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Are energy drinks safe?

KathyKolasa

Kathy Kolasa

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Kathy Kolasa

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Q: I’ve been wondering what effects energy drinks have on your health. Are they really bad for you? — R.R., Greenville

A: Caffeine is the main ingredient in most energy drinks, but I prefer mine in a morning cup of coffee. Search the web with the term “benefits of caffeine or coffee” and you will get lots of hits. Energy drinks, like coffee, have no nutritional value (and sometimes a lot of added sugar), but both are popular drinks. Catherine Thriveni, a fourth-year Brody medical student, will tell you more so you can make up your mind if they are bad for you.

They’re found everywhere — from grocery stores to gas stations to coffee shops to bookstores. Energy drinks, which are allowed to be labeled as either a dietary supplement with a Supplement Facts label or as a food with a Nutrition Facts label, are popular with teens and young adults. Red Bull, Monster, 5-Hour Energy shots and others claim to increase alertness, attention and stamina when you’re feeling tired or drowsy. I’ll tell you about the ingredients and possible effects on the body.

Caffeine is the major ingredient in most energy drinks, ranging from 100 mg (1 cup of coffee) to 350 mg (3½ cups of coffee). If a drink is labeled as a food, like Red Bull and Monster, only added caffeine is required to be on the ingredient list. The Food and Drug Administration has a legal threshold for total caffeine (naturally occurring plus added) that is generally considered to be safe. Some manufacturers have started putting the amount on the label, while others list it on the product website. 5-Hour Energy shots carry a Supplement Facts label which does not require that caffeine content be listed or restricted.

The trade association for the dietary supplement industry is encouraging manufacturers to label caffeine per serving. The association also wants products to contain a warning that they are not intended for children or those sensitive to caffeine; and that pregnant or nursing women, those with a medical condition, or taking medications should consult a health care professional before consuming any drink that has more than 100 mg of caffeine per serving.

Energy drinks that contain guarana, a plant from Brazil that has a caffeine-like chemical, are likely to have more caffeine than advertised. In healthy adults, 400 mg of caffeine a day is considered safe, although some people start feeling negative effects at 200 mg. If you drink multiple energy drinks, along with coffee and caffeinated sodas, it’s easy to get more than 400 mg. You might experience an increased heart rate, irregular heartbeats, high blood pressure, sleep problems, anxiety or even a seizure. So, you may want to tally the caffeine you consume as you consider if it’s bad for you.

In adults with underlying heart and blood vessel disease, consuming energy drinks has been associated with increased risk for heart attack, stroke and cardiac arrest. Drinking an energy drink before, during or immediately after rigorous physical activity has been associated with abnormal heart rhythms and been linked to cardiac arrest and death.

Teens are at an especially high risk for complications associated with energy drink consumption. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that teens should not consume more than 100 mg of caffeine per day — and never from energy drinks. In 2011, nearly 1,500 Americans age 12 to 17 were admitted to emergency rooms for energy drink-related issues.

Energy drinks also often contain taurine and ginseng. Taurine, a building block for protein, can support brain development and athletic performance, but there is no evidence that consuming the amount in energy drinks is beneficial. Although there’s little evidence, claims for ginseng include that it improves your mood, increases your athletic performance and fights off infections. Taking ginseng has been linked to high blood pressure and headaches.

Energy drinks contain extremely high amounts of vitamins B6 and B12. One brand has 8,333 percent of daily need of B12 and 2,000 percent of the daily need of B6. It was once thought that water soluble B vitamins when consumed in excess would be lost in the urine. We now know that isn’t necessarily true. Studies link taking too much B6 over time with irreversible nerve damage. Cases of damage to peripheral nerves — the ones in your arms, legs, hands and feet that help you feel and move — have been reported. The effects can be decreased sensation in the feet, balance difficulties, weakness and falls. It is possible to have this side effect after drinking at least 1½ bottles of a drink with 2,000 percent of B6 for an extended period. So, it’s best not to exceed 100 mg, the Upper Tolerable Limit for B6.

Additionally, energy drinks contain 25 to 50 grams of sugar, which is the upper limit women should have in a day (men can have 38 grams) especially if the person has diabetes or prediabetes, risks for obesity and dental problems. We don’t have space to explain, but we will warn you that mixing energy drinks with alcohol can lead to severe injury, too.

Professor emeritus Kathy Kolasa, a registered dietitian nutritionist and Ph.D., is an affiliate professor in the Brody School of Medicine at ECU. Contact her at kolasaka@ecu.edu.

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