UK HealthCare

Energy Drinks Can Be Potentially Harmful for Children

LEXINGTON, Ky. (March 12, 2013) - The following column appeared in the Lexington Herald-Leader on Sunday, March 10, 2013.
By Dr. Donna Grigsby

You find them advertised in commercials on TV and prominently stocked on shelves in every grocery and convenience store, but while widely promoted, energy drinks should be consumed with caution and should never be used by children or adolescents who may be more vulnerable to their ingredients than adults.   

Found in brightly colored cans and marketed under names like Red Bull, Rock-star and Monster, energy drinks have large amounts of caffeine or other stimulants such as guarana or taurine.   

These products, especially those with high levels of caffeine, stimulate receptors in the body that control blood pressure, heart rate and your state of alertness. But they can also cause side effects such as restlessness, irritability and difficulty sleeping. Large doses of caffeine can also cause reduced blood flow to the heart and abnormal heart rhythms as well as shortness of breath and can worsen existing health conditions like diabetes, seizures and behavioral disorders.   

Energy drinks are marketed to give you an energy boost but, especially in children and teens’ growing and developing bodies, they have no nutritional value. For teens and children the drinks are unnecessary and possibly harmful.   

A healthy diet is the best way to get all of the energy needed without a boost of caffeine or other substances. In addition, water and low-fat milk should be the drinks of choice for children. Soft drinks should be limited or avoided.   

It ’s important for parents to read the labels of any beverage that a young person is consuming. This is especially true if it is an energy drink, a sports drink or flavored water, which sometimes have extra ingredients such as stimulants. When reading the label, parents should look for the presence of caffeine and be aware of the names of other types of stimulants such as guarana or taurine.   

To give a comparison, a regular cup of coffee has about 100 milligrams of caffeine and a can of cola has about 35-55 milligrams. However, energy drinks generally have a much higher content of caffeine and stimulants with a single serving often containing anywhere from 50 to 500 milligrams of caffeine. And the addition of guarana -- a plant extract that contains even much higher levels of caffeine (1 mg of guarana is equivalent to 40 mg of caffeine) — increases the caffeine dose even more, sometimes to dangerous levels.   

And while soft drinks and the amount of caffeine in them are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, there is no regulation or limits for energy drinks.   

Dr. Donna Grigsby is a pediatrician at Kentucky Children’s Hospital and chief of the Division of General Academic Pediatrics in the UK College of Medicine.