Co-authored by Wendi Gosliner, a project scientist at the Nutrition Policy Institute.
Last week, a 16-year-old tragically lost his life after consuming an energy drink, a soda and a latte — drinks routinely consumed by and often intensively marketed to youth — all within a few hours. According to the coroner, the boy’s heart simply couldn’t cope with the amount of caffeine in the beverages.
The teen wasn’t the first to pay a terrible price for drinking popular beverages that are commonly (but mistakenly) considered safe, but he must be the last. The government must take steps to reduce caffeine levels allowed in energy drinks; to clearly provide recommendations for the safe caffeine consumption for children and adolescents; to ban the marketing of energy drinks to youth of all ages; and to help educate the public on the health risks of high caffeine intake.
Caffeine is a strong and potentially dangerous stimulant, particularly to children and adolescents. When people think of the drug, they generally think of coffee. But what is less widely known is that a single serving of an energy drink may contain much more caffeine than a cup of coffee. While the caffeine in a serving of coffee can range from 60 mg all the way up to several hundred mg in an extra-large espresso drink, these coffee varieties are not specifically marketed to teen-agers in the way that energy drinks are.
Making matters worse, consumers do not know the risks of the high levels of caffeine in an energy drink. Nutrition labels are not legally required to include information about caffeine content — a critical and potentially life-threatening omission. Many energy drink manufacturers have initiated voluntary labeling initiatives, but they are not consistently applied and they do not provide adequate information to ensure consumers appropriately interpret the level of risk presented by the beverage. Labels are a first step — necessary, but not sufficient.
Unlike coffee, energy drinks are widely marketed to adolescents, putting them at risk of extreme caffeine overload with potentially devastating cardiovascular and neurological consequences. From 2005 to 2011, energy drink-related emergency room visits increased from 1,128 to 20,783. This included high rates of unintentional exposure in children younger than 6 years old. In 2013, the American Medical Association adopted a policy supporting a ban on the marketing of energy drinks to youth under the age of 18 years, saying, “Energy drinks contain massive and excessive amounts of caffeine that may lead to a host of problems in young people including heart problems …”
In 2011, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a report on the appropriateness of sports and energy drinks for children and adolescents. They concluded that “…energy drinks pose potential health because of the stimulants they contain, and should never be consumed by children and adolescents.”
Still, energy drink consumption has skyrocketed in recent years, even as soda consumption has begun to decline. Given the danger energy drinks pose to children and youth with no potential benefit to their health or wellbeing, the marketing and advertising of these products to young people must stop.
Because manufacturers add caffeine to energy drinks, it is subject to regulation by the Food and Drug Administration as a food additive. In fact, the FDA has recognized the risks of high caffeine consumption and imposed a 71-milligram limit on the level of caffeine that may be added to a 12-ounce soda. However, no limits currently are imposed on the caffeine content of energy drinks, and containers easily can contain 200 to 300 milligrams or more. There is no justification for this regulatory distinction. Youth drinking energy drinks need as much protection as those drinking Coke or Pepsi.
Adolescents — the prime consumers of energy drinks — are entitled to information that can save their lives. The FDA’s limits on added caffeine in colas should also be applied to energy drinks, and the amount of caffeine added to an energy drink should always be listed on its nutrition label, including a distinct front-of-package warning for drinks with caffeine levels greater than those allowed in soda. Information based on scientific testing should also be made available on the effects of energy drink additives, such as guarana and taurine, that can increase the potency and increase the effects of caffeine.
As the sales of energy drinks rise every year, the need to act becomes even more critical. Steps to protect the health of our children are both feasible and necessary. The problem has been identified; now is the time to act.
Originally published in the Washington Post; this version has been updated.