Energy drinks pose serious and scary health risks, scientific review shows

  • Jason Lemon
  • For the AJC
10:08 a.m. Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2017 Atlanta health, diet and fitness news

Although energy drinks may provide the boost you need to make it through a long day, that extra push may come with far more negative side effects than you realized.

Mental health problems, risk-seeking behavior, increased blood pressure, obesity, tooth erosion, adverse cardiovascular effect and kidney damage are some of the many negative health consequences linked to energy drinks, a recently published review of scientific articles on the topic has revealed. Furthermore, the authors of the report claim that these risks are often hidden by clever marketing and a lack of regulation.

"The negative health effects associated with energy drinks (ED) are compounded by a lack of regulatory oversight and aggressive marketing by the industry toward adolescents," authors wrote in the article published in “Frontiers in Public Health.”

According to one of the review's coauthors, the problems associated with the drinks are so numerous, even the researchers were surprised.

"The wide range of conditions that energy drinks can negatively impact was quite astounding," study author Josiemer Mattei, assistant professor of nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told Men's Health.

Energy drinks can contain excessive amounts of several key ingredients that lead to adverse effects, according to the review. The drinks' high amounts of sugar, caffeine and stimulants such as guarana all can cause a variety of negative health consequences.

"The excess caffeine may contribute to cardiovascular outcomes, such as increased blood pressure," Mattei told Yahoo News.

While caffeine has also been linked to health benefits, a recommended daily limit is 400 milligrams for adults. Some energy drinks contain more than 200 milligrams per ounce, including the concentrated so-called “energy shots.” 

Just as alarming as the high concentration of caffeine, is the high sugar content in some energy drinks. The average 16.9 ounce energy drinks contains about 54 grams of sugar, significantly more than the recommended limit of 36 grams per day for men and 25 grams for women.

As the American Heart Association points out, "added sugars contribute zero nutrients but many added calories that can lead to extra pounds or even obesity, thereby reducing heart health."

In addition to weight gain, excessive sugar intake can lead to range of conditions including diabetes and high blood pressure. Over time, consistent high blood pressure may damage blood vessels and nerves, which can lead to heart disease and kidney problems. 

On top of energy drinks' own negative effect, they are often combined with alcohol, compounding the health risks. The article point out that this trend also appears to lead to higher levels of alcohol consumption, especially among young people.

"Researchers attribute this to the fact that consumption of ED masks the signs of alcohol inebriation, enabling an individual to believe they can still safely consume more alcohol, leading to 'awake drunkenness,'" researchers wrote. "As a result of this increased alcohol consumption, those who drink alcohol-mixed ED are more likely to experience severe dehydration and alcohol poisoning."

Despite the numerous health risks, aggressive marketing has led to rapid growth and popularity of energy drinks throughout the world. Sales have increased in the U.S. by more than 240 percent since 2004 and the industry is expected to reach $21 billion in the country by this year. As a result, the article's authors argued that more regulation and oversight is necessary to address energy drinks as a public health challenge.

"Public health and policy action must be taken to mitigate the negative health effects and public health challenges associated with ED," researches noted, outlining specific steps the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) should take to properly label energy drinks. The authors also suggested that marketing should be regulated, specifically as it targets minors.

Pointing to the growing evidence reviewed in the article, the authors argued that energy drinks "should be considered a significant public health problem that warrants attention." 

The American Beverage Association, which claims that its members represent 95 percent of energy drinks sold in the United States, disputed the claims in the report in a statement to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“Mainstream energy drinks have been extensively studied and confirmed safe for consumption by government safety authorities worldwide, including the FDA and European Food Safety Authority. In fact, most mainstream energy drinks have far less caffeine than a similar size coffeehouse coffee - many have about half as much,” the statement said. 

“America’s leading energy drink manufacturers voluntarily go far beyond all federal requirements when it comes to responsible labeling and marketing practices, including displaying total caffeine content - from all sources - on their packages along with advisory statements indicating that the product is not recommended for children, pregnant or nursing women and persons sensitive to caffeine.”

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