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Experts urge caution when consuming energy drinks

by Colin Poitras - December 1, 2008

Energy drinks have become a daily staple at schools and colleges across the country. But are they really helpful in keeping people awake and improving their concentration, or are they marketing marvels that hide potentially dangerous, unregulated drugs?

On Nov. 19, a team of experts in kinesiology, nutritional sciences, and sports medicine tried to answer some of those questions during a forum on the health effects of commercial energy drinks at the Dodd Center’s Konover Auditorium. More than 200 people, mostly students, attended the event, which was organized by the Department of Kinesiology in the Neag School of Education.

Panelists urged the audience to choose energy drinks wisely, read the labels carefully, and monitor their body’s reaction after consuming the drinks.

The bottom line, they said, is that most energy drinks are not bad for you when consumed in moderation, but they could be potentially dangerous to those who have pre-existing medical conditions, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, or certain psychiatric disorders, including manic depression.

While caffeine- and sugar-laden energy drinks like Red Bull, Monster, and Rockstar, are not necessarily bad, they aren’t exactly good for you either, according to Nancy Rodriguez, a professor of nutritional sciences in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and a registered dietician.

“None of these products are regulated to the extent that someone is actually checking and monitoring the information that is printed on the label,” said Rodriguez, who also serves as director of sports nutrition for the University. “That’s why you need to be an educated consumer.”

Rodriguez said she discovered some five-hour energy shots contain thousands of times the daily recommended levels of some vitamins, such as Vitamin B.

She said the marketing of these products is misleading: “You need to be very cautious.”

Jeff Volek, an associate professor of kinesiology and a registered dietician, said the high fructose corn syrup found in many energy drinks can promote fat, hinder the breakdown of fats in the body, and increase triglycerides in individuals who are overweight or obese and insulin-resistant.

While the drinks may provide a stimulant-induced spike that lasts a few minutes to a few hours, that ‘buzz’ is often followed by a lethargic ‘crash’ that can actually hinder academic or athletic performance, Volek said.

Human beings get energy from sugar or glucose that enters their blood stream and goes to their muscles. The high fructose corn syrup in energy drinks “contributes practically nothing” to glucose levels, Volek said: “In as much as you’re interested in fast energy, fructose doesn’t really fit the bill.”

The “buzz” induced by energy drinks is due mainly to the levels of caffeine in them, according to Lawrence Armstrong, an exercise physiologist and professor of kinesiology. So what individuals are getting is not so much an “energy” drink as a “stimulant” drink, he said.

The level of caffeine in most energy drinks is about the same as an 8-ounce cup of coffee and is not harmful, Armstrong said. Only when caffeine is present in large quantities – either in high doses in the drink or by consuming multiple beverages over a brief period – does it become a health concern.

Armstrong cautioned students to monitor their body’s reaction to energy drinks, however.

“When you take an energy drink, are you getting a buzz or is your heart pounding throughout the day?” he asked. “If it’s later in the day and you’re trying to sleep and your heart is still pounding out of your chest, then you might think about changing brands.”

Dr. Jeffrey Anderson, a physician and director of sports medicine for the Division of Athletics, said he’s pretty neutral when it comes to the pros and cons of energy drinks, but he is definitely against mixing high-energy drinks with alcohol.

“The problem with taking energy drinks in combination with alcohol is that it will make you feel like you are less drunk, and if you feel like you are less drunk, you are more likely to do something really stupid and it’s the really stupid things that scare me,” Anderson said.

“It’s the driving, the riding with somebody who is drunk, the risk of sexual assault … All the different problems associated with alcohol can potentially be accelerated if alcohol is used in combination with stimulants.”

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