You might be aware of the wrongful death lawsuit filed by a Maryland couple in October against an energy drink manufacturer. The couple’s 14-year-old died after drinking two 24-ounce energy drinks within 48 hours. Sadly, it isn’t the first such incident. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is investigating reports of five deaths and a nonfatal heart attack among people who drank high-caffeine energy drinks made by the same company.

I think many people don’t realize that energy drinks are sold as nutritional supplements; they are not regulated as food. Thus, their content and purity cannot be ensured. Consuming them might lead to adverse side-effects, potentially harmful interactions with prescription medications (particularly stimulant medications used to treat ADHD) or positive drug tests.

By law (Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994), the manufacturer is responsible for ensuring that its dietary supplement products are safe before they are marketed. Unlike drug products that must be proven safe and effective for their intended use before marketing, there are no provisions in the law for the FDA to “approve” dietary supplements for safety or effectiveness before they reach the consumer. Under the 1994 law, once the product is marketed, the FDA has the responsibility to show a dietary supplement is “unsafe” before it can take action to restrict the product’s use or removal from the marketplace.

What ingredients are found in energy drinks?  

• Carbohydrates — Most energy drinks have 18 to 25 grams of carbohydrates per 8 ounces. The high carbohydrate concentration will inhibit absorption of fluid in the gastrointestinal tract.

• Caffeine — Nearly all energy drinks contain some amount of “natural” or synthetic caffeine. The caffeine concentration might range from the equivalent to an 8-ounce cup of coffee (85 mg) to more than twice that amount.

• Herbs — Many energy drinks include herbal forms of caffeine such as guarana seeds, kola nuts and Yerba mate leaves. The “performance-enhancing” effects and health benefits of many herbs have not been well-established by scientific studies.

• Vitamins — Vitamins are essential nutrients that contribute to a healthy life. Although most people get all the vitamins they need from the foods they eat, many people choose to take supplemental vitamins as part of their health routine.

• Protein and amino acids — Protein is a part of every cell in your body. Protein and amino acids are used for growth and to repair body tissue, build muscle, regulate body functions and for energy. 

• Other ingredients — With the hundreds of energy drink brands that are available, the potential ingredients they might contain are virtually unlimited.  

What are the possible effects of using energy drinks?

The high amount of caffeine in an energy drink can cause light headedness, tremors, rapid heartbeat, nausea and insomnia. The high amount of caffeine and sugar causes the stomach to empty slower, causing cramps, bloating and diarrhea. In extreme cases, it has been reported some patients brought to the emergency room have had strokes, heart attacks, seizures and even died.    

If you are a parent, I urge you to talk to your children, especially teenagers, about the dangers of consuming energy drinks. Remind them that a great way to feel good is to combine eating healthful foods, drinking water, exercising regularly and getting plenty of sleep.

Rebecca McFarland is the family and consumer sciences extension agent for Frontier Extension District No. 11, which serves Franklin County. For more information or questions about food safety, call her at (785) 229-3520 or email rmcfarla@ksu.edu