Lauri Wright, PhD, RDN, LD is a public health specialist and a professor in the Department of Community and Family Health at the University of South Florida. She was president of the Florida Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in 2013, and currently serves on the board of the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics. Dr. Wright focuses much of her research on community nutrition and obesity prevention in children, which makes her an ideal candidate to weigh in on America’s growing energy drink crisis.
How did you first become aware of the hazards of energy drinks?
Public health, especially nutritional health, is of big interest and concern to me. But on a personal level, I saw my teenage daughters’ friends using energy drinks excessively when they were in ballet training. Of course I had a talk with mine and didn’t allow them to drink them, but I really became concerned. When I talk to teenagers and athletes, I always warn them against those drinks.
What effect do energy drinks have on athletic performance?
The risk is even greater for kids that are playing sports or exercising. Research has shown that when children and teenagers performed in athletic events right after consuming energy drinks, there were more abnormal heart rates and other cardiovascular issues. They’re trying to get the edge on their performance, but in fact they’re harming their performance.
It’s very similar to when Gatorade got big—it’s the thing to drink if you’re an athlete. The difference is that Gatorade, even though it’s high in sugar, it’s a known quantity. We know what’s in it, and there’s no caffeine. Caffeine is addictive, so our kids could get addicted to caffeine at a very young age.
What other factors make energy drinks so dangerous?
It’s what I call the double whammy, which is a high dose of caffeine and a high dose of sugar together. They’re both very short-acting stimulants. We can all attest to what kids are like after they get hold of their Halloween candy, how they’re all hyperactive, but it’s just a short burst. So now we’ve got not only that sugar, but the caffeine.
On young bodies that are not fully developed and not used to caffeine, it’s not surprising that this double dose of stimulants is causing health concerns.
Why are energy drinks so much worse for children and adolescents than adults?
The lack of tolerance in a developing body, and the double dose of sugar and caffeine. A lot of times, they aren’t even at their peak weight, so it’s a smaller body that you’re dumping that quantity of caffeine and sugar into.
The other thing that scares me is that we have so many kids on medications for Attention Deficit Disorder, and the interplay between some of these medications and the stimulants, that is of concern. Some of these medications, we don’t know how they’re going to interact with the energy drinks. There are a lot of unknowns and potential interactions with medications and supplements.
Why are they so much more popular with kids and teens than adults?
I think their popularity has a lot to do with the marketing. I remember I was at the Ellington Outlet Mall [in Florida] the night of Thanksgiving, when they open up the mall for Black Friday shopping. There were people working for Red Bull that had backpack coolers strapped to their backs, handing out free energy drinks. They know what they’re doing! They’re at football games and other youth-oriented events. I don’t know exactly how to regulate it, but I know that there should be some restrictions on where they’re allowed to give out their products, and who they’re allowed to target.
If nothing else, it seems like they shouldn’t be available on school grounds.
At one point I did a TV interview talking about how unhealthy these drinks are, and they posted it on the College of Public Health website. One of our Public Health students wrote in and said, “Why are we carrying energy drinks in our vending machines?” Thankfully the Dean saw it and said, “Okay, we need to pull these from our machines.”
I don’t think they should be available in school vending machines, or in concession stands at athletic events. I think there has to be some policy in schools and extracurricular activities where these drinks aren’t sold.
What else can we do to combat this public health crisis?
From a public health standpoint, we really need to inform consumers about what is in these products, and what are the risks. I know that there’s been some media attention, but I still don’t think we’re getting the message through.
We need to educate, but I also think we need some policy on these issues. Singular interventions don’t typically work. We need to educate parents and teens about the health concerns, but teenagers are at a state in their development where they think it doesn’t apply to them. They think they’re invincible, that they’re not gonna feel those same effects. Sometimes it’s tough to get them to believe that they could be impacted. We need awareness, we need education, and we need policy.