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Iowa State professor addresses energy drink misperceptions

What do you today’s teens and preteens understand about popular energy drinks on the market? That’s what doctors Gayathri Kumar, Sohyun Park, and Stephen Onufrak wanted to find out when they designed a cross-sectional study with youths aged 12 to 17 asking about their consumption of and understanding of the energy drinks which have been growing in popularity. The results, published online through the American Journal of Health Promotion, show that overall, 9% of youth drank energy drinks, 19.5% agreed that energy drinks are safe drinks for teens, and 12.5% agreed that energy drinks are a type of sports drink. The proportion of youth consuming energy drinks once per week or more was highest among youth aged 16 to 17 years and among those who are physically active three to six times a week. The odds for drinking energy drinks once per week or more was higher among youth who agreed that energy drinks are safe drinks for teens and among those who agreed that energy drinks are a type of sports drink.

Caffeine may not be on the nutrition panel, but some energy drinks come with a warning if parents and students read the fine print.
Bob Elbert/Iowa State University

Ruth Litchfield, an associate professor and associate chair of food science and human nutrition at Iowa State University, is concerned that a key ingredient is missing if students or parents look closely at the label of the energy drinks. Despite the fact that many of these popular drinks contain as much as 500 mg of caffeine, you won’t find the amount listed on the can or bottle.

“The omission could explain why a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found 20 percent of young people who consume energy drinks think they are safe,” said Litchfield. “Another 13 percent perceive that energy drinks are a type of sports drink. These drinks have this connotation that they are a performance enhancer because they’re an energy drink. Whether that performance is academic or physical, that’s the perception. You’re talking about the equivalent of five cups of coffee in one energy drink. And it’s not just youth who are unaware; it’s adults. I’ve seen adults in the grocery store buying these energy drinks for their children.”

Caffeine is not Litchfield’s only concern. Ma huang (also known as ephedra) and guarana are stimulants that are also added to energy drinks. If teens and young adults – which make up about half of the energy drink market, according to the CDC – believe these drinks are safe they may underestimate the health risks.

“That amount of caffeine has health implications. Your heart rate and blood pressure will increase and you’ll have increased risk for arrhythmias. If you consistently consume these for a prolonged period of time, you’re increasing your risk for cardiovascular disease,” Litchfield said.

Litchfield says the lack of nutrition information and misperceptions by teens emphasizes the need for awareness. New USDA rules for drinks and snack foods sold in schools is a step in that direction. Many parents, students and school administrators have criticized the changes that limit what can be sold in vending machines and a la carte lines based on calories and portion size. But Litchfield says restricting these items sends a message to students and parents.

“Our schools are where we need to model and educate about what we know is in the best interest of children for long-term health,” Litchfield said. “If students don’t see these energy drinks in school, they start to understand there is a reason why.”

Litchfield hopes that doing more to educate students in middle school and high school will eventually change some of the habits she sees working with students on a college campus. While the CDC study found young people who consume energy drinks tend to have other poor health habits, Litchfield sees many otherwise health-conscious college students who rely on energy drinks for the caffeine boost.

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