Drinks That Give Kids Wings…and Problems

energetic_drinksIt’s a challenge to watch TV for any length of time these days without coming across a commercial for drinks like Gatorade and Red Bull, beverages usually marketed with adrenalized advertisements featuring athletes and daredevil feats. Though these commercials always feature adults, the tone and pacing is clearly aimed at a younger audience more susceptible to quick-cut, extreme-sports salesmanship. The message appears to be connecting, as a 2003 study found that more than half of adolescents use sports drinks and nearly half used energy drinks. Simultaneously, such beverages are becoming more and more accessible to kids, as some schools removing soda from their vending machines for health reasons are replacing them with sports drinks.

But are their dangers for kids ingesting sports or energy drinks? And how should parents treat their child’s consumption of these beverages? Guidance was provided this week in the journal Pediatrics by a panel of physicians co-led by Holly Benjamin, associate professor of pediatrics at the Medical Center. Their report is a stern warning, particularly on the effects of caffeine-packed energy drinks in young consumers and the casual use of sports drinks intended for replenishment after rigorous exercise. Here are the main take-home points from the report:

1) Sports Drinks ≠ Energy Drinks

A common misconception on the part of both parents and children is equating sports drinks such as Powerade with energy drinks such as Monster, despite their very different ingredients and purpose. While sports drinks purport to rehydrate and restore electrolytes after a long run or game of basketball, energy drinks are high-calorie and filled with stimulants such as caffeine, ginseng, and guarana. Despite these differences, adolescents often mix up the two beverages, expecting thirst-quenching and energy boosts from either one – a misconception encouraged by the  advertising for the various brands of drinks, the report concludes.

2) Boring is Still Best

Of the two types of drinks, sports drinks pose fewer health risks than the energy drink side of the aisle. But the claims made by sports drinks – to replenish electrolytes, provide muscle-repairing protein, and rehydration – are just as effectively, if not better, performed by plain old water and a balanced diet, the authors write. Sufficient amounts of the electrolytes sodium and potassium, which are important for brain and muscle activity, are provided by a healthy diet (the kind to be promoted by the new USDA “plate” on Thursday), and are only significantly depleted after lengthy or intense exercise. As such, “sports drinks offer little to no advantage over plain water,” the authors write. But they do offer a significant disadvantage compared to H20 – calories. Even the relatively low calories-per-serving of a sports drink (10 to 70 calories, the report says) can increase a child’s daily carbohydrate intake. In the absence of the exercise the drink is intended to offset, that could contribute to the risk of a child being overweight or obese.

3) A Dangerous Buzz

The calorie count of energy drinks is even higher – as high as 270 calories per serving, and often served in multiple-serving cans or bottles. But the even scarier figure cited by the report is the 500 milligrams of caffeine that some cans and bottles of energy drinks contain. To put that amount in perspective, it’s equivalent to roughly 14 cans of caffeinated soda! Energy drinks can also hide their stimulant content behind unusual ingredients other than caffeine. Each gram of guarana, which is included in drinks such as Rockstar and Power Trip, is equivalent to 40mg of caffeine.

The effects of caffeine in children and adolescents are hard to sort out, but cardiovascular, neurological, and developmental effects have been observed. Caffeine addiction – a well-known feeling for coffee-chugging adults – is also a growing problem at younger ages, attended by the headaches, fatigue, and irritability of withdrawal. The extraordinary amount of caffeine present in some energy drinks also moves into the range of caffeine toxicity, a state marked by insomnia, tremors, nervousness, and even seizures in extreme cases.

4) How Parent and Pediatricians Can Fight Back

It’s not easy for parents and doctors to push back against persuasive advertising and peer pressure. But the report suggests some steps that authority figures can take to keep unnecessary sports and energy drinks out of the hands of youngsters. Pediatricians are advised to ask their patients about their use of these beverages, and to educate them on the differences and dangers of the drinks. Schools should take measures against the sale of these drinks in vending machines, the authors write, following the lead of a Connecticut ban on sports drinks and “enhanced waters.” Parents should also be educated on how and when sports drinks should be used: “in combination with water during periods of prolonged, vigorous sports participation or other intense physical activity.”

“Sports drinks do have a place, but it’s in a small population,” Benjamin told LiveScience. “Parents need to understand that, and so do doctors.”

[More reaction to the sports and energy drinks report can be viewed at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Bloomberg News, and ABC News.]

About Rob Mitchum (526 Articles)

Rob Mitchum is communications manager at the Computation Institute, a joint initiative between The University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory.

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