Energy drinks: pouring out secrets

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By Norabel Chessmore, Contributor

Teens and young adults all over the United States are popping tabs to become rock stars, monsters or even red bulls with wings, hoping to perform at full throttle. This transformation comes in a can filled with a mysterious concoction, and you may be surprised by the ugly secrets poured out by researchers during the Mayo Clinic Proceedings last year.

The market for energy drinks is growing, attracting consumers between the ages of 11 and 35 years. Energy drinks found a niche in the beverage arena, especially being unregulated by the Food and Drug Administration.

The U.S. met its first energy beverage, Red Bull, in 1997. Only a decade later, Americans managed to guzzle 290 million gallons of energy drinks. That’s about 3.8 quarts per person, per year.

The U.S. jumped on the energy drink bandwagon later than other countries, which may be one reason for having the most lax health warning labels for this hot market. Some countries have banned energy drinks because of animal testing. The Mayo Clinic Proceedings revealed that rats fed taurine – one of the active ingredients in drinks such as Red Bull – displayed peculiar side effects, including self-mutilation. 

In America, we haven’t banned these drinks. Instead, celebrity, band and athlete endorsements lure children, aspiring athletes and over-worked business people to consume the energy-enhancing liquids that help them stay awake at work and keep their eyes open while hitting the club.

In November 2010, the Washington State Liquor Control Board banned alcoholic energy drinks after nine University of Washington students became sick. This story made waves nationally for two reasons: the students were underage and energy drinks mixed with alcohol is a dangerous combination.

This wasn’t first time the nation heard about potential dangers associated with energy drinks. In 2009, Cleveland Browns wide receiver Donte’ Stallworth mixed shots with Red Bull, drove drunk and killed a pedestrian with his vehicle. Stallworth told police he didn’t feel drunk. Mixing alcohol with energy drinks masks all of the body’s defenses and warning signs. Both energy drinks and alcohol can cause dehydration. Since energy drinks act as ‘uppers’ while alcohol is a ‘downer,’ the tiring effects of alcohol are diminished.

No one blames America and its 24-7, non-stop lifestyle, but we’re seeing warning signs, especially when energy drinks include ingredients for which there is insufficient research. Those warning signs are showing up in emergency rooms, where crews are treating caffeine overdoses and side effects ranging from anxiety to cardiac arrest. Energy drinks contain excessive sugar as well, with an average of 13 teaspoons per beverage, which leads to obesity, diabetes and insulin resistance, according to a Mayo Clinic study.

Despite growing concerns about safety, these drinks continue to fly off shelves. These concerns were sent to the FDA in 2009,in a petition signed by 100 scientists and physicians requesting more regulation on energy beverages. Last August, Utah’s Poison Control Center joined with University of Utah Health Care and Primary Children’s Medical Center to inform parents of potential consequences of energy drinks.

Youth seem to binge on television, food, alcohol and most recently, energy drinks. Not only do parents need to be aware of the potential risks, but athletic departments could use a heads up as well. 

More research needs to be done to provide concrete information about energy drinks, but excessive use isn’t recommended, and those with underlying heart conditions should take this as a serious warning.

Instead of searching the dusty shelves at the supermarket for an overpriced can of mystery, try visiting the produce department more often for a natural pick-me-up. You won’t find any monsters or animals with wings, but you’ll find a boost of energy that fits just as easily in the palm of your hand.

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