Energy drinks are marketed primarily to teens and young adults with the promise of increased energy, improved weight loss and better athletic performance. They are the fastest growing segment of the beverage market in the United States with billions of dollars of sales each year. However, little is known about their specific health impact on growing kids and teens.
Like regular soft drinks, energy drinks are mostly water and sugar, but with larger amounts of caffeine -- up to three times the amount of caffeine found in cola. Caffeine is the main active ingredient and they may also include other substances such as taurine, B-complex vitamins, and herbal supplements. The amount of caffeine in soft drinks is regulated, but some energy drinks are marketed as dietary supplements so they can legally have larger amounts of caffeine than if they were sold as soft drinks.
According to published research, small doses of caffeine can have positive effects on children by improving attention, but caffeine can also increase blood pressure and cause sleep disturbances (especially late at night -- try a bedtime snack instead of an energy drink). And more is not better. Larger doses of caffeine may reduce physical reaction time.
So, the full danger of caffeine and energy drinks isn't completely clear. Potential areas of concern for kids who consume large amounts of caffeine from energy drinks include cardiovascular effects, potential effect on bone health, and possible interactions with medications used for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The excess sugar may lead to weight gain and obesity and put the child at risk for developing cavities of the teeth.
Children and teens should keep their caffeine consumption to less than 100 milligrams per day, and since there is a lack of safety information, frequent energy drink consumption should be discouraged.
Energy Drink AlternativesWater is calorie-free, needs no artificial preservatives or flavorings, and is inexpensive. Most tap water is safe to drink and filtered drinking water is available in large bottles in most grocery stores. Fruit juice can be a good source of vitamins and minerals, but it can have as many calories per serving as sugary soft drinks, so you have to keep an eye on the serving size. Low-fat and non-fat milk are nutritious drinks and they give kids calcium and vitamin D they need for strong bones, healthy teeth, and normal nerve and muscle function. Kids who can't drink milk might try soy milk, rice milk or almond milk. These beverages are usually fortified with calcium and vitamin D - but read the label to be sure.
Cinteza E. "Update in pediatrics: to take or not to take soft drinks, sports or energy drinks?" Maedica (Buchar). 2011 Apr;6(2):157-8.
Seifert SM, Schaechter JL, Hershorin ER, Lipshultz SE. "Health Effects of Energy Drinks on Children, Adolescents, and Young Adults." Pediatrics. 2011 Feb 14.