If you’ve driven by a convenience store lately, you’ve probably seen the ubiquitous neon signs promoting so-called “energy” drinks. Based on recent news reports about their possible dangers, however, it’s becoming increasingly clear that if anything should be emblazoned in neon, it’s “caveat emptor,” or “let the buyer beware.”
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Many people turn to these highly caffeinated, sugar-laden, stimulant-containing drinks as a pick-me-up in a can, or because they believe the beverages can enhance their sports performance.
“These drinks are marketed as ‘energy’ drinks, but they’re not energy drinks,” says A. Marc Gillinov, MD, cardiac surgeon in Cleveland Clinic’s Heart & Vascular Institute. “They’re caffeine drinks. They’re placed next to sports beverages, but they have absolutely no health benefit—unlike sports drinks, which may help replenish the body after extremely strenuous exercise.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced recently that:
- It is investigating five reports of deaths between 2004 and 2012 that possibly could be linked to the consumption of energy drinks; and
- To date, there is not enough evidence to take action on the caffeine levels in the drinks.
One of the manufacturers currently under FDA scrutiny sells energy drinks—which the company has advertised as “killer energy brew”—containing 160 mg of caffeine or more in a 16-ounce can. The company includes a warning label that:
- Advises against consuming more than 48 ounces per day;
- States the drinks are not recommended for children, pregnant women or people sensitive to caffeine.
As a reference point, the average caffeine content of other popular drinks is:
- Brewed coffee — 85 mg
- Instant coffee —75 mg
- Popular coffee house brewed coffee — 260 mg
- Black tea — 40 mg
While caffeine intoxication is possible in extremely high doses, Dr. Gillinov says that in healthy adults, “the likelihood of real heart damage from caffeine is extremely low,” adding that he and his colleagues are not seeing patients who have experienced heart attacks as a result of caffeine. With that said, Dr. Gillinov recommends limiting caffeine in healthy adults to no more than 400 mg to 500 mg per day.
There have been cases in the news linking cardiac arrhythmias in children and highly caffeinated energy drinks, and the American Academy of Pediatrics has published a report with recommendations to avoid energy drinks in children and adolescents.
Dr. Gillinov emphasizes that: “There is absolutely no reason that any child should be drinking these beverages.”
An increasingly popular and extremely dangerous trend with energy drinks, especially in young people, is the practice of combining energy drinks and alcohol. “When combined with alcohol, energy drinks are even worse for your health, because the caffeine masks the feeling of alcohol intoxication,” Dr. Gillinov explains. “This leads people to believe they are less intoxicated than they really are.”
At the end of the day, the decision about whether healthy adults should consume energy drinks comes down to risk/reward, Dr. Gillinov says. “There is very little research on the risks—we just don’t know what they are,” he adds. “But when it comes to your health, there is no reward at all from energy drinks.”