Selling the Jitters

Legal Speed or Healthy Energy in a Can?

| March 27, 2002 Issue

T he popularity of energy drinks packed with caffeine and ephedrine have grown in the past few years, but so have the number of skeptics, who say the drinks do more harm than good. Although the drinks account for only about 1 percent of the U.S. soft-drink market, according to Todd Morman of The Spectator, it's the aggressive marketing toward young people and the unknown health effects of caffeine on adolescents that have researchers worried.

Most manufacturers, which include beverage giants like Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Anheuser-Busch, and a handful of others, insist their drinks are safe and effective when properly used by kids. The Red Bull Web site even answers the question, "Is Red Bull suitable for young people?" with a confident "Yes! For young people who drink coffee, Red Bull is harmless."

But researchers caution that the health effects of caffeine - or other additives like ephedrine - on young people are not known. "The human brain is wiring itself up to around age 21," says one Duke University Medical Center doctor. "Anything like this can affect a growing brain, but we don't know how." High caffeine consumption, Morman also points out, has been linked to pregnancy problems, osteoporosis, insomnia, and a host of other ailments.

Finding a way to regulate the drinks, which often use the high caffeine content as a marketing angle to sell to kids, has been difficult because the products occupy a gray area between food and dietary supplement. Companies are not required to list how much of a drug they put into a food product, according to Morman, but they are expected to follow a standard, which allows additives if they are "generally recognized as safe." The problem is, many of the energy drink additives aren't recognized as safe - it just hasn't been scientifically proven.
--Kate Garsombke
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