The problem with energy drinks

In this week’s Monday Links, we mentioned a safety warning that may be added to energy drinks. A new report from Food Safety News goes further in depth as to why consumers may need to be concerned about these caffeine-spiked beverages.

The level of caffeine within various brands ranges greatly—ranging anywhere from just a few milligrams to hundreds in others. Medical professionals are finding more and more health issues related to these drinks and are working to put regulations in place to prevent further issues from occurring.

Dr. Stacy Fisher, director of Complex Heart Disease on the faculty of the University of Maryland’s School of Medicine and a cardiologist who specializes in congenital heart disease, has seen health issues increase. Patients who drink energy drinks may have heart palpitations, shortness of breath and nausea, Fisher says.

This may be because 50 mg of caffeine has the potential to induce tachycardia and agitation. According to a 2012 study from the Medical Journal of Australia, higher levels of “caffeine toxicity can mimic amphetamine poisoning and lead to seizures, psychosis, cardiac arrhythmias and, potentially but rarely, death.”

In recent deaths linked to energy drinks, reports have not proved the beverage(s) to be the definitive cause of death. However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is in the midst of investigating further to find if drinks were the direct cause. Since 2004, 34 deaths can be linked to energy drinks, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

Incidents concerning energy drinks that don’t result in deaths are also on the rise. Between January 1, 2004 and March 10, 2014, the FDA has been informed of 241 non-fatal events. Drink makers are required to tell the FDA of any adverse events related to their products. Additionally, emergency room visits doubled from 2007 to 2011 from energy drink-related incidents.

Concerns from doctors include the limit of caffeine allowed. In soda, the federal law only allows up to 71 mg per 12 ounces. As energy drinks aren’t categorized as such, there is no limit on the product. Further, manufacturers aren’t required to put caffeine content on the labels.

Additives are also of concern: guarana, a product that naturally contains caffeine, is often not included on the drink label and can be added in unknown quantities. Other products contain taurine, an amino acid that makes the heart pump harder and stronger, which can be risky. When used in heart failure patients, Fisher says “they do better, but they don’t live as long.” Added sugars are also of concern; they may contribute to development of obesity and diabetes.

Age of the consumer also has doctors worried. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that 30 percent of adolescents say they consume energy drinks. Not only do those who drink these products tend to engage in risky behavior—such as alcohol consumption or drug use—but their metabolism simply might not be able to keep up with the amount of caffeine.

According to Food Safety News, adults could handle 200 mg of caffeine without a problem, but children and smaller individuals don’t have the same kind of metabolism. The American Academy of Pediatrics goes on to say that there is no established tolerance level for children.

Because of all of these concerns, CSPI has written to the FDA, requiring safety labels on drinks to warn or heart attacks and other adverse reactions. Their request doesn’t stop there: CSPI wants caffeine levels lowered to those that can be found on cola beverages, and for ingredients to be tested for safety individually and in combination.

Other groups are asking for size limitations and ability to reseal containers. They are also requesting more taxes to be placed on such products.

As of time of writing, the FDA has not set into motion plans for warning labels to energy drink products. However, the agency has requested a report from the Institute of Medicine on potential health hazards of caffeine consumption in order to “determine next steps.”

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