Energy drinks are full of not-so-good stuff

Medical Matters

Beverages are loaded with sugar and aimed at kids

February 02, 2007|By Judy Foreman | Judy Foreman,Special to the Sun

Are energy drinks bad for you?

They're not going to kill you. But many of these increasingly popular drinks contain significant amounts of caffeine, which can make you jittery and cause insomnia. They also contain loads of sugar, which nobody needs.

Worse, these drinks are often marketed to kids and teenagers, many of whom already struggle with weight and don't need to add caffeine addiction to their troubles.

"Energy drinks are rip-offs," said Bruce Silverglade, legal director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington-based consumer watchdog group.

The organization has been trying for a decade, unsuccessfully, to get the Food and Drug Administration to force manufacturers to list the amount of caffeine on product labels. Most of the increased energy you feel with an energy drink is from sugar and caffeine, Silverglade said.

In a study published last year in the Journal of Analytical Toxicology, Bruce A. Goldberger, director of toxicology at the University of Florida College of Medicine, tested the caffeine content of 10 energy drinks, including Red Bull, Red Devil and Hair of the Dog.

In most energy drinks, he said, caffeine levels were higher than the maximum allowed for sodas. While the FDA sets limits on the amount of caffeine in cola beverages -- 65 milligrams per 12 ounces -- it does not regulate caffeine in energy drinks. And some energy drinks, such as Cocaine, contain huge amounts of caffeine -- 280 milligrams in an 8.4-ounce serving. That compares with about 100 milligrams per 6 ounces of coffee.

Overall, caffeine "is relatively benign and is not associated with life-threatening health risks," said psychopharmacologist Roland Griffiths, a professor in the department of psychiatry and neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University and a caffeine expert. "But here it is being promoted in the form of energy drinks and, alarmingly, in many cases to children and adolescents," Griffiths said.

Caffeine can increase anxiety and cause panic, some stomach problems and some cardiac arrhythmias. For pregnant women, safety data are confusing, but the "prudent" guideline, according to the American Dietetic Association, is to keep caffeine consumption to less than 300 milligrams a day.

Although some data suggest coffee can be good for you, "we should not mistake coffee or caffeine as a health food," Griffiths said.

Can children get kidney stones?

Yes, and increasing numbers are getting them. In the past few months, doctors at Children's Hospital in Boston and the Johns Hopkins Children's Center have become so concerned that they've set up clinics to handle the increase.

"It used to be that we saw five cases a year," said Dr. Yegappan Lakshmanan, a pediatric urologist and co-director of the new Hopkins pediatric kidney stone clinic. "Now it seems like one a week."

The increase may be from the rich diets that many children today eat, as well as to rising obesity and inadequate hydration, said Dr. Caleb Nelson, a pediatric urologist at the new Children's Hospital Boston Pediatric Kidney Stone Clinic, which is slated to open this month.

The apparent increase may also be the result of better imaging technology: "We can now see tiny stones that wouldn't have been seen before," said Dr. John Foreman, chief of pediatric urology at Duke University.

As with adults, kidney stones occur in children when the urine contains too much calcium oxalate or calcium phosphate, from which most stones form. And, as with adults, a good way to reduce the risk is to drink lots of water.

Although doctors used to believe that consuming too much calcium led to kidney stones, researchers now say that foods high in calcium may actually help prevent kidney stones.

If you've had a kidney stone containing calcium oxalate, though, it may be wise to limit your consumption of foods that contain calcium oxalate, including chocolate, coffee, cola, nuts, rhubarb, spinach, strawberries, tea and wheat bran.

Kidney stones in children are treated much like those in adults -- with surgery or lithotripsy, which breaks up stones by shock waves.

It's also important for parents to try to catch any kidney stone a child passes so it can be analyzed to find out what kind of stone it is -- and so doctors can determine the best foods to consume or avoid to prevent more stones from forming.

Send your questions to foreman@baltsun.com.

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