The light bulb went off in Dr. Michele LaBotz‘s head soon after she watched a TV reality show in which a mother encouraged her 6-year-old daughter to down three cans of Red Bull energy drink before a competition. Dr. LaBotz was laughing about this example of bad parenting with the mother of a high-school-age girl who then admitted that her daughter was “down to two cans a day” of Red Bull.
That prompted Dr. LaBotz to take a closer look at use of these stimulant-containing drinks and at a related category — sports drinks — and to talk about them at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics. I’ve always been acutely sensitive to caffeine, so my nerves started buzzing just listening to her.
There are no standard definitions, but energy drinks are beverages containing carbohydrates, stimulants, and other ingredients — Red Bull being the 800-pound gorilla on the $11 billion market in energy drinks. Sports drinks are beverages containing some combination of carbohydrates and electrolytes — with Gatorade claiming 75% of the market share.
The “crime” is that these products are found side-by-side with products categorized as food, which are subject to stricter safety standards, Dr. LaBotz said.
Red Bull contains 80 mg of caffeine per 8-ounce can, more than twice as much as in two 12-ounce cans of Coca-Cola. Other brands package themselves in larger sizes to get around caffeine regulations or condense into super-caffeine “energy shots” containing 200-350 mg caffeine per 1-2 ounces. The larger 16-ounce size of SoBe No Fear, for example, contains 174 mg caffeine, roughly equivalent to a Starbucks Grande Mocha, except that No Fear also contains guarana, a plant extract that packs another 40 mg of caffeine per gram of guarana.
Young athletes start off using them because they think they’ll improve performance in sports or other parts of their lives. New data from a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study that will be published in the December issue of the Journal of Alcohol & Drug Education says that reality is flipped. Sport psychology consultant Conrad Woolsey, Ph.D. and his associates will report that energy drinks make users feel like they’re doing better even though they’re making more mistakes on tests of coordination and multidimensional skills.
Sports drinks are a bit more benign but unnecessary and too often take the place of healthier alternatives, potentially depriving young athletes of the nutrients their bodies need to prepare for or recover from exercise. The only time they may be convenient is during exercise lasting longer than an hour, when kids need more fluids, and the bright colors, sweetness and saltiness of sports drinks may entice them to stay hydrated.
Do you know the healthy alternatives to recommend to young athletes instead of sports or energy drinks, or how to talk to them about all this? Dr. LaBotz likes the Academy’s “Sports Shorts #6” on Nutrition and Sports, and the useful handouts available from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency such as the Joy of Sport.
And while she urges physicians to take a strong stand against child and adolescent use of energy drinks, she suggests not over-playing the dangers of caffeine, especially when talking to parents who may be regular caffeine users themselves. “I think we lose a lot of credibility if we overstate the risk,” she said.
–Sherry Boschert (on twitter @SherryBoschert)