Popeye’s New Can Isn’t Spinach: Energy Drinks

Boise Weekly | October 20, 2005
My fifteen year-old son insists on having an energy drink after his breakfast every morning. If I run out, he picks one up on his way to school. Truthfully, he acts just like I do when I don’t have coffee in the morning. Are these drinks any worse for him than my coffee?

-asked by Michael

Since I’m the go-to guy for Starbucks marketing advice, I’m planning to suggest offering new brews with the names PimpJuice au Lait and Monster Assault Macchiato. I’ve no doubt it would help the transition from adolescent experimentation to full-scale adult caffeine addiction. Speaking as one so addicted, the only drawback I see to my daily pot of espresso is my having to erase all the exclamation points after every first draft.

The dozens of new energy drinks available contain a very similar inventory of components hidden within eye-catching ingredient names like Glucuronolactone and Guarana. The elements of most of these “functional beverages” are simply sugar, amino acids, vitamins, herbs, and caffeine. Caffeine content varies, but most contain about as much as a cup of coffee, and about twice the amount in tea or cola. During what can best be described as a “year-round spring break,” aggressive marketers make claims of significant increases in performance, concentration, and even improved emotional state (assuring a Nobel prize in teenage medication).

Last fall, as I parked at a trailhead for a day-hike, a truck pulled in behind me sporting a giant can of Red Bull large enough to medicate an Avril Lavigne concert. A hyperactive couple dressed in matching blue and red jumpsuits leapt from the cab to present me with a sample can and some valuable coupons. Never blessed with self-control, I immediately popped it open and took a large swallow. The immediate sensation of cat box flavored ginger ale sliding down my throat caused an involuntary shudder. I did, however, manage to maintain a flat, grateful smile while nodding and walking quickly away. I must say even Maxwell House would have been a more pleasant source of caffeine.

The drug caffeine itself, in moderation, is proven safe in most adults and is recognized to improve both mental and physical performance. That being said, sensitive types would surely disagree and wag a trembling finger in my direction. For children, it’s not so simple. Few kids would consider drinking a pot of strong coffee before junior high assembly, but might down 4 or 5 energy drinks in an afternoon while playing Xbox. Sleep deprived already (thank you Instant Messenger), interruption of what few hours of rest that remain is likely to follow. This makes it a much larger concern for younger children.

Mixing these drinks with alcohol is currently in fashion, and the combination is about as inspired as any movie starring Ben Affleck. As anyone who has ever had a beer can tell you, alcohol makes you urinate. And the rest of you who have had coffee can attest to the same thing. Both caffeine and alcohol are diuretics and the combination of the two can dehydrate a person quite fast, especially during physical activity like dancing (or fleeing from a matinee of Gigli), and that makes the combo dangerous.

Although juice or water is a much better choice, a single energy drink a day is probably not doing your son any harm, but keep it clear of his younger siblings. If you notice any sleep disturbance or other changes unrelated to his teenage angst, you might investigate if he’s drinking more than he should. I’d also be worried if he comes home wearing a blue and red jumpsuit, but that’s just me.

Dr. Ed Rabin is a chiropractor practicing in Boise, Idaho. Send your nits to pick and health related questions to theantidote@edrabin.com (www.edrabin.com).

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