Study finds energy drinks lead to health risks

Shortly after 5 p.m. Monday, Felipe Hurtado began cramming for a heat transfer test. But first, he headed to an on-campus vending machine and chose a drink that may not only take heavy toll on his pocket but also on his health – an energy drink.

Hurtado, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering, said he was unaware of a University of Miami (UM) study published last week in the Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics that found that energy drinks are currently understudied and have been found to lead to many health complications in children and adolescents.

“For me, it keeps me focused and awake for studying,” he said of the $2-per-can beverage. “That’s what’s important when you’re in college.”

The consumption of energy drinks, which appeal to many college students for their claims of increased energy and enhanced focus and concentration, has been correlated with an increased risk of seizures, strokes, heart failure, ADHD, eating disorders and diabetes, according to the study.

Diane Zanto, senior director for Student Health Services (SHS), said that even though adolescence is commonly thought to end at 18, there is little physiological difference between adolescents and young adults – the majority of a college campus’s population.

“Young adults have to ask themselves, ‘Don’t I want to stay as far away from (health risks) as possible?'” she said. “Living on the fine line between putting yourself at risk for a health hazard and being healthy is dangerous.”

While the caffeine found in many energy drinks exceeds the Food and Drug Administration’s approved amount of 71 milligrams per 12 fluid ounces, due to their classification as dietary supplements the caffeine alone may not be the sole culprit in the increased health hazards.

“Caffeine isn’t an evil chemical,” Zanto said. “The problem is when you combine it with other chemicals. Caffeine alone isn’t particularly harmful. Overdoing it has negative effects. Most people can determine for themselves whether it feels right or not. You’ll feel anxious and nervous (if you’ve consumed too much).”

UM researchers said in the study that many herbal blends such as taurine common to energy drinks, may pose additional risks like seizures and strokes when combined with caffeine.

Common herbal blends such as ginseng often intensify the negative effects of caffeine overdoses, such as anxiety, heart palpitations, insomnia, dehydration and addiction.

Zanto said when students come into SHS with complaints of insomnia, irregular heartbeats or anxiety, some of the first screening questions asked are about their caffeine consumption.

From July 2010 to January 2011, USF Tampa campus vending machines sold 30,242 energy drinks that earned a commission of $17,540.36 for the University, according to University spokeswoman Lara Wade.

From July 2009 to Jan. 2010, 25,568 drinks were sold, earning $13,624.44 in commission.

Though caffeine in coffee consumed in excess may pose similar health risks, Zanto said she believes the risk posed by energy drinks loaded with sugar are far greater, particularly when combined with alcohol.

Four Loko, an alcoholic beverage with a high caffeine concentration, was banned from several states in November 2010 after the health risks of its consumption were studied.

Zanto said caffeine can often mask the effects of alcohol overdose, leading students to drink more than a safe amount. She cited Red Bull and Vodka as a student favorite.

“There’s no quick fix,” she said. “Sleep and stress management are the main things to maintain your focus and concentration. Maintaining a wellness lifestyle is crucial. (College students) deemphasize the value of sleep. That can compromise your focus and concentration, and eventually your immune system. Stress can do the same thing.”

Despite the warnings, Hurtado said he drinks energy drinks approximately twice a week and said he hasn’t had any health-related side effects.

“Nothing has happened to me so far,” he said. “So far so good.”