There is growing concern in the medical community about energy drinks as researchers learn more about their physiological effects. As a result, there is increased pressure to add health warnings to drink labels or otherwise regulate these products.
Last year, a report on energy drinks in the journal Pediatrics cautioned: “Energy drinks have no therapeutic benefit, and many ingredients are under studied….the known and unknown pharmacology of agents included in such drinks, combined with reports of toxicity, raises concern for potentially serious adverse effects in association with energy drink use.”
A new study out of Europe found that energy drinks can increase blood pressure and cause tachycardia and arrhythmias in healthy people. The drinks also increased anxiety and insomnia among study participants. A recent U.S. study found that the acidity of some energy drinks strips away tooth enamel to a far greater extent than sports drinks.
Additional research shows that children and teens — especially those with cardiovascular, renal or liver disease, seizures, diabetes, mood and behavior disorders and hyperthyroidism — are at a higher risk for health complications from these drinks.
Energy Drinks are Different
It’s important to note that energy drinks are very different from sports drinks and sodas. Energy drinks usually contain 70 to 80 milligrams of caffeine per 8-oz. serving, more than double many cola drinks. Energy drinks also may contain guarana, a plant that contains caffeine, taurine (an amino acid), vitamins, herbal supplements and sweeteners.
Although the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) limits caffeine content in soft drinks, which are categorized as food, there is no such regulation of energy drinks, which are classified as dietary supplements.
There are also differences between energy and sports drinks. Sports drinks focus on providing carbohydrates, protein and electrolytes while energy drinks focus primarily on stimulants like caffeine or guarana or B-vitamins.
Scope of the Problem
Surveys show that 30% to 50% of teens and young adults consume energy drinks on a regular basis to boost their energy, concentration, and athletic performance.
And while many cases of overdose or death related to energy drinks have been reported in the media, we haven’t been able to track the true extent of the problem until recently. Up until 2010, U.S. poison control centers were not tracing these adverse events to energy drinks specifically; they recorded them generically as “caffeine overdoses.” That changed last year when energy drinks were given a unique reporting code by the American Association of Poison Control Centers, so their toxicity can now be tracked.
Germany has tracked energy drink–related incidents since 2002. Reported outcomes in that country include liver damage, kidney failure, respiratory disorders, agitation, seizures, psychotic conditions, muscle breakdown, rapid heartbeat, irregular heartbeat, hypertension, heart failure, and death.
U.S. pediatricians are calling for further research before adding any new regulation but others are calling for swifter action to protect children who are at the greatest risk of harm.
In the meantime parents need to be aware of the possible effects of energy drinks and screen their use. Adults with heart conditions, liver or kidney problems, diabetes or mood/anxiety disorders should also avoid energy drinks.
Other Functional Beverages
Energy Drinks are just one type of “functional beverage” that promises to improve your mental or physical functioning. Find out more about functional drinks in our report: Functional Drinks Exposed: Which are Best for Your Health?