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updated: 3/22/2012 3:36 PM

Kids, coffee and energy drinks -- OK in moderation?

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  • In the race to accomplish everything in their busy schedules, young people may be tempted to turn to caffeine to boost alertness, but local doctors warn against the practice.

    In the race to accomplish everything in their busy schedules, young people may be tempted to turn to caffeine to boost alertness, but local doctors warn against the practice.

  • Local doctors suggest that kids not drink caffeine-containing drinks, such as coffee or energy drinks.

    Local doctors suggest that kids not drink caffeine-containing drinks, such as coffee or energy drinks.


In the "5 Hour Energy" TV commercial, a high school-aged pizza delivery boy explains why he drinks it.

"When I have school and work," he says.

As more young people become convinced they need an energy boost, consumption of energy drinks (which are different from sports drinks like Gatorade) has boomed in the past few years.

A recent survey found 31 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds, and 34 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds, admitted to consuming energy drinks regularly, according to results published by the Illinois Poison Center.

Among college students, 51 percent of those surveyed regularly consumed more than one energy drink per month, and the majority consumed them several times per week.

And then there's coffee.

It's not unusual to see teens hanging out at suburban coffee shops, which correlates with the National Coffee Association's statistics that show 40 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds are drinking coffee each day -- an 11 percent increase since 2010.

"I see teenagers all day long, and when I say, 'What did you have for breakfast?' they say 'Starbucks,'" said Dr. Marcie Schneider, an adolescent medicine specialist who works on the American Academy of Pediatrics' nutrition committee.

Whatever young people are drinking for an energy jolt, it's probably not good for them, doctors say.

But what if they just have a cup or can every now and then? And consume these drinks in moderation? Are they still bad?

In a word, yes.

"Stimulant-containing energy drinks have no place in the diets of children or adolescents," concluded a recent American Academy of Pediatrics report; "They are not appropriate for children and adolescents and should never be consumed."

The same applies to coffee, Schneider says.

"Because it's an addictive substance, the answer is no, they shouldn't be drinking it," she said.

Leading energy drink maker, Red Bull, disagrees, and released a statement saying it sold 4.6 billion cans and bottles of its products last year in 164 countries and "health authorities across the world have concluded that (it's) safe to consume."

"It is obviously not the case that 'most doctors' have agreed an opinion on our product, on energy drinks in general, on caffeine, or on other ingredients of energy drinks, which would conflict with the opinion of the expert food authorities of 164 countries," the statement said.

The company said a 250 mL can of Red Bull contains 80 mg of caffeine, about the same amount as in a cup of coffee.

"The consumption of Red Bull Energy Drink should therefore correspond to a person's intake of coffee -- whatever age one is," the company said.

Stimulant levels differ

Doctors say a big problem -- and one which is increasing emergency room visits -- is that all of these coffee and energy drinks have different levels of stimulants. While one type of drink might have a small amount of caffeine, others have large amounts, and there's no way to tell the difference, said Dr. Todd Zimmerman, the medical director of pediatric emergency medicine at Alexian Brothers Health Network.

"When you're dealing with coffee, the caffeine amount ranges so much. It's just dangerous, because you don't know how much a child's going to react to it," he said. "(Energy drinks) are not regulated, so you never know how much you're getting."

Coffee varieties don't have labels, and energy drinks -- which sometimes skirt FDA rules on caffeine maximums by classifying themselves as dietary supplements -- don't mention their caffeine-containing natural ingredients, like guarana and taurine. One gram of guarana, a natural plant extract, contains as much caffeine as a whole can of soda, the AAP said.

Red Bull dismissed this, saying the European Food Safety Authority said in February 2009 that these ingredients "are of no concern."

They are a concern to local doctors, though, who say these drinks make it easy for young people to overwhelm their still-developing neurological system without realizing it, and land in the emergency room with symptoms like heart palpitations, shaking, headaches or feeling faint, doctors say.

Zimmerman has treated children as young as 9 and 10 for such problems, including an elementary school-aged boy who had spent the day drinking coffee with his grandmother. He's also seen student athletes consume the drinks in hopes of being more competitive, but end up getting sick from the stimulants instead.

College students will mix energy drinks with alcohol, mistakenly thinking they're "alert" and not realizing how inebriated they are, Zimmerman added.

Coffee and energy drink companies market their products to young people, but Schneider said the blame also falls on parents, and the mixed messages they send their kids by drinking a lot of caffeine.

If young people are running low on energy -- exhausted from a busy schedule or school pressures -- then Schneider said the solution should be something other than pumping kids up with caffeine, a drug with addictive qualities and potentially bad medical side effects.

"We're just scratching the surface on how bad this problem is," Zimmerman said.

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