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The Dangers of Energy Drinks

Dr. Kristie Leong

They sound like an easy way to get a quick energy boost. College students are embracing energy drinks as a coffee alternative and buying them in record quantities. But there's a darker side to these cleverly marketed cans of instant energy. The dangers of energy drinks are compelling enough that experts at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine are pushing for health warning labels to be added to the cans. Although they have petitioned the FDA to consider warning labels, the FDA hasn't acknowledged that the lack of a warning label puts the consumer at risk. This makes it unlikely warning labels will be mandated in the near future. 

What are the supposed dangers of energy drinks and why is there enough concern that a warning label is being considered? The investigators at Johns Hopkins point out that one serving of an energy drink can contain more than 500 mg of caffeine. Contrast this to a cup of brewed coffee which averages around 130 mg of caffeine. Although some energy drinks may have high quantities of caffeine, most contain less than a standard cup of brewed coffee. The best selling energy drink, Red Bull, has around 80 mg of caffeine in a single serving.

When considering the danger of energy drinks, part of the problem arises from the fact that the manufacturers of these drinks aren't required to disclose the caffeine content on the ingredient label. Thus consumers may be unaware of how much caffeine they're actually exposed to when they drink an energy drink. They could unknowingly consume several servings, taking in relatively high quantities of caffeine.

Although caffeine doesn't necessarily pose a health danger to all energy drink users, some people appear to be exquisitely sensitive to its effects which could trigger problems ranging from heart irregularities to psychiatric symptoms. There's also the risk of caffeine intoxication which occurs when the body is exposed to caffeine levels above 300 mg. Caffeine intoxication can result in massive overstimulation of the nervous system and, in some cases, even death. A survey of college students who used energy drinks in 2007 showed that almost thirty percent reported adverse symptoms including central nervous system overactivation and heart palpitations.

Would adding a health warning label help to increase awareness of the dangers of energy drinks? The manufacturers might argue that coffee isn't required to contain a warning label. Plus, there's no warning posted at the local Starbucks store. Add to this the fact that the population most likely to buy them are college students who are less likely to be concerned about the dangers of energy drinks. Hopefully as more awareness is called to the potential dangers of energy drinks, there will be more effort to educate consumers about their adverse effects.

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Health Disclaimer. Copyright ©2008-2018. Dr. Kristie Leong is a family practice physician and medical writer. Published with permission.