Kids and Energy Drinks May Be a Bad Mix

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Photo: MediaforMedical/May

It isn’t news that a lot of kids — particularly American ones — consume a lot of food and drink that isn’t good for them. In recent years, though, public-health researchers have started taking a particularly close look at energy drinks, the popularity of which has exploded among the young ‘uns. As a new paper in Academic Pediatrics notes, a recent study “found that nearly one-third of 12- to 17-year-olds in the United States regularly consume energy drinks.” (If that link doesn’t work yet, it should shortly.) 

These drinks tend to either have stuff not found in other sugary drinks like soda, or to have larger amounts of stuff that is found in these drinks but that isn’t particularly healthy in heaping doses (caffeine and sugar, for example). So it’s natural that some public-healthy types are wondering what effects these drinks might have on young people whose bodies are still in a phase of rapid development.

To find out, the authors of the American Pediatrics paper, led by Deborah L. Schwartz of the Yale School of Public Health, conducted a survey on a diverse sample of 1,649 students from 12 schools in an urban school district. They asked the kids how many sugary drinks they’d had the previous day, what types they’d had, as well as how frequently they had trouble sitting still, how much difficulty they have completing schoolwork, and so on.

The authors found that every sugary drink one of the kids had increased by 14 percent the odds that they experienced attentional or hyperactivity difficulties (as defined by the scales the researchers used). But when they broke down the results by type of energy drink consumed, they found that “energy drinks were the only type of beverage that had an independent association with risk of hyperactivity/inattention.”

Causality is always an issue in a study like this, and the researchers point this out: It could be that, for whatever reason, kids already prone to inattention and hyperactivity enjoy drinking energy drinks, that hyperactivity causes energy-drink consumption, rather than the opposite. But even if this one study can’t prove beyond a doubt that energy drinks contribute to inattention and hyperactivity, the researchers offer many reasons to think that such a drink makes sense — and to keep kids away from the drinks in general: 

Energy drinks contain large amounts of caffeine, sugar, and other ingredients that work synergistically with caffeine. Caffeine may be contributing to this association because the caffeine content of energy drinks is far greater on average than that of soda. The combination of sugar and caffeine also may facilitate caffeine dependence, and exposure to caffeine during adolescence while brain development is underway may disrupt proper sleep and nutrition—two critical elements of maximizing brain growth and development. Further, there are numerous other ingredients in energy drinks besides sugar and caffeine, the exact effects of which are still being studied. Some ingredients found in energy drinks are also used in over-the-counter diet drugs, and the impact of these ingredients on health are yet fully understood. More research, both observational and experimental, is needed to understand the synergistic effects of sugar, caffeine, and other ingredients found in energy drinks on hyperactivity/inattention symptoms. [footnotes deleted]

You know we’re in an interesting age, nutrition-wise, when kids have access to drinks that almost make Coca-Cola look healthy by comparison.