Unanswered questions about energy drinks
It's easy for a middle-aged woman like me to drift through life without paying much attention to energy drinks. Sure, I had been vaguely aware of Monster, Red Bull, Rockstar, Amp and the like. But never was I tempted to buy or try one; nor did I think about their nutritional value or potential health risks.
All that changed when my son turned 13. A boy that age is an energy-drink consumer waiting to happen, and the people who market such beverages work hard to seal the deal.
Because we're not a soda-drinking family, I was surprised when my son asked for a Monster. He'd had the brand in mind for a while because several of his extreme-sports heroes had promoted it. Then friends started telling him how good the drinks taste.
As is our way with soda, we agreed he could enjoy an occasional energy drink as a treat. Was this a good idea?
Mary Claire O'Brien, an associate professor in the department of emergency medicine at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center, notes that all energy drinks feature the same basic components: caffeine, a stimulant that can come from several sources, including guarana or herba mate, and "some kind of sugar," often glucose or sucrose. Beyond that, she says, the drinks commonly contain an amino acid such as taurine or L-carnitine, herbs (ginkgo biloba, ginseng) and vitamins (particularly B vitamins).
That may sound like a lot of nutrition, but O'Brien says there's little or no science to back claims that such ingredients perform any special function. Andrea Giancoli, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, observes that "like a lot of dietary supplements, they put in a small amount of an ingredient without a lot of research to show that it does anything."
Yes, she said "dietary supplements," the more loosely regulated category of foods into which energy drinks fall. The ingredients in these drinks must be among those classified by the Food and Drug Administration as food additives or listed as "generally regarded as safe," says Maureen Storey, senior vice president for science policy for the American Beverage Association, which represents the nonalcoholic drink industry.
O'Brien, Giancoli and Storey agree that deciding whether energy drinks belong in one's diet means coming to terms with caffeine and sugar.
Caffeine content varies among brands and can be difficult to calculate. Red Bull, the first commercial energy drink to make it big in the United States (in the late 1980s), lists 80 milligrams of caffeine in an 8.4-ounce can and 114 mg per 12 ounces. Compare that with 34 mg in a 12-ounce Coke and 38 mg in Pepsi.
Monster drinks don't break out the caffeine content separately, including it among a handful of ingredients labeled the "energy blend," which counts for 2,500 mg altogether per eight-ounce serving. I spoke with someone from Monster Beverage Co., who said a 16-ounce can has 160 mg of caffeine. But all regular consumers get is an advisory on the can that warns them to limit themselves to three cans a day and notes that the beverage is "not recommended for children, pregnant women or people sensitive to caffeine."
"There's no way to look at [some energy drinks] and see how much caffeine you're getting," O'Brien says. She worries that there's far more in some drinks than we may think. The loose FDA regulation makes it hard to compare energy drinks to other beverages.
Even so, why worry about caffeine? O'Brien explains that at high doses, it can cause anxiety, insomnia, nervousness, high blood pressure and heart palpitations. Plus, Giancoli says, even if the caffeine content in a drink is relatively low, "If a kid isn't already used to caffeine," that child may experience the stimulant effect more strongly.
Giancoli worries most about the sugar in energy drinks. "That's exactly what 'energy' is: calories," not caffeine, she says. Although some brands (including Monster) offer low-carb or diet varieties, a 16-ounce can of standard Monster contains 200 calories, which is comparable to the calories in Coke and Pepsi.
For now, I'm hoping this is a phase my son will soon outgrow and maybe even learn some nutrition lessons from. I'm also looking ahead with a wary eye: As O'Brien observes, mixing alcohol and caffeine has become common, particularly among college students and young adults. Was it okay to let my son enjoy an occasional energy drink? I sure hope so. Time will tell.