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Energy Drinks

06/30/2009 05:00PM ● Published by Wendy Sipple

For many Americans needing a “pick-me-up,” energy drinks have become as popular in this decade as coffee was in the ‘90s, and Jolt Cola was in the ‘80s.

Truly, the introduction of Red Bull in 1997 has evolved into a $744-million industry of more than 200 similar products in the U.S. alone.

Teens and adults alike claim that the tasty beverages provide a boost of energy, increase concentration and improve performance. But recent reports reveal that when consumed in excess or mixed with alcohol, energy drinks can lead to serious illness, and in some cases, even death. As a result, energy drinks are a hot topic being discussed in homes, schools and legislative chambers across the nation. Health experts are hopeful this thirst for knowledge results in more responsible consumption of this trendy product.

It’s What Is Inside That Counts

Energy drinks are refreshing beverages found in colorful containers touting names like Red Bull, Rock Star and Go Girl. They typically contain a combination of fruit juice and water, along with vitamins and ingredients such as taurine, guarana and inositol. However, unlike sports drinks, which supply electrolytes and nutrients for rehydration, energy drinks usually contain high levels of caffeine and sugar. They are intended solely as temporary stimulants, not as thirst-quenchers.

According to the American Medical Association, moderate caffeine intake, or 300 milligrams a day, is fine for most adults. Yet typical energy drinks range from 80-200 milligrams of caffeine per serving, and often come in two-serving cans. Drinking two or three a day can lead to headaches, increased blood pressure, heart palpitations, insomnia and frequent urination.

But caffeine is not the only culprit. Energy drinks often contain other stimulants, such as ginseng that can increase caffeine’s effects, or ephedrine, which when combined with caffeine has been proven to stress the heart. In fact, an informal poll of 25 local Style readers found negative side effects from energy drinks even included hospitalization.

Additionally, many of these energy boosters have a staggering sugar content – an 8-ounce Red Bull has 39 grams of sugar, almost twice that of a full-size Hershey bar – linking them to increased tooth decay and obesity.

Intended for Adults

Because of these dicey ingredients, manufacturers claim to market to adults and the words “not recommended for children” appear on many power drink labels. Yet dramatic product names like “Full Throttle,” enticing packaging and viral marketing efforts certainly target a younger consumer base, in particular, college students.

Elizabeth Vanwinkle, 23, who graduated in May from Sacramento State, says energy drinks are everywhere on campus. “Personally, I don’t drink them because the caffeine in them affects me worse than coffee, and keeps me up at night,” she says. “But every other college student I know drinks two or three a day in order to stay awake in class or to be able to study late at night.”

A Dangerous Mix

Unfortunately, a disturbing trend in young adults is AmED (alcohol mixed with energy drinks), a toxic brew that hinders the body’s ability to metabolize alcohol, masks symptoms of intoxication and can cause severe dehydration. In response, watchdog groups such as the American Association of Family Physicians and American Academy of Pediatricians are combining efforts to educate consumers about the adverse health effects of energy drinks and promote reduced consumption.

The bottom line, say medical experts, is that when used by adults in moderation, energy drinks aren’t necessarily dangerous. But the current trend toward excessive and risky consumption is certainly giving energy drinks a bad buzz.

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