Energy drinks are some of the most popular supplements consumed by American teens and young adults. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), energy drinks obviously are meant to increase energy, but also claim to enhance mental alertness, and physical performance. Almost one-third of teens drink them regularly.
It can be tough to know how much caffeine you’re consuming with energy drinks. Energy shots (sold as 2 to 2½ oz of concentrated liquid) and cans of 16 oz drinks contain anywhere from 70 mg to 240 mg of caffeine. To put that into perspective, a 12 oz can of cola has about 35 mg of caffeine, and an 8 oz cup of coffee has about 100 mg.
“The variety of sizes can make the choice deceptive,” cautions Nicole Cruz, a registered dietitian nutritionist in Ventura County, California. “The amounts of caffeine in energy drinks vary widely, and there’s no requirement to include the amount of caffeine on the label, so the actual caffeine content may not be clear.” Cruz also points out that some energy drinks, like Rockstar and Monster, often add guarana (a plant extract containing a high concentration of caffeine) and other stimulants such as ginseng and green tea to make its stimulating effects feel more intense and last longer than just caffeine alone.
How old do you have to be to purchase energy drinks like Monster, Rockstar, Bang, and Redbull in the United States?
In the United States, there is no federal age limit for buying energy drinks, but some localities have implemented their own restrictions. For example, in Suffolk County, New York, the sale of energy drinks to individuals under 18 years old is prohibited. In addition, grassroots bills have sprung up in multiple states following high profile teen deaths associated with the consumption of energy drinks. And, in 2014, the American Beverage Association voluntarily agreed not to sell or market energy drink products in K-12 schools. Those efforts aside, the industry has mostly dodged US regulations limiting the sale of energy drinks to minors. For example, Monster Energy and Rockstar Energy award outstanding high school student athletes with the “Energy Drink Player of the Game.” Photos of these teen student athletes are taken with packages of energy drinks and other company paraphernalia.
Marketing and widespread availability are partly to blame for teenagers consuming energy drinks, according to Truthinadvertising.com which brings awareness to brands like Ghost LLC, Ryse Fuel, Cellucor, and Alani Nutrition that partner with candies to make Kool Aid and Skittles flavored drinks. In the US, companies report they do not market to young kids, but their intentions seem misleading. The energy drink market is a $55 billion a year global industry and it has a strong and growing presence on social media where teens spend a lot of free time. A 2020 health report by Sharp Reese Steely Medical Group cites, “Brightly colored containers, eye-catching logos, and candy flavors make them appealing to young consumers.” And partnering with fast food restaurants means young, hungry teens can buy cans of Monster Energy at White Castle, Red Bull Slushies at Sonic Drive-Ins, and Red Bull-infused “Big Jack Energy” at Jack in the Box.
A 2014 Senate report entitled “Buzz Kill” surveyed the 14 largest energy drink brands in the US and came to the conclusion, “While energy drink companies have repeatedly claimed that their target consumers are adults, four of the 12 responding companies — constituting over 90 percent of the energy drink market — refused to commit to not marketing to youth under age 18.” Those four companies are Red Bull, Monster Energy, Rockstar, and Dr. Pepper Snapple which produces Venom Energy.
Cruz points also to the pressure teens feel to achieve in academics and extracurricular activities in order to be accepted into college and how energy drinks seem to promise help with productivity and performance. Lara Field, a licensed dietitian nutritionist who specializes in pediatric nutrition and founder of Feed Nutrition Consulting, adds that consumers’ increasing focus on wellness, endurance, and productivity contribute to continuing growth in the energy drink industry. She says, “With creative advertisements, intriguing packaging, and flavor combinations, it’s not surprising that these drinks are a draw among teens.”
Cruz agrees with Field, stating, “Since the drinks are widely available, they seem perfectly acceptable.” But she says, “The advertising is hypocritical and dangerous.”
Energy drinks are marketed to attract student athletes, especially young males. Red Bull’s website is filled with images of top performing athletes. Cans are labeled with slogans proclaiming the drink “vitalizes body and mind.” Drink names, such as “Monster” and “Rockstar,” are loaded words young men often aspire to.
Gatorade’s recent launch of Fast Twitch in February 2023 blurs the line between sports drinks and energy drinks even more. Fast Twitch contains 200mg of caffeine in a 12-oz bottle and seems to attract Gatorade’s traditional consumers who are looking for a healthier boost with plenty of caffeine but no sugar or carbonation. As part of an exclusive deal with Pepsi, professional football players drank Fast Twitch on sidelines throughout the 2022-23 season. The brand also launched a highly popular sweepstakes on TikTok and Instagram with a prize of three tickets to the Big Game.
Are energy drinks safe? Teenagers are consuming energy drinks believing they can improve their health and performance. But, what they might not know is that consuming energy drinks poses several health risks. According to Cruz, “We’re taking this really susceptible group, young people who are coming into themselves, trying to achieve under pressure, and giving them so much freedom with an unregulated substance. The decision making part of their brain is still developing, and the effects are detrimental.” She’s not alone in her concern. Other experts agree, energy drinks and teens are a bad combination.
The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly discourages caffeine use among children of all ages, citing concerns regarding of its effects on developing neurologic and cardiovascular systems and the risk of physical dependence.
Cruz points out, “Teens who regularly rely on these drinks for energy end up more tired and exhausted. When used as a pick-me-up, energy drinks can become part of a habitual cycle that can lead to irritability and anxiety.”
Various studies have shown that the effects of energy drinks can persist for up to 8 hours and lead to irregular sleep patterns which negatively impacts learning and memory.
Field adds, “Poor sleep quality weakens the body’s immune system, so using energy drinks when facing sports or studying for a big test may make an individual more susceptible to a cold or flu.”
According to NCCIH, “Large amounts of caffeine may cause serious heart and blood vessel problems such as heart rhythm disturbances and increases in heart rate and blood pressure.”
Indeed, teen heart attacks and deaths have received wide media coverage in the US. Fourteen year-old Anais Fournier of Maryland died of cardiac arrest after drinking two cans of Monster Energy drink in 24-hours, and South Carolina native Davis Cripe, died at age 16 after drinking a coffee, soda, and energy drink within two hours.
Mixing energy drinks with alcohol is popular, particularly among teens, and it can be dangerous. Why are they mixing the two? Cruz explains, “Young people who start out partying with energy drinks may feel less drowsy, tend to stay awake longer, and therefore continue to drink more.” Indeed, the CDC reports that drinkers aged 15 to 23 who mix energy drinks with alcohol are four times more likely to binge drink at high intensity (consume six or more drinks per binge episode) than drinkers who do not mix energy drinks with alcohol.
Talk to your kids about energy drinks, especially if you think they might be combining energy drinks with alcohol because, as Field says, “People who combine energy drinks with alcohol may not be able to tell how intoxicated they are; they may feel less intoxicated, but the effects of sleep disturbance, combined with the typical teenage desire for fun in excess make for a dangerous situation.”
Consuming energy drinks does not “sober you up” or reduce impairment due to alcohol consumption. Why? Because the caffeine in Monster and other energy drinks does not affect how the liver metabolizes alcohol, so it doesn’t reduce breath or blood alcohol concentrations. Even if your teen feels sober after mixing energy drinks and alcohol, they should not continue to drink, and they definitely should not get behind the wheel and drive.