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Energy Drinks: Chasing the Best Boost

Energy drinks have become a $3.4 billion-a-year industry. More than 500 new brands hit the market in 2006, largely because young adults burning the candle at both ends are slamming them back to keep their edge. After late nights studying, socializing, surfing the Web or playing video games online, a can of Rockstar can make that early-morning homeroom bell feel less intimidating.

"I can’t get through a morning without at least one energy drink," said high school senior Trevor Murgio. At $2 or more for an 8- ounce can, that’s an expensive habit, a fact not lost on 14-year-old Kennan Daoudi who admitted, "That’s the only reason I don’t drink it all the time."

The Buzz Factor
True energy comes from food, ideally a balanced diet. These drinks simply stimulate the central nervous system and boost alertness. Dr. Vijay Roy, a cardiologist with Prairie Cardiovascular Consultants, explained, "Some students get up in the morning and take an energy drink with them. Instead of a healthy meal, they are replacing that with fluids that aren’t natural in the body." While some brands boast small amounts of amino acids and vitamins, their nutritional value is negligible. The main appeal is caffeine. In the case of a 16-ounce can of SoBe No Fear, that amounts to 141.1 milligrams, or the equivalent of five cans of Coca-Cola.

"You get a high from drinking energy drinks, but then you come down hard," said Philadelphia-based dietician Lisa Becker. "You end up drinking more caffeine just to prevent the sluggishness. It’s a vicious cycle."

While most medical professionals seem to feel that energy drinks aren’t dangerous when consumed responsibly and in moderation, enough questions and concerns surround them that these beverages have been banned in Denmark, Norway and France. And while no one has been able to gauge their long-term effects, experts here warn that energy drinks raise the heart rate and blood pressure, dehydrate the body and interfere with restful sleep. Side effects have included insomnia, headaches, irritability and nervousness. Too much caffeine can also result in calcium loss, which is especially harmful to children’s developing teeth and bones.

To teens wanting to extend a night of partying or ace an exam, however, those are small prices to pay. As high school senior Blake Shuster explained, "Feeling overly jittery is better than being overly exhausted."

Similarly, an anonymous teen said, "If I’m cramming and stay up all night, I’ll have an energy drink that morning before my test. I feel like it can mean the difference between an A and a C." That same young woman admitted to mixing an energy drink with coffee and caffeine pills, causing her hands to shake so uncontrollably that she couldn’t fill in the circles of a standardized test.

Dr. Robert McCain, director of the Sleep Center at Tennessee’s Southern Hills Medical Center, isn’t prudish about caffeine, but he has philosophical concerns about the way energy drinks position themselves. "They’re marketed as performance-enhancing drugs," he said. "I think that’s a dangerous precedent to set during those teenage years."

The Greatest Dangers
Even if parents decide that an occasional can of Rockstar is no worse than a Big Gulp or Starbucks habit, two common abuses of energy drinks present serious health risks. The first is the notion that these performance-enhancers provide the same benefit as sports drinks. Not so. Don’t be misled by Monster’s close ties to extreme sports, or athletes such as NBA All-Star Carmelo Anthony launching their own brands. Unlike Gatorade or Powerade, which replenish vital fluids and electrolytes that get sweated away, energy drinks are a diuretic. A young athlete who relies on them for fluids prior to competing or working out may face severe dehydration. That can lead to cramping, headaches, dizziness, fainting or, in extreme cases, convulsions or heart failure.

Another dangerous misuse of energy drinks has actually been promoted by a leading brand. "Red Bull struggled and struggled because they were trying to appeal to the health-conscious consumer," one industry insider explained, noting that Red Bull finally gained a foothold in bars. "They mixed it with alcohol and it took off."

That’s a potent combination that scares health experts. Whether intended to mask the taste of cheap liquor or give partyers the stamina to go deeper into the night, energy drinks contain stimulants that block the body’s warning systems and keep people from realizing just how drunk they’re getting. This increases the risk of alcohol poisoning and can delude revelers into thinking they’re capable of driving a car.

Greg Jackson, who represents a sports bar servicing students at Texas Tech University, said frankly, "If you are not able to last until 2 or 2:30, then grab one at the beginning of the night and you may be able to party longer."

Not all teens are going with the caffeinated flow. In an article for Penn State’s Daily Collegian, student journalist Andrew Hanelly wrote, "We might find out that these drinks are the cigarettes of our generation." Like tobacco, refrigerated energy drinks are available at virtually every gas station and convenience store in America … and are a lot easier to obtain. In fact, they’re replacing traditional soft drinks in some teens’ diets. But are they a wise choice? Even if young people don’t abuse them, is this a habit worth forming?

Published February 2007