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Moms Talk: Are Energy Drinks Safe for Teens?

Energy drinks are the fastest growing beverage industry in the nation, but they carry no nutritional value. Do you want your kid drinking them?

Rockstar. Red Bull. Adrenaline Rush. Monster. Spice. Venom. They could all be names of a bunch of big-haired dudes in a heavy metal band, but you might best know them as brands of energy drinks, the $9 billion industry that’s now the fastest growing beverage market in the country. Studies show that one out of three teens drink them on a regular basis, but how safe are they really?

Last December, a 14-year-old high school girl on the east coast went to the mall with her friends and downed two Monster energy drinks. A few days later, she was dead. An autopsy revealed she had no pre-existing heart conditions, but her cause of death was ruled “heart arrhythmia due to caffeine toxicity.” Around the same time, an 18-year-old Missouri boy had a seizure and was hospitalized for five days after drinking two energy drinks. He survived and has since sworn off the drinks, but he claims some of his peers still down four to five a day. Many more cases of serious side effects and even deaths have been cited, yet retailers line their shelves with them every day, and drink makers specifically target their marketing toward teenagers.

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Most experts agree that energy drinks are not healthy in any way, shape or form; an average drink has four to five times the caffeine a can of soda has. Yet others insist they’re safe, pointing out that an 8 ounce drink has 60-100 milligrams of caffeine, while the same size coffee at a popular coffeehouse has 104-192 milligrams. Still, nutritionists argue that the drinks carry absolutely no nutritional value and that growing teenagers have no place drinking them at all. They add that the potent mix of caffeine and sugar can only lead to a “crash” after the blood sugar spikes and falls hours later. A few of the serious side effects include heart palpitations, seizures, strokes and, as in the case of the high school girl at the mall, even death. But other side effects, like irritability, dehydration, lack of concentration and sleeping problems can be detrimental, too. Many of the drinks are not FDA approved, making it even trickier to determine their safety.

Many school vending machines at one time carried energy drinks but have since pulled the plug, nixing sodas as well. Yet millions of kids across the country still down a Red Bull before school, then polish off a few more throughout the day. Many teens have been reported to mix these drinks with alcohol for more effect, which experts find even more concerning. But with virtually no regulation on the industry, it seems these kids, many whom feel they’re invincible, aren’t concerned in the least.

Some teens claim they just like the taste, while others feel they truly need the drink to get through the day without falling asleep at their desk. Still others simply enjoy the temporary “high” they get and figure they’re less harmless than doing real drugs.

As a mother, I’d much rather have my son addicted to Red Bull than illegal drugs, but I’m still not keen on anything that bears no nutritional value for my child and also produces potentially harmful or even deadly side effects. My two cents? It certainly won’t be spent on these drinks.

Moms (and dads!) when it comes to energy drinks, do you think they’re a bad idea? Do you let your teen drink them occasionally, or do you ever stock them in your home? Do you think they should be regulated or even banned, or do you think they’re no more harmless than an ice blended coffee? We want to hear from you!

Erin Macdonald. R.D. April 27, 2012 at 01:56 PM
As a nutritionist (and mom of four boys), I know that these drinks are unhealthy on so many levels. It's not the just the high levels of caffeine and sugar that are the problem, though that is a major contributor, but the other added ingredients, like taurine and guarana, which both act a stimulants, putting added pressure on the heart. Children and teenagers are not "little adults" - their bodies are not equipped to handle the stress. Like any other kind of unhealthy food - sugary cereal, soda, fast food- they are heavily marketed to kids and the kids buy into it. For food manufacturers, it's all about the bottom line. From a science p.o.v., these foods are addiciting and perceived as "cool", a double whammy. Keep your kids away from these drinks!
Martin Henderson April 27, 2012 at 06:20 PM
I was in Bowl of Heaven the other day and they had these drinks on their Wall of Shame -- it was kinda funny. I think Erin's comment about "little adults" is very telling. I've never had a Red Bull (I think I've had one Monster -- ever), but I do have a jar of guarana tablets; I've used one of those when I needed to stay awake and they're good for 4-5 hours for me. I drink a lot of caffeine otherwise (Dr. Pepper). Erin, are the tablets just as dangerous, or are they preferable if you're trying to use the energy to stay alert?
Nick Wilson April 27, 2012 at 08:15 PM
I love Rockstar, and caffeine generally, but it clearly isn't safe for anyone in large doses. Like most things in life, caffeine must be taken in moderation. Sugar, fat, tobacco, alcohol, even exercise, can help to make life a rich and enjoyable experience, but too much of any of these things will lead to consequences.
Jennifer Johnson April 27, 2012 at 10:50 PM
I work as a receiver, and I've learned that most of the distributors' drivers and sales reps don't even drink the energy drinks they push so hard to get into the store. Crazy that we just expanded our section another three feet. There's always a new thing or bigger can. The one time I tried a Go Girl, I went home after work and cleaned my teenage stepdaughter's bedroom from top to bottom. Took several hours, and I realized that I really don't want to be THAT hyped up on energy drinks ever again!
Karen Koczwara April 28, 2012 at 02:54 AM
It seems we're all low on energy these days, but I know for me, even after a large coffee, I crash a few hours later and feel worse than I did before I hit the caffeine. I'm always looking for alternative energy boosters...exercise is one for sure!

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