Although energy drinks like Monster, Red Bull and 5-hour Energy can be found anywhere from vending machines to college campuses, evidence continues to mount that they are -- medically speaking -- terrible for you.
"It's a dietary supplement allowed to use three to five times more caffeine than Coca-Cola, but the industry presents it as something that benefits your health," said Judy Simon, a UW Medical Center dietitian. "They're marketed as sexy, as a cool drink that will give you a boost without a crash."Although the drinks are said to increase energy and stamina, they are increasingly linked to caffeine overdoses, which include symptoms of breathing trouble, diarrhea, irregular heartbeat and tremors. Chock-full of caffeine and other additives such as sugar, herbal supplements, and guarana, a plant product with concentrated caffeine, energy drinks are becoming a prominent public health concern.
The number of emergency department visits linked to energy drinks has doubled, with 10,068 cases in 2007 and 20,783 cases in 2011, according to The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration's research survey released Jan. 10.
Despite the fact that energy drinks use three to five times more caffeine than sodas like Coca-Cola, information on caffeine toxicity is sparse and labeling regulation is lax.
"We need more health disclaimers [on energy drinks], just like labeling on cigarettes in order to give consumers the information they deserve," said Simon.
In particular, Simon said more transparent labels are needed to inform warn people who may be more negatively affected by energy drinks, such as those with cardiac conditions, a history of seizures or those using attention deficit disorder stimulant medication.
It's especially concerning for vulnerable populations such as young people who are often less informed about the dangers of energy drinks. According to the government report, most cases of energy drink-related emergency visits involved people aged 18 to 39, many of which involved drug combinations with energy drinks.
Simon is hopeful that emerging findings such as these will eventually encourage the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to demand more information and safety with energy drink marketing and production. Yet in the meantime, she suggests alternatives like one to two coffee drinks a day, flavored tea with natural antioxidants and healthy foods for a more natural boost of energy.
"I don't think anyone needs an energy drink. Caffeine will stimulate you, but only food will give you energy," said Simon.