Pat Crawford is senior director of research at the University of California’s Nutrition Policy Institute and an adjunct professor at the University of California at Berkeley. Wendi Gosliner is a project scientist at the Nutrition Policy Institute.
Last month, a 16-year-old tragically lost his life after consuming an energy drink, a soda and a latte — drinks routinely consumed by and often intensively marketed to youths — all within a few hours. The boy’s heart simply couldn’t cope with the amount of caffeine in the beverages, according to the coroner.
The teen wasn’t the first to pay a terrible price for drinking popular beverages that are commonly (but mistakenly) considered safe, but he should be the last. The government must take steps to reduce caffeine levels allowed in energy drinks; to clearly provide recommendations on safe caffeine consumption for children and adolescents; to ban the marketing of energy drinks to young people of all ages; and to help educate the public on the health risks of high caffeine intake.
Caffeine is a strong and potentially dangerous stimulant, particularly for children and adolescents. When people think of the drug, they generally think of coffee. But less widely known is that a single serving of an energy drink (Monster Energy, Red Bull, 5-hour Energy and Rockstar, to name a few) may contain many times more caffeine than a cup of coffee.
Making matters worse, consumers do not know the risks of the high levels of caffeine in an energy drink. Nutrition labels are not legally required to include information about caffeine content — a critical and potentially life-threatening omission. Many drink manufacturers have initiated voluntary labeling initiatives, but they are not consistently applied and do not provide adequate information to ensure consumers appropriately interpret the level of risk a beverage presents. Labels are a first step — necessary, but not sufficient.
Unlike coffee, energy drinks are widely marketed to adolescents, putting them at risk of extreme caffeine overload with potentially devastating cardiovascular and neurological consequences. From 2005 to 2011, energy drink-related emergency-room visits rose from 1,494 to 20,783. This included high rates of unintentional exposure in children younger than 6.
In 2011, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a report on the appropriateness of sports and energy drinks for children and adolescents, concluding that “energy drinks pose potential health risks because of the stimulants they contain, and should never be consumed by children and adolescents.” In 2013, the American Medical Association adopted a policy supporting a ban on the marketing of energy drinks to those under 18, arguing that energy drinks could lead to a host of issues in young people, including heart problems.
Still, energy drink consumption has skyrocketed in recent years, even as soda consumption has begun to decline. Given the danger energy drinks pose to children and teens with no potential benefit to their health or well-being, the marketing and advertising of these products to young people must stop. We applaud efforts by Sens. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) to move in this direction, and expect more of their colleagues in Congress to follow suit.
Because manufacturers add caffeine to energy drinks, it is subject to regulation by the Food and Drug Administration as a food additive. In fact, the FDA has recognized the risks of high caffeine consumption and imposed a 71-milligram limit on the amount of caffeine that may be added to a 12-ounce soda. However, no limits are imposed on the caffeine content of energy drinks, and containers easily can hold 200 to 300 milligrams or more. There is no justification for this regulatory distinction. Children and adolescents drinking energy drinks need as much protection as those drinking Coke and Pepsi.
Young people ages 12 through 17 — almost one-third of whom consume energy drinks regularly — are entitled to information that could save their lives. The FDA’s limits on added caffeine in colas should be applied to energy drinks, and the amount of caffeine added to an energy drink should be listed on its nutrition label, including a distinct front-of-package warning for drinks with caffeine levels greater than those allowed in soda. Information based on scientific testing should also be made available on the effects of energy drink additives, such as guarana and taurine, that can increase the potency and increase the effects of caffeine.
As sales of energy drinks rise every year, the need to act becomes even more critical. Steps to protect the health of our children are both feasible and necessary. The problem has been identified. Now is the time to act.