How dangerous are energy drinks for young people?

November 21, 2012 by Jenny Hall, University of Toronto
How dangerous are energy drinks for young people?
Credit: Vladimir Melnik, photoxpress.

(Medical Xpress)—News reports broke this week that since 2003, three Canadian teens have died from drinking energy drinks, and 35 others have suffered series side effects like amnesia and irregular heartbeat. Young people are increasingly turning to energy drinks to fuel study sessions, as well as coming to rely on them in everyday life. But according to a U of T caffeine expert, these kids are playing a dangerous game.

Full of sugar and caffeine, are increasingly being marketed at kids. And, says, Ahmed El-Sohemy of , "the makers of these energy drinks are continuing to push the envelope on caffeine. Some of them have as much as 500 milligrams per can." By comparison, a can of cola has 34 milligrams and an eight-ounce cup of coffee has 80 to 100 milligrams of caffeine.

"We don't know the long-term of the increased caffeination of our youth," he cautions.

El-Sohemy is an expert on how caffeine is processed in the body. His discovery of the "coffee gene" in 2006 made headlines around the world. Using a combination of dietary assessment and , his team found that half their study population were "slow metabolizers," of caffeine—it broke down more slowly in these people's bodies and lingered longer. This population was at based on . The other half were "fast metabolizers," and there was no increased associated with increased .

We inherit our "caffeine" genes from our parents. This means that some teens will have the "slow" gene to begin with. But this doesn't mean the "fast gene" teens are safe. The gene controls the level of an enzyme that breaks down caffeine and this level is always lower among children. This means, says El-Sohemy, that "all kids are slow metabolizers. Even if you're going to become a fast metabolizer as an adult, as a child you have an impaired ability to eliminate caffeine from your system."

The problem is compounded by the fact that the negative effects of all this caffeine aren't likely to be obvious right away. "Eighteen-year-olds don't generally suffer heart attacks," he says. "But if 17- and 18-year-olds are knocking back several cans of energy drinks a day, what will happen when they're 40?"

He speculates that epidemiologists of the future will see negative cardiovascular outcomes for this population, but believes it's important not to wait that long.

"We should be concerned now. We already have evidence that high amounts of caffeine can be harmful to children."

Some countries have banned energy drinks or prevented their sale to minors. El-Sohemy reports that since caffeine is a naturally-occurring substance, marketers in Canada are claiming that their products are natural health products, which allows them to sidestep guidelines about how much caffeine can be added to beverages.

"Nutritional advice can be tricky because lots of things—like coffee—can be bad for some conditions and some individuals but good for others in moderation. But the high levels and high concentrations of caffeine in these products—which also tend to be very high in sugar—have absolutely no health benefit."

His practical advice? "Talk to your children about the harms of consuming energy drinks. Let them know that it's not good for them in the long run, even though it may make them feel good right now."

Explore further: Can consuming caffeine while breastfeeding harm your baby?

Related Stories

Can consuming caffeine while breastfeeding harm your baby?

February 21, 2012
Babies are not able to metabolize or excrete caffeine very well, so a breastfeeding mother's consumption of caffeine may lead to caffeine accumulation and symptoms such as wakefulness and irritability, according to an interview ...

Australia experts call for energy drink warnings

January 16, 2012
Researchers in Australia on Monday called for health warnings on caffeine-loaded energy drinks following a spike in the number of people reporting medical problems after drinking them.

Recommended for you

Women run faster after taking newly developed supplement, study finds

January 19, 2018
A new study found that women who took a specially prepared blend of minerals and nutrients for a month saw their 3-mile run times drop by almost a minute.

Americans are getting more sleep

January 19, 2018
Although more than one in three Americans still don't get enough sleep, a new analysis shows first signs of success in the fight for more shut eye. According to data from 181,335 respondents aged 15 and older who participated ...

Wine is good for you—to a point

January 18, 2018
The Mediterranean diet has become synonymous with healthy eating, but there's one thing in it that stands out: It's cool to drink wine.

Sleep better, lose weight?

January 17, 2018
(HealthDay)—Sleeplessness could cost you when it's time to stand on your bathroom scale, a new British study suggests.

Who uses phone apps to track sleep habits? Mostly the healthy and wealthy in US

January 16, 2018
The profile of most Americans who use popular mobile phone apps that track sleep habits is that they are relatively affluent, claim to eat well, and say they are in good health, even if some of them tend to smoke.

Improvements in mortality rates are slowed by rise in obesity in the United States

January 15, 2018
With countless medical advances and efforts to curb smoking, one might expect that life expectancy in the United States would improve. Yet according to recent studies, there's been a reduction in the rate of improvement in ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.