March is Caffeine Awareness Month, meaning it’s the perfect time to talk about energy drinks and safety. In this live chat with the Food Safety Foundation, Caffeine Scientist GreenEyedGuide shares 3 ways to make energy drinks safer. This live chat is full of tips every caffeine drinker needs to know.
How concerned do parents need to be about kids and energy drinks?
So your teenager wants to drink Red Bull…what do you do? What do you tell your kids about energy drinks, and how alarmed should you be, really? Don’t let the headlines fool you, the use of energy drinks in kids and teens is NOT as dire as it seems. But that doesn’t mean everything is fine, either.
In the GreenEyedGuide guest blog on The Scientific Parent, we review the three major details parents need to know about kids and energy drinks. These details are almost always left out of energy drink conversations but they can make a huge difference when it comes to keeping your kids healthy and safe.
[Editor’s Note – The Scientific Parent site is no longer operational, but it’s been updated and republished for you here, on the GreenEyedGuide blog]
It appears so often in the news, “Energy Drink Consumption on the Rise in Kids, Teens.” Alarming headlines like this are a response to a study which measured caffeine consumption in minors over a ten year period. That study, published in Pediatrics in February 2014[i], shows how caffeine habits changed from 1999 to 2010. Unfortunately, this is just one of the latest examples of how the wrong details are emphasized in energy drink news stories, even in publications as reputable as Time magazine[ii].
There are three major details often left out of conversations on kids and energy drinks, but these tiny details could dramatically boost our efforts to keep ourselves and our kids healthy and safe.
Don’t Let the Headlines Fool You – The Situation with Kids and Energy Drinks is NOT As Bad as It Seems
Taking a closer look at the Pediatrics study, it’s not surprising energy drink consumption among minors has increased since 1999 – Monster Energy and Rockstar didn’t exist back then! What is surprising is how the total amount of caffeine consumed per day didn’t change after the energy drink boom.
The kids of 2010 were getting the same amount of caffeine per day as the kids of 1999, they were just getting it from different places.
Of all the caffeine consumers under 18, less than 10% get their caffeine from energy drinks. That statistic may seem low, especially considering all the negative press energy drinks have received and all the scrutiny energy drink companies are facing for whether or not they target minors. However, this statistic comes from the study in Pediatrics as well as a more comprehensive study by Penn State published in Food and Chemical Toxicology[iii].
The Penn State study included over 40,000 participants, selected so the demographics of the study match that of the US population, thus the data reflects the nation’s caffeine habits.
The data indicates 85% of the US population consumes at least one caffeinated beverage a day. Carbonated soft drinks contribute the most caffeine to the daily diet from age 2 to 17, at which point coffee becomes the number one source of caffeine.
This study confirmed:
~10% of teens get their caffeine from energy drinks
~70% from each age group get their caffeine from carbonated soft drinks
The American Academy of Pediatrics[iv] says those < 18 years old should not have more than 100 mg caffeine
Teens who do use energy drinks consume ~60 mg caffeine per day, which is less than the 100 mg limit
For kids and teens, the total amount of caffeine (from all sources) is less than 100 mg caffeine
Energy Drink Bans Don’t Address All The Places Kids Get Caffeine
Red Bull, Monster, and Rockstar are the three best-selling energy drinks, but there are now over 500 different energy drinks on the US market. The most common ingredient is not caffeine, it’s vitamin B-12[v]. As more consumers demand clean labels and natural forms of caffeine (think green tea and goji berries), it’s getting harder to tell the difference between energy drinks and functional/wellness beverages.
These blurred lines also make it harder to say “no” to energy drinks. Would you get mad if your kid brought home a V8 V-Fusion? How about a Red Bull? Surprise – Red Bull and V-Fusion + Energy both have 80 milligrams of caffeine per 8–ounce can[vi]. Should we ban them both? What about coffee? A Grande coffee from Starbucks has more caffeine than a whole 16 ounce can of Monster Energy[vii]. Any bans on energy drinks are doomed to fail with the coffee-energy drink double standard and the blurred lines between beverage categories.
Health Canada’s brilliant solution to these blurred lines was to reclassify any and all caffeine-containing products as “food” and cap the amount of permitted caffeine from all sources at 180 milligrams per 8 ounces, or 400 milligrams per liter[viii]. Stealing a page from Health Canada’s playbook could help us close the loopholes of potential energy drink bans, and might even help us control the amount of caffeine added to food like chips, gum, and jelly beans.
Ingredient Information and Dosage Details Make All the Difference
Most information on energy drink ingredients is either over-simplified (“vitamin B6 gives the body energy”) or too scientific (“thiamin becomes the coenzyme thiamin pyrophosphate and…”). To make smarter decisions about whether an energy drink is safe or not, we need to understand what key ingredients do. But understanding their function is not enough, we also need to ask about the dosage.
Paracelsus, the “Father of Toxicology”, proclaimed the difference between poison and medicine is the dosage. Too much vitamin B6 can damage the nerves. Taurine is an ingredient most people associate with energy drinks (and the myth about bull sperm). In fact, taurine helps balance the levels of calcium inside the heart muscle cells, which is why it’s a common treatment for congestive heart failure[ix].
As consumers, we need to be proactive about finding the amounts of the ingredients in our caffeinated beverages.
A canned coffee drink with “Organic” and “All-Natural” may seem healthy, but it’s not a good choice if it has 60 grams of sugar.
An all-natural energy drink with only 5 ingredients is still not a good option if the caffeine amount is more than 200 mg.
When someone is hospitalized due to caffeine or energy drinks, it’s critical to know the amounts of the other ingredients so scientists can better understand whether it’s just the caffeine or some ingredient interaction which made the person ill.
As a community, we can truly improve our health and keep our kids safe from caffeine toxicity when we pay attention to these details. It’s misleading to say, “Energy drinks are dangerous; avoid them all.” With this blanket statement, we are ignoring the question our kids want to know the most: WHY. By focusing on these three important but often overlooked details, we teach ourselves and our kids the tools for making informed choices and can skip or sip caffeine, safely.