Consume with caution: the hidden dangers of energy drinks
Jittery and dizzy, Anais Fournier was rushed to the hospital after her pulse failed and her heart began to palpitate erratically. The 14-year-old girl of Hagerstown, Md. passed away on Dec. 23, 2011. Her autopsy revealed she died of a heart arrhythmia, which causes irregular heartbeats, after consuming two 24 oz. cans of Monster Energy within a 24-hour period.
Fournier’s story isn’t an isolated event. In 2011, there were 20,783 reported emergency room visits in which an energy drink was the primary cause or a contributing factor to a health problem, more than double the cases in 2007 according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Caffeine poisoning, which caused Fournier’s heart arrhythmia, is defined as a “caffeine overdose [which] occurs when someone accidentally or intentionally takes more than the normal or recommended amount of this medication” according to the National Institute of Health.
At it’s worst, caffeine poisoning, also known as caffeine toxicity, can result in death.
“You walk into the store and think that it must be safe since you don’t have to be 21,” said Rebecca Purcell, a professor of nutrition. “Anyone can purchase [energy drinks] and a lot of people get a false impression that they are not dangerous.”
This is not the case, however. In 2010 there were 672 energy drink exposures reported to poison centers, which jumped to 3,147 in 2012 according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers.
“I drank them to give me an extra boost to stay awake to study and be alert later in the day,” said sophomore Tori Eigner, who used to drink Red Bull every other day. “But then I realized they started to make me feel too jumpy and I realized that it was just dumb to drink [them] since I had always been told they were bad for me.”
The rising caffeine poisoning trend is causing some to question the ingredients within energy drinks, including Monster Energy, Red Bull, Rockstar, Amp and Full Throttle, and to reconsider their consumption.
“I’m not a fan of energy drinks,” sophomore Brendan Latran said. “They are full of sugar and chemicals that don’t do you any good. They are bound to have weird side effects.”
A major concern with energy drinks is their high levels of caffeine and sugar combined with guanine and taurine in one can, Purcell said.
Taurine is an amino acid found in meat and fish, which helps with concentration, especially when combined with caffeine or guanine. Guanine is extracted from the guarana plant, which is native to South America and considered a stimulant, given its naturally high levels of caffeine. Both are often added to popular energy drinks, including Monster Energy, Rockstar and Amp, to increase levels of total energy, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Because guanine and taurine aren’t listed on the nutrition label on energy drinks, people usually aren’t aware of the amount of caffeine they are drinking, Purcell said.
“There is typically around 6-9 teaspoons of added sugar per energy drink,” Purcell said. “The caffeine and sugar content in these drinks combined can be dangerous, especially since they are not regulated by the FDA, so nothing advertised on the label is really accurate.”
This can cause problems for people with underlying heart conditions they might not be aware of, Purcell added.
Levels of caffeine in energy drinks often surpass those of a cup of coffee. An average cup of joe contains 108 milligrams of caffeine, while other drinks, such as Monster Energy and Rockstar, contain 240 milligrams. Monster Energy contains seven times the amount of caffeine found in a 12-ounce Coca-Cola.
Dr. Philip Brewer, university medical director for Student Health Services, describes energy drinks as a youth-oriented, fad marketing trend. He suggests a limited consumption of energy drinks, if any at all. According to a report by the Journal of Pediatrics, 30 to 50 percent of people 18 to 25 consume energy drinks. And when they are combined with alcohol, a common trend among college students, their impact on the body can be even worse.
“Alcohol is a depressant, and when you combine that with a stimulant, like energy drinks, it causes problems,” Brewer said. “Stimulants prompt the secretion of adrenaline, which makes the heart’s rhythm less stable if you’re combining that with alcohol. This can also cause cardiac arrest, particularly after binge consumption.”
Other symptoms of caffeine intoxication include nausea, anxiety, sweating and dizziness. As a general rule, energy drinks should not be taken lightly.
Instead of sipping on that Red Bull to stay awake in that three-hour night class, try something more natural without the extra unaccounted caffeine. Keep it traditional and stick with coffee.