By Michelle Halloran
Here’s a story many parents have watched with horror in recent months: a 14-year-old named Anais Fournier drinks two cans of Monster Energy drink in a 24-hour period and dies of cardiac arrest. The coroner’s report attributes her death to a “cardiac arrhythmia due to caffeine toxicity.”
Thousands of teenagers consume energy drinks like Monster everyday, often several times a day. But are they safe? Unfortunately the answer to this question is yet to be determined, though many teenagers assume they are because they can buy these beverages at the corner grocery store.
These products—which have names like Monster, Fuel, Nitrous, X-Presso, Red Bull, and Amp—are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Rather, they are classified as health supplements, not as a food or drug, which limits FDA oversight of the drinks.
Dr. Mindy Haar, director of the nutrition program at the New York Institute of Technology explains: “[Because] energy drinks are classified as health supplements, sale is permitted until enough people have serious side effects.
Parents may not want to wait that long.
In 2011, over 20,000 people, mostly teenagers and young adults, went to the emergency room for problems associated with energy drinks. This number has doubled since 2007.
These beverages are loaded with the stimulant caffeine. How much? An eight-ounce cup of coffee has 100-150 mg of caffeine. By contrast, Monster Energy, typically distributed in 16-ounce cans, has 420 mg of caffeine. That’s the same amount of caffeine as is found in 14 cans of Coke.
“These energy drinks include loads of caffeine, guarana [a plant whose seeds are rich in caffeine], and other stimulants, which increases the heart rate,” explains New York City-based registered dietician Lisa C. Cohn. “This puts extra demand on the heart and brain and that could put someone in a dangerous position.”
Like Fournier, whose fatal arrhythmia was brought about by the amount of caffeine she’d consumed.
Caffeine is also linked with increasing blood pressure, dizziness, muscle tremors, nervousness, and stomach upset. Adds Cohn: “Caffeine is a diuretic, so it encourages dehydration and the excretion of B vitamins., [This] can make people feel light headed, moody, and cause sleep problems.”
Meanwhile, statistics show that 42 percent of energy-drink related visits to the ER involve mixing these drinks with drugs and/or alcohol. “Energy and alcohol shouldn’t mix; the nervous system can only take so much,” stresses Cohn.
In particular, the caffeine found in energy drinks will delay the feeling of intoxication or drunkeness, which can lead teenagers to drink well-beyond their normal limits. Mixing these drinks with prescription drugs is another area of concern, like, for example, the stimulants Adderall or Ritalin, both commonly prescribed for ADHD. Teenagers mixing these drugs with massive doses of caffeine are giving their nervous system an extra whammy.
Problem is, many teenagers believe they need the boost these drinks offer. But that’s not so, says Sina Nafisi, a cardiologist at St. Luke’s Medical Center in Chicago.
“Although energy drinks appear to be an easy solution to fatigue, they are actually just masking the fatigue,” she explains, adding that teenagers should instead “keep energy steady throughout the day by making healthy life changes.”
- Eat breakfast. Skipping meals throws off metabolism, which can cause energy levels to plummet.
- Snack throughout the day. Keeping blood sugar levels steady prevents energy levels from spiking and dropping. Try to reach for something healthy: yogurt, fruit, pretzels, or whole grains snacks for starters.
- Drink your water! Fatigue is often caused by dehydration, and recall that dehydration can be caused by consuming too much caffeine, the main additive found in energy drinks.
Monster Energy, at the center of this controversy, states on their web site:“ … all our guys walk the walk in action sports, punk rock music, partying, hangin’ with the girls and living life on the edge. Monster is … a lifestyle in a can.”
An appealing message for the typical teenager, but experts recommend that parents talk to their teens about what risks are in that can too.