A recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that 20% of teenagers who consume energy drinks believe they are safe. Now, a professor from Iowa State University points to poor labeling and lack of education as causes of such “misperceptions.”

The health risks of energy drinks have been well documented. Last year, Medical News Today reported on a study revealing that energy drinks may alter heart function, while other research has found the beverages may increase heart rate and blood pressure, therefore increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Caffeine is the main ingredient in energy drinks associated with health problems. Typically, one energy drink can contain as much as 500 mg of caffeine – the equivalent to around five cups of coffee. The drinks also contain other stimulants, such as Ma huang and guarana, which can be harmful to health.

But regardless of their high content of stimulants, energy drink consumption among young people is increasing.

Another study from the Centers for Disease and Prevention (CDC) revealed that, although overall caffeine intake among children aged between 2 and 11 years decreased between 1999 and 2010, more children are consuming caffeine from coffee and energy drinks.

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Energy drinks do not have to include caffeine and other stimulants on their nutrition labels, only on supplemental information labels.
Image credit: Bob Elbert

Ruth Litchfield, associate professor and associate chair of food science and human nutrition at Iowa State University, says that because caffeine and other stimulants are not listed on the ingredient panel of many energy drinks, this causes both parents and children to believe the drinks are safe to consume.

But how do manufacturers of these energy drinks get away with bypassing the inclusion of these stimulants on their nutrition labels? Instead, they include a warning on a supplement facts panel.

Litchfield explains that this allows manufacturers to sidestep the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval process prior to the product being marketed and sold.

Although the FDA have proposed a makeover of nutrition labels on packaged food and beverages, the proposals still do not require caffeine and other stimulants to be included. Therefore, a manufacturer has to voluntarily list this information for a consumer to know how much has been added to an energy drink.

In order to tackle youth consumption of energy drinks, Litchfield says there needs to be better education and awareness in schools.

In 2012, the US Department of Agriculture updated the guidelines on school lunches, requiring schools to encourage healthier eating and discourage junk food, including unhealthy beverages from vending machines. Litchfield says such guidelines are a step in the right direction.

She adds:

Our schools are where we need to model and educate about what we know is in the best interest of children for long-term health. If students don’t see these energy drinks in school, they start to understand there is a reason why.”

Many cities and states in the US, such as Maryland, are looking at the idea of banning or restricting the sale of energy drinks to children as a result of potential health risks. Although the idea has come under fire by some, Litchfield says she is not opposed to it.

But it is not only children who can suffer health problems as a result of consuming energy drinks. Last year, we reported on a study revealing that the number of people receiving emergency treatment as a result of consuming energy drinks, including adults and children, almost doubled in the US between 2007 and 2011, from 10,068 to 20,783.

Another report warns of the health hazards energy drinks pose for adults, particularly if the beverages are consumed with alcohol.