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Popular energy drinks may pose health risk for young people, report finds

Red Bull, Monster Energy, Full Throttle and other highly caffeinated energy drinks may pose a health risk to children and teens, according to a special report in the March issue of the journal Pediatrics.

Not only do the drinks contain 70 to 80 milligrams of caffeine in each 8-ounce serving (that’s about three times the amount in an average can of soda, but about one-quarter less than in the average cup of coffee), they also often include other highly caffeinated ingredients, like guarana.

Yet, because energy-drink manufacturers do not have to list on their labels the caffeine from these other sources, the actual amount of caffeine in the products is often anybody’s guess. (Energy drinks are considered dietary supplements rather than foods, and, thus, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn’t regulate their caffeine content.)

Don’t underestimate the health havoc large doses of caffeine (from any source) can inflict on some kids and teens. Although caffeine can improve short-term attention, it’s also been linked to serious side effects in vulnerable groups of young people, including those with heart abnormalities, diabetes, mood and behavioral problems and/or a history of seizures, the Pediatrics report notes.

About half of the 5,448 caffeine overdoses reported in the U.S. in 2007, occurred in people aged 18 and younger, the report also points out. Those overdoses were mostly from caffeine-containing medicines. U.S. poison control centers only began tracing overdoses attributed to energy drinks last fall. According to a Bloomberg news account, the centers “have received 331 calls about energy drinks [so far this year], with rapid heartbeat the most common complaint. About one-quarter pertained to children ages 5 and younger and another quarter involved those ages 13 to 19.”

Other ingredients used in some energy drinks — such as the amino acid L-Carnitine and the herbal supplement yohimbine — have also raised health concerns (including an increased risk of seizures and changes in blood pressure). The report, which was conducted by researchers at the University of Miami (Florida), recommends that these ingredients be more thoroughly studied.

(An odd 2008 incident involving Red Bull Cola is included in the report. Health authorities in Germany, Hong Kong and Taiwan found tiny amounts of cocaine in the cans sold in their countries. Red Bull’s manufacturers claimed the cocaine was a natural flavoring extracted from the coca leaf during processing.)

Industry pushback
The energy drink industry is pushing back against the Pediatrics report, saying it “perpetuates misinformation” about their products. They point out that the average energy drink contains less caffeine than a “coffeehouse” coffee, and that most purchasers of energy drinks are over the age of 21.

But, of course, as the authors of the Pediatric report point out, young people are drinking these beverages on top of their other caffeine intake — and many of them frequently drink more than one can a day.

Furthermore, contrary to the beverage industry’s claims, young people do make up a significant (if not a full majority) of the energy drink market.

According to the report’s background information, some 28 percent of 12- to 14-year-olds, 31 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds and 34 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds consume energy drinks regularly.

The report also points out that energy-drink companies are using marketing strategies — such as sporting event sponsorships, alcohol-alternative promotions, product placement in Facebook and in video games — that are aimed at young people.

Expect further — and louder — cries of “foul” from the beverage industry. A lot of money is at stake. Energy drinks make up the fastest growing segment of the U.S. beverage market, and sales in this country alone are expected to total more than $9 billion in 2011.

Young people — and their parents — may want to heed, however, the conclusions of the authors of the Pediatrics report: “[E]nergy drinks have no therapeutic benefit, and both the known and unknown pharmacology of various ingredients, combined with reports of toxicity, suggest that these drinks may put some children at risk for serious adverse health effects.”

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