Energy drinks potentially dangerous for kids, study reports

Parents might start hearing more about Red Bull during pediatrician visits.

Researchers at the University of Miami have reviewed the literature on energy drinks -- caffeinated beverages such as Red Bull, which sometimes also contain herbal supplements -- and their effects on children.

It's no great surprise that they found that the products, many of which have three times the caffeine of a cola and some of which have five times more, might be quite harmful to kids. Their results were released by the journal Pediatrics on Monday.

The team ran targeted searches of Google and the medical database PubMed to find 121 references to energy drinks, two-thirds in scientific articles. Sifting through the materials, they reported that:

  • Many children and young adults have tried energy drinks, and some consume them heavily.  A survey of college students reported that 51% regularly consumed one or more of the drinks per month, and a majority of those students drank them several times a week, citing insufficient sleep and a desire for more energy as reasons for that consumption.
  • The drinks are unregulated in the U.S., and the number of overdoses of caffeine from drinking them are not known.  But in Germany, Ireland and New Zealand, officials have reported cases of liver damage, kidney failure, seizures, confusion and arrhythmias associated with energy drink use.
  • Caffeine in the drinks can exacerbate cardiac conditions (especially in children with eating disorders) and interfere with calcium absorption and bone mineralization in young adolescents.
  • Additional ingredients may boost caffeine levels.
  • Extra calories in the drinks can contribute to diabetes, high BMI and dental problems.

The authors concluded that energy drinks don't have a therapeutic benefit to kids, and could put some children at risk for serious problems.

They urged pediatricians to ask patients about their energy-drink consumption and let them know about potential dangers.  The team asked researchers to seek out safe doses, warning that "unless research establishes energy-drink safety in children and adolescents, prudent."

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