In its quest to become the “healthiest campus community in the country by 2020,” University of New Hampshire dining officials eliminated trans-fats from most food served at the school and took salt shakers off tables. On Monday, officials announced the ban of another product: energy drinks.
Students protested. Twitter and Facebook lit up. And within hours, UNH President Mark W. Huddleston stopped plans to pull energy drinks from the liberal arts college’s convenience stores, dining halls and vending machines in January.
“I want to be sure we respect our students’ ability to make informed choices about what they consume,” Huddleston said in a statement. “I have asked my colleagues to defer implementation of the intended ban until we can further explore the relevant facts and involve students more directly in our decision.”
When many of today’s college students were born, in the early 1990s, energy drinks were just starting to gain popularity overseas. Red Bull hit U.S. shelves in the late ’90s, and today energy drinks are a multibillion-dollar industry with hundreds of brands with names, such as Monster, NOS, Full Throttle, AMP and Rockstar. From 2010 to 2011, sales of energy drinks in the United States grew 15.4 percent, according to Mintel, a market research group.
In addition to having as much caffeine as a strong cup of coffee (if not more), many energy drinks contain a concoction of energy-boosting or focus-sharpening ingredients such as taurine, guarana, vitamin B, ginseng or ginkgo. You can buy these products in pocket-sized shots, tiny cans or large aluminum bottles. Many are sugar-free or have reduced calories.
Energy drinks have long been aggressively marketed to college students. Red Bull hires teams of students to roam campuses and hand out cases of free drinks. One of the company’s messages, as stated on a poster I spotted at a Virginia Tech convenience store this month, is: “Nobody ever wishes they’d slept more during college.”
Are energy drinks unhealthy? It depends on whom you ask.
When UNH announced the possible ban, the assistant vice president for business affairs said in a statement that although the products are legal, they can become unsafe when over-consumed or mixed with alcohol. A UNH student was recently hospitalized in “an incident on campus involving energy drinks,” according to a statement.
News of the possible ban prompted Red Bull to send the Associated Press a statement emphasizing that its products meet federal safety requirements.
“These drinks have a similar caffeine content as coffee and do not contain alcohol. Since it would not be right to ban the sale of soda, coffee, or tea on a college campus, it’s also inappropriate and unwarranted to single out and restrict the sale of energy drinks,” the statement read.
When I e-mailed questions to Red Bull, an employee identified only as “Guffey” responded: “We are confident in the safety of Red Bull, as more than 4 billion cans were safely consumed worldwide last year. In addition, there has never been a link between Red Bull and any health issue.”
The e-mail touted the vitalizing “physical and mental benefits” of Red Bull and wrapped up with this message: “So pop open a cold can for your very own set of wiiings!”
Mixing alcohol and energy drinks can be a dangerous combination, researchers at Northern Kentucky University and the University of Maryland found last year. Often the intense caffeine keeps a drinker awake and drinking when he or she should go to sleep. It can also give people a false sense of alertness and confidence that can lead to drunk driving or daredevil antics that result in injury.
The Food and Drug Administration banned commercial alcoholic energy drinks last November. The action came after several college students were hospitalized after drinking Four Loko, which had been nicknamed “blackout in a can.”
But what about when alcohol is not involved? Is drinking a can of sugar-free Monster worse for you than chugging several high-calorie, sugary coffee confections? Or high-caffeine sodas such as Mountain Dew?
In an editorial this morning, the student newspaper The New Hampshire called the proposed ban irrational, hypocritical, foolish and an overreaction. If university leaders cared about the health of students, the editorial said, they wouldn’t be finalizing plans for a Dunkin’ Donuts on campus.
“Dining tried removing energy drinks from shelves to become a healthier campus. But they were ready to turn their heads the other way as Dunkin’ Donuts and its 770-calorie tuna melt sandwich moves in,” the editorial says. “There is a problem with that.”
Last night, I e-mailed back and forth with the UNH student body president and vice president, who both generally supported the idea of a ban. (Neither is a regular energy-drink consumer, although both drink coffee several times a week.)
A.J. Coukos, the president, called the ban “understandable and reasonable” and said students could still buy energy drinks at convenience stores within walking distance of campus.
Jessica Fruchtman, the vice president, said she thinks the amount of sugar and caffeine in energy drinks is what makes them unhealthy. Plus, students drink them for different reasons than they drink soda.
“Energy drinks come with a different purpose,” she said. “Students drink energy drinks for a boost, and soda because it tastes good.”
Both student leaders said coffee is more popular on campus. If there is a ban, here’s Coukos’s prediction: “I expect the amount of coffee sold on campus will increase noticeably.”
What do you think UNH should do? Should it ban energy drinks? Are the beverages unhealthy for college students? Let me know in the comments section below or on Twitter, @wpjenna.