We all want our kids to lead vibrant, active lives, because childhood is such a dynamic time of discovery and participation.

But there are healthy – and unhealthy – ways to ensure that this happens.

One of my concerns right now is that caffeine is playing an unhealthy role in the diets of too many children and adolescents. Teens, for example, shouldn’t consume more than 100 mg of caffeine per day. (The recommended caffeine ceiling for adults is about 400 mg per day.)

Unfortunately, there’s a problem with certain energy drinks that exceed the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) mandated limit of 71 mg of caffeine for a 12-ounce soda.

Energy drinks are sold as nutritional supplements, so they’re not regulated as foods.  As a result, their labels often don’t reveal the exact amount of caffeine in each drink. And, in addition to caffeine, energy drinks may contain other stimulants, such as taurine and guarana, a caffeine containing plant.

A Serious Risk to Health

This questionable chemistry may put some children’s health at serious risk.

Indeed, consuming energy drinks may trigger symptoms that include: restlessness, tremors, palpitations and nervousness. Energy drinks can also cause irregular heart rhythms and other life-threatening heart-rhythm changes.  People who have heart disease or high blood pressure are also at additional risk.

These concerns were given new urgency last month, when it was learned that five people may have died over the past three years after consuming Monster Energy Drinks, a popular energy drink that is high in caffeine. Reports of the fatalities were based on documents released by the FDA, which is investigating the incidents.

Monster Energy Drink comes in 24-ounce cans that contain 240 milligrams of caffeine, but the FDA made clear that it doesn’t yet know if the product actually caused the deaths.

News of the FDA’s investigation followed the filing of a wrongful death suit in Riverside, Calif., by the parents of 14-year-old Anais Fournier, who apparently drank two 24-ounce Monster Energy Drinks in 24 hours. An autopsy concluded that the teen died of cardiac arrhythmia due to caffeine toxicity. The medical examiner also found that she had an inherited disorder that can weaken blood vessels.

Monster Energy Drink, which has called itself a “killer energy brew” and “the meanest energy supplement on the planet,” has labels on its cans that state that the drinks are not recommended for children and people who are sensitive to caffeine. Its parent company, Monster Beverage Corp., has said that it’s “unaware of any fatality anywhere that has been caused” by its drinks.

Still, extreme caution and vigilance are called for.

Advice for Parents: Energy Drink Consumption

The bottom line is that children and adolescents should never consume energy drinks.

And they should drink plain water during and after routine exercise, rather than sports drinks, which contain extra calories that contribute to obesity and tooth decay.

Sports drinks have a limited function for pediatric athletes. They should be ingested in combination with water when there is a need for rapid replenishment of carbohydrates and/or electrolytes during prolonged, vigorous physical activity.

Finally, children and adolescents should maintain the recommended intake of juice and low-fat milk with meals.

For more on this subject, it’s well worth reading the June 2011 report issued by The American Academy of Pediatrics.

It’s also important for parents to know that the negative health impact of energy drinks is starting to become a major issue in families all across the United States.

A June 2012 survey of parents by The Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University found that:

  • 86% think energy drinks should report caffeine content on the label
  • 85% think energy drinks should carry warning labels about risk for “adverse effects”
  • 78% think energy drinks should not be marketed to kids or teens
  • 74% think energy drinks shouldn’t be sold to kids or teens

Until things seriously change, though, ongoing conversations between parents and pediatricians about energy drinks are essential in order to maintain our children’s overall health and well-being.

Suzan S. Mazor, MD, is the director of the Medical Toxicology service and an emergency attending physician at Seattle Children’s Hospital. She is also an associate professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine. Dr. Mazor serves as the associate medical director of the Washington Poison Control Center in Seattle and is a member of the American College of Medical Toxicology, American Board of Pediatrics and the Section on Emergency Medicine of the AAP.