hydration in most cases.

A clinical report published by the AAP explains that sports drinks have a narrow, specific role in helping young athletes involved in prolonged, strenuous activity rehydrate and replenish carbohydrate, electrolytes and water lost during vigorous exercise. Most children don’t need sports drinks at all, however, and confusion between the proper use of energy drinks and sports drinks can lead to the potentially dangerous consumption of high doses of caffeine and stimulant content for athletes.

The National Federation of State High School Associations released a position statement in 2014, also differentiating between the proper frequency of consumption of water (always), sports drinks (seldom) and energy drinks (never) for adolescent athletes due to their lack of regulation and potentially harmful interactions with medications. The organization reported that in a survey of 8,000 students, 62 percent reported consuming at least one energy drink in the past year, with 20 percent consuming at least one per month.

Due to the dangers young people face in consuming energy drinks, the ACSM provided the following recommendations:

  • The message that energy drinks are not intended for children, adolescents, pregnant women or other at-risk populations should be emphasized and widely disseminated.
  • Regulatory actions regarding energy drinks should be created, including improved labeling, clear, printed warnings about high caffeine content and the dangers of mixing with alcohol, and a ban on sales to kids under age 18.
  • Marketing of energy drinks should cease to focus on vulnerable populations, especially children and adolescents, via websites, social media and television.
  • Energy drink education should be part of school-based nutrition and health curriculum.
  • More research on the short and long-term effects of energy drinks should be conducted.
  • Physicians should increase their education efforts about the dangers of energy drinks and report any adverse reactions in patients to federal agencies to help track these incidents.

If your child or teen consumes energy drinks, it’s time to sit them down and explain the potential dangers and steer them toward safer, healthier alternatives.

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