Energy drinks are popular with tweens and teens drawn by the promise of strength, stamina and super-human powers. However there are some serious health concerns associated with these drinks. So what exactly are the dangers and what can you do to help your child?
Remember that energy drinks are quite different to sports drinks. Sports drinks are specifically designed to support sports performance by providing sugar, fluid and minerals to replace those lost or used up during prolonged, intense exercise. Energy drinks are not designed for sports. They usually contain sugar (often much more than in sports drinks) alongside very large amounts caffeine and numerous natural sounding additives that can do more harm than good.
The caffeine content of energy drinks is usually around 80-160 mg caffeine per serving. This compares with tea and coffee at 75-100mg per mug and cola drinks at 40 mg per 330ml can.
The European Food Safety Authority recommendation for the maximum caffeine intake for kids is 3mg/kg body weight per day. So at first glance it looks as though a 50kg, 14 year old could safely have one energy drink per day even if younger or smaller kids would be going over the limit. However we have to remember that other ingredients in these drinks like taurine, guarana and ginseng also have a stimulant effect so our kids are getting a double, triple or even quadruple whammy!!! We don’t know the exact impact of these chemicals but they certainly increase the risk.
Caffeine and other stimulants are associated with headaches, irritability, poor concentration, impulsiveness, anxiety, sleep problems and irregular heartbeat. Mixing energy drinks with alcohol is even more dangerous as the caffeine masks the depressant effect making users feel less drunk and more likely to drink to excess. Using energy drinks instead of sports drinks before, during or after exercise can increase the risk of irregular heart beat and there are some reports of deaths thought to be linked to using energy drinks around sports. If your child is on medication for the treatment of ADHD it is important to be especially careful because the caffeine may increase the side effects of these medicines, in particular irregular heartbeat and raised blood pressure.
There are sugar free versions of energy drinks (designed to appeal to the weight conscious) but most energy drinks contain 11-80g sugar/serving. The recommended daily limit for added sugar is 24g/day for 7-10 year olds and 30g/day for the over 11’s. So in many cases just one serving would take a child over the limit. Excess sugar consumption is linked to obesity and tooth decay and increased risk of cancer, heart disease and diabetes.
Is it legal to sell these drinks to children?
UK supermarkets have banned the sale of energy drinks to anyone under the age of 16 but they can still be legally purchased by children in other outlets. Drinks that contain caffeine at a level over 150 mg per litre must state: ‘High caffeine content. Not recommended for children or pregnant or breast-feeding women’. Of course tweens and teens like to try things that are not recommended for them so many of them ignore these warnings and savvy manufacturers make products with a caffeine content just below this level. A survey of 16 European Union member states, carried out on behalf of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) reported that:
- 69% of UK adolescents and 24% of UK children reported consuming energy drinks at least once in the past year.
- Adolescents in the UK reported consuming the highest amount of energy drinks of the 16 European countries surveyed (3.1 litres/month vs. an average of 2 litres/month)
- 19% of UK adolescents reported consuming energy drinks at least 4-5 days per week
- 13% of UK adolescents reported consuming over a litre of energy drinks per session
So what can parents and carers do?
- Don’t buy these drinks for your children. If you have bought them in the past apologise and explain why you are apologising.
- Don’t wait until there is a problem to talk about it. One way to tackle tricky issues like this is to keep a jar of question cards in the kitchen and encourage the kids to pick a card every few days and ask you the question on the card. You can include all sorts of things, whatever is relevant for your family – but be brave. Here are some examples
- When did you have your first alcoholic drink?
- What’s your biggest regret?
- Did you ever smoke?
- Why do you/don’t you drink alcohol?
- Were you ever bullied?
- Why do you drink coffee?
- Do you like energy drinks?
- Have you ever been drunk?
- Have you ever eaten so much you were sick?
- How many fillings have you got?
Obviously you have to be prepared to answer honestly. It will feel uncomfortable but you will avoid the defensiveness we all get when we try to broach difficult subjects. At the same time you get a great opportunity to give information and share feelings and more about yourself. This will educate your child and strengthen your connection.
- Have some facts up your sleeve. You could also ask your child what they know. You could say something like “You know I had no idea until recently that these things contain 150mg caffeine in each can. How much do you think is safe?” Of course they will probably say “dunno” but it opens up the conversation.
- Talk about something you gave up or cut down on when you realised it was doing you no good. Be honest about the experience.
- If your child has been having a lot of caffeine from energy drinks or any other source and the agree they need to change, let them know that it’s best to cut down slowly to avoid nasty side effects like headaches.
- Point out the benefits of avoiding energy drinks. These are actually the very things that probably drew your teen/tween to the products in the first place.
- Never “go on” about these things. Give the information and then move on.
- If they are trying to kick the energy drink habit but finding it hard make sure they know you believe they can do it. Statements like “it’s going to be great when you can stop these drinks as you will feel so much better. Let me know if there is anything I can do” are so much better than “I thought you said you were giving these things up why don’t you ever listen to me?”
So as always I hope that’s helpful. If you would like further support with eating well for yourself or your family please get in touch.