The bottom of a caffeine cannon

  I remember when Red Bull, the industry leader in energy drinks, first emerged in the Canadian market. It was 1997, and after the initial brouhaha died down, I assumed it would remain a fringe product, much like Jolt Cola, the retro drink that once proudly boasted “all the sugar and twice the caffeine” of Coca-Cola.As it turned out, I was entirely wrong. Not only did Red Bull stick around, energy drinks have become a major player in the beverage industry, with Canadians guzzling some 35 million litres in 2006 (up from 26 million litres in 2001). Energy drinks are now the fastest growing part of the soft drink industry, with some 300 brands now available in North America alone. As a result of the growing demand, you can now find energy drinks of all shapes and sizes, ranging from monstrous sugar and caffeine-laden cans, to concentrated energy shots and sugar-free diet drinks.While energy drinks have gradually wormed their way into our collective consciousness, they haven’t done so without controversy. Some of the earliest warnings surrounded their use with alcohol –experts feared (and still fear) that the combination of caffeine, a stimulant, with alcohol, a depressant, could be tough on the heart. More than that, several studies have shown that mixing alcohol and energy drinks tricks you into feeling less drunk than you actually are, making you that much more vulnerable to drinking too much.While health experts have made their concerns about energy drinks well-known, that hasn’t stopped their use among the drinking classes; as any frequenter of a club scene will tell you, the “vodka-Red Bull” is as popular as ever. Unfortunately, a study on college students also shows that those who mix energy drinks with booze are four times more likely to drive drunk than nonmixers– again, a consequence of the false sense of sobriety they induce.While mixing alcohol and energy drinks remains a concern, the latest health controversy stems from an editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal recommending restrictions of sales and marketing of these products to children and youth. Since many energy drinks contain more caffeine than a child under 12 should consume in an entire day (80 mg) — and some contain 200 mg of caffeine per serving or more, the consequences of children consuming these drinks are serious — and that’s without getting into the sky-high sugar content (note that a typical cup of coffee contains 80 mg to 140 mg of caffeine).Not surprisingly, the energy drink industry shot back, claiming that their marketing is directed at adults, not kids. Of course, as any sports-savvy marketer will tell you, having athletes as endorsers (Red Bull leads the way as a sponsor of athletes in Major League Baseball, beach volleyball, skiing and snowboarding, not to mention teams like the Major League Soccer’s New York Red Bulls) is a great way to increase brand awareness among impressionable children and youth.Energy drink officials also point to what they feel are clear — though often tiny — warnings on their labels that their products should not be consumed by children, or by pregnant or breastfeeding women. Fair enough, but with easy accessibility, no laws regulating their sale, and a sugary taste that is all-too-appealing to kids, perhaps it’s not surprising that it’s estimated that some 40% of children and adolescents consume the stuff.So in the name of raising awareness for parents, kids, rock stars and athletes alike, here are some key facts to remember when it comes to energy drinks:1. Energy drinks are not the same as sports drinks While most sports drinks do contain sugar, it’s usually in a lower amount than you’ll find in pop, and they also contain electrolytes (salts), designed to replenish energy and sweat losses accrued during intense activity. Energy drinks, on the other hand, are designed to boost energy, or wakefulness, during periods of fatigue or exertion, usually in the form of caffeine.2. Energy drinks are governed by different labelling laws Most sports drinks, along with pop and juice, display the now-familiar Nutrition Facts Panel, listing calories, fats, sugar and other key nutrients. Depending on their ingredients and the claims they make, however, energy drinks are often classified as Natural Health Products, allowing them to leave sugar off their labelling, leaving consumers in the dark.3. Energy drinks often contain more than caffeine Although caffeine is the most common stimulant you’ll find in energy drinks, you’ll also see other stimulants such as guarana, taurine, ginseng and gingko in various amounts. Since each stimulant works in different ways and at different dosages, making sense of it all becomes nearly impossible for the average consumer.The bottom line When it comes to energy drinks, Pandora’s box is already wide open. While adults certainly have the right to choose what they eat or drink, the thought of a child or teen guzzling back the equivalent of two cups of coffee in a single energy shot is alarming. When you add in the at-times massive sugar content, you have a recipe for a nutritional disaster is best avoided by almost anyone.- Jennifer Sygo is a dietitian in private practice at Cleveland Clinic Canada (, which offers executive physicals, prevention and wellness counselling and personal health care management in [email protected]

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