Energy drinks do not belong in the diet of a five-year-old. You already knew that. But do you know what happens when children do have energy drinks? Thanks to research by Durham University in the UK, we now have a good idea how many kids and teens in different countries drink energy drinks and how those drinks affect their health.
›We’re recapping the findings of this paper: “Consumption of energy drinks by children and young people: a rapid review examining evidence of physical effects and consumer attitude“
*Note – the research paper by Durham University uses the expression “children and young people” to refer to those under 18. At the age of 33, I still consider myself a “young person”, so I’m going to use the expression “kids and teens” instead.
Caffeine and Childhood
Do you remember the year 2000? I started studying energy drinks in 2003 – the same year I declared myself a biochemistry major at UC San Diego and the same year Monster and Rockstar energy drinks hit US Markets, forever changing the world of caffeinated beverages.
In the year 2000, Red Bull was the only energy drink available in the US. By 2016, there were hundreds of energy drinks brands and flavors on the market. To figure out how energy drinks affect kids and teens, scientists at Durham University looked at every research paper on caffeine and kids published in the English language between 2000 and 2016.
That’s a decade and a half of research papers on energy drinks!!! This is one massive review!
These years are significant because their window includes the years leading up to the energy drink boom and the years past the point of market saturation. But despite this huge window, out of all the energy drink research published in those 16 years, less than 50 research papers fit the review’s criteria: no editorials/opinion pieces, no research focused on ingredients rather than energy-drinks-as-a-whole, and no research studies on adult or animals (since the goal is to learn about how caffeine affects those <18).
What does this massive review tell us?
Lesson One – The Most Common Health Issues
Whenever you’re talking about something that could harm someone’s health, it’s wise to talk about how severe and how prevalent the health issues are. Do the health issues affect 10% or 100% of users? Are the health issues minor like a headache or more severe like a heart attack?
We first need to figure out how many kids and teens use energy drinks, then later we can talk about how energy drinks affect those users.
It would be naïve to think we can prevent people under 18 from trying an energy drink. At least 50% of kids and teens in Canada, Poland, and Saudi Arabia have tried an energy drink. In Canada, Finland, and the Netherlands, at least 20% drink energy drinks on a regular basis (at least 1 per month). The good news is only ~5% of kids and teens in the US, Iceland, and Finland use energy drinks every day.
Now we know how many kids and teens use energy drinks so we can ask how do energy drinks affect them. Pareto’s Principle (or “the 80/20 rule”) applies here: the majority of the health issues involve the minority who drink several energy drinks per week. The way we know this is because of which health issues were reported by the energy drink users.
The most common health issues from drinking energy drinks are (drum roll) symptoms of caffeine withdrawal and dependence.
The most common symptoms reported by the energy drink users 10-18 years old are headaches, sleeping problems, irritability, and tiredness/fatigue. These are the most common symptoms of caffeine withdrawal and dependence.
This massive review explains:
“Those who used energy drinks several times a day were 4.5 times as likely to experience headaches and 3.5 times as likely to experience sleeping problems, in comparison with those who do not consume these drinks.”
Just like adults, these young people are trapped in the vicious cycle of caffeine dependence: wake up tired, drink caffeine, drink more caffeine when the first dose wears off in the late afternoon, struggle to fall asleep, wake up tired. Repeat.
IN SUMMARY: In multiple countries, research shows only ~5% kids and teens drink energy drinks every day and the most prevalent health issues reported are symptoms of caffeine dependence and caffeine withdrawal: headaches, irritability, trouble sleeping, and fatigue.
Lesson Two – The Most Severe Health Issues
If drinking an energy drink every day leads to symptoms of caffeine dependence and withdrawal, what about the symptoms from the very first drink? What about accidental exposure?
The symptoms collected by poison centers in the US and in Australia are exactly what you’d expect from someone who thinks they’ve had too much caffeine. Symptoms include cardiac rhythm disturbances, hypertension, hyperthermia, nausea, vomiting, upset stomach, dizziness, and headaches. It does not appear that any fatalities were reported.
From 2010-2011, the US National Poison Data System reported nearly 5,000 calls related to energy drinks. Almost half those calls were to get help for kids under six years old. We can debate whether or not high school students should be allowed to have caffeine, but there should be no dispute that caffeinated drinks do not belong in the diet of a preschooler!
While this all sounds very scary, it’s worth noting that all the calls the poison centers received about energy drinks make up 0.2% of the total calls received. So yes – 2000 incidents of toddlers getting ahold of an energy drink is 2000 too many (in the opinion of this new mom), but caffeine is not the biggest threat by any means.
IN SUMMARY: In the US, calls to Poison Centers about energy drinks make up less than 1% of all calls received. Those calling about energy drinks report the same symptoms adults experience when they have too much coffee: racing heart, upset stomach, dizziness, and headaches. Of those calls about energy drinks, 46% were for accidental exposure with kids under 6 years old, which suggests nearly half the energy drink poisoning scares are preventable.
TL; DR/Bottom Line:
Scientists at Durham University in the UK completed a massive review of all the credible research on how energy drinks affect kids and teens.
When pre-teens and teens drink energy drinks every day, they suffer just like adults the awful symptoms of caffeine withdrawal and dependence: headaches, irritability, fatigue, and trouble sleeping.
Too many toddlers and kindergarteners have gotten their little hands on energy drinks, but energy drink-related scares make up less than 1% of the calls to US Poison Hotlines.
After a decade and a half of living with energy drinks, we have less than 50 research papers to go on. There’s still so much we don’t know. What we DO know suggests that the most severe health issues (prompting those Poison Center calls) and the most common health issues (irritable, caffeine-dependent teens) are totally preventable. Caffeine (meaning coffee, tea, and caffeinated soda too) should be limited in the diet of those under 18.
View all Caffeine Research Recaps and Energy Drinks in the News posts <here on GreenEyedGuide>
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