Professor’s Mission to Educate Public about Energy Drink Dangers

Feb. 6, 2013

Like any mom, Dr. Kim Kato is concerned about her children’s nutrition. So when the licensed athletic trainer and professor of health and exercise science at MidAmerica Nazarene University, discovered the dangers of energy drinks, she made it her mission to educate teachers, parents, and athletic trainers about the risks.

Energy drinks, heavily marketed to youth, are touted as natural substances that increase energy and enhance performance. According to research Kato cites, however, there’s no evidence that these drinks provide a competitive performance advantage. Worse, there’s evidence that they may be unsafe, especially for children and teens.

“From a parent’s perspective, it’s always important to know what your child is using on a daily basis,” said Kato. “If they’re relying on these [drinks] to get through the day, that’s a concern.”

What’s so bad about energy drinks? Kato says the biggest cause for concern is their caffeine content. Though the FDA limits the caffeine in soda to 71 mg of caffeine per 12-ounce drink, it does not regulate the amount of caffeine in energy drinks; consequently, some energy drinks contain more than 100 mg of caffeine in 12 ounces. Additionally, many come in 16- and 24-ounce cans, leading consumers to drink more than twice the caffeine limit for soda.

Caffeine is a drug. These things are drug-related and have drug-type effects. We monitor and regulate all kinds of drugs. Why aren’t we paying attention to this one?

Kato teaches future athletic trainers and coaches in her sports nutrition class about the potential effects of highly caffeinated energy drinks, including disruptive behavior, diminished sleep, elevated blood pressure, and potential developmental effects on neurologic and cardiovascular systems. But since energy drinks are not tested on children, Kato says these symptoms may not encompass all the potential effects on children and youth.

“There are so many different ingredients in these,” said Kato, “We don’t know everything that could possibly happen to a child.”

Michael Dawdy, M.D., an emergency room physician at Olathe Medical Center, confirms Kato’s findings.

caffeine-info“Caffeine at high doses is a potent stimulant,” said Dawdy. “As an ER doctor, I have seen several cases of teens and young adults who experience adverse effects from these drinks, causing emergency room visits.”

The problem is wider-spread than Dawdy’s practice. Kato’s research is especially relevant because of energy drinks’ growing presence in the headlines. Recognizing the risks that Kato highlights, many states are developing regulations for high-caffeine drinks. In 2008, Kentucky, Michigan, and Maine proposed legislation to ban the sale of energy drinks to minors.

Even with these efforts, Kato says the US has one of the laxest energy drink policies in the world; many other countries already regulate or ban energy drinks. Canada only allows drinks with a caffeine content of 180 mg or less, and Australia has banned drinks with caffeine content over 320 mg. Turkey and Denmark have banned high-caffeine drinks altogether, and Norway and Sweden only sell them in pharmacies to people 15 and older.

“Caffeine is a drug,” said Kato. “These things are drug-related and have drug-type effects. We monitor and regulate all kinds of drugs. Why aren’t we paying attention to this one?”

But even more than pending legislation, energy drink lawsuits have dominated recent headlines. Kato cites one of the most famous cases, which began December 2011 when fourteen-year-old Anais Fournier died after drinking two Monster energy drinks in 48 hours. An autopsy revealed the cause of death was cardiac arrhythmia from caffeine overdose. Kato emphasized that this tragedy and the four other deaths cited in an Oct. 22, 2012 New York Times article exemplify the potential dangers of these products for youth. 

So what should parents know about these drinks, and how should they protect their children? Kato says parents, especially parents of young athletes, should keep a few key facts in mind.  

First, though many parents equate energy drinks with soda or sports drinks, Kato says there’s a huge difference.  While sports drinks contain carbohydrates, minerals, electrolytes, and vitamins to combat dehydration, energy drinks leave out electrolytes and add stimulants like caffeine, protein, and amino acids. Though purported to increase focus and endurance, they do little to combat dehydration.

So what should parents know about these drinks, and how should they protect their children? Kato says parents, especially parents of young athletes, should keep a few key facts in mind.

She also cites studies that show large amounts of caffeine actually decrease coordination and reaction time. Additionally, she emphasizes that energy drinks do not give users more energy.

“The stimulant does not create energy,” said Kato. “Think of a stimulant like fire added to charcoal. It burns the fuel faster, but it only works based on the amount of energy you already have in your body.”

Dr. Dawdy, beyond his professional opinion, has personal experience with this fact. His two teenage sons, who participate in cross-country and track and field, have tried to get a quick energy boost from energy drinks.

 “It never works,” said Dawdy. “Healthy eating habits during training and prior to performance, as well as attention to hydration, are the keys to athletic performance, not sugar and caffeine highs.”

Kato’s findings have drawn attention from the community. In November, she presented at the University of Kansas to high school teachers and coaches of the Kansas Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance (KAPHERD). And in December she presented her findings to strength and weightlifting coaches at the National Strength and Conditioning Association’s meeting in Emporia. She hopes these professionals take up the cause in their circles of influence so that fewer people suffer ill effects from energy drinks.