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Parents: Keep your kids away from energy drinks

Published August 20. 2011 09:03AM

Why do we remember what we do?

While I'm not qualified to answer that, I do know the question that I keep remembering from more than three months ago is a big reason why this column was created and the headline is so strongly worded.

The question came on Tuesday, May 10 at approximately 11:40 a.m., about 75 minutes after the Palmerton Area Junior/Senior High School had lost all power. The power outage had caused our school to lock down, and my class was antsy since they had been with me since 9:15 and couldn't use the lavatories or the water fountains.

Worse, they had missed lunch.

When the high school principal announced that students would soon be sent home, cheers rang out. Moments later, as the class sat and talked and waited for the buses to arrive, a girl motioned for me to come to her.

"Will the high-school school store still be open?" she asked. When I said I didn't know, she added with a strange sense of urgency, "Could you please find out? I need my Monster."

It took me a moment to realize that "Monster" was in reference to the energy drink. (FYI: The school store only sold Monster briefly and no longer sells any energy drinks.) When she explained she normally drinks two a day, I realized something else: her use of "need" was right on.

But the girl didn't necessarily need a Monster. What she needed was a caffeine buzz or a sugar rush.

Whatever the case, this conversation caused me to ask my classes about their use of energy drinks. The hardcore video game players said slugging one or two allowed them to play better and late into the night. A few athletes felt drinking one gave them a boost before a game or practice.

But what really surprised me was that some kids drank one on the way to school in lieu of eating breakfast.

Now I don't claim to know the actual degree of use based on a few informal class discussions, but I do know any use is cause for alarm. That's because if there is one thing young teens don't need in their drinks these days, it's caffeine.

According to, that 16-ounce can of Monster that girl "needed" contains 160 milligrams of caffeine, which is 15 milligrams more than a 16-ounce cup of McDonald's coffee and fairly typical of most energy drinks though 16 ounces of Rockstar Punched contains 240 milligrams and 16 ounces of NOS has 20 milligrams more.

So what's a safe amount of caffeine for kids?

The United States Food and Drug Administration has never said for sure but recommends that adults limit themselves to 300 milligrams over the course of an entire day, the amount in about three cups of coffee. But keep in mind children and young teens tend to weigh far less than adults, so the effect of caffeine on them will be more pronounced. With this in mind, The Canadian government, for instance, suggests that 10-to-12-year-olds ingest no more than 82 milligrams a day.

Yet even that amount might cause some kids to have problems.

In a 2001 Monitor article accessible through the American Psychological Association's web site, Roland Griffiths, Ph.D., of Johns Hopkins University warns that the caffeine in a single can of standard soda [as little as 34 milligrams] can create mood swings and other behavioral effects in children. Terence Patterson, Ph.D., of the University of San Francisco and an APA Division President, adds, "Caffeine can stimulate immature neurological systems beyond a child's ability to tolerate it" and that "excessive caffeine use damages the attention capacity that children need to cooperate in play, family, and school environments."

So just picture what the caffeine in a full can of an energy drink can do to a young teen especially on an empty stomach just before school. After about 90 minutes of frenetic energy, the kid crashes physically and mentally, but not because all the caffeine has left his system. (The half life of caffeine is six hours.)

The power outage is primarily a result of the second problem with energy drinks, sugar.

As a result, insulin is secreted to such a degree that blood sugar dips lower than if the teen was fasting. When blood sugar drops this low, the teen's powers to concentrate and think become compromised.

Sugar is the other ingredient that young teens don't need in their drinks that energy drinks have in abundance; in fact, most energy drinks contain just as much sugar as typical soda. Both Coca-Cola Classic and Monster, for instance, have 54 grams of the stuff, or 216 calories, in a 16-ounce serving.

For reference, the American Heart Association recommends that no adult male consume more than 150 calories of added sugar per day. For adult females, the AHA advises 50 fewer calories. It's hard to imagine how teens even during growth spurts could benefit from more.

Furthermore, in a groundbreaking 2001 study of 548 U.S. children published by Britain's prestigious journal, The Lancet, researchers discovered that children increasing daily soft drink intake by one can a day over a two-year period increased their chance of obesity by 60 percent. More recent research has linked the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages to an increased incidence of heart disease and diabetes.

When you also consider that energy drinks often contain other ingredients that heighten the effect of caffeine and others that have not been specifically tested on how they affect children, it's safe to say that parents are being prudent if they don't permit their kids to consume energy drinks.

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