As Canada recalls more energy drinks due to high levels of caffeine, pediatricians and health experts are raising concerns about the accessibility of the products and the impact they can have on youth.
Energy drinks are widespread across Canada, the U.S. and many other countries and can be purchased from corner stores and other retailers. While some have labels advising they are not recommended for those under the age of 18, the products are not controlled in the way alcohol or cannabis are.
The products’ quick energy boost, however, can come with health issues, health experts say.
“It’s a huge amount of caffeine for a child and a lot of caffeine for a teenager and someone may not just drink one drink,” said Dr. Anna Banerji, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Toronto and the School of Public Health.
“It’s like them having six, seven, eight cups of coffee. And so they’re energetic, yes, they’re boosted (and) stimulated. But that’s not sustainable.”
She said that when people stop drinking energy drinks, potential withdrawal from caffeine includes sleeping issues, irritability, nervousness and anxiety.
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According to HealthLink BC, energy drinks can come with side effects such as headaches, nausea, fast or irregular heartbeat or insomnia.
Banerji added that the beverages often have a large amount of sugar in addition to caffeine and therefore may have little nutritional value and empty calories.
The contents of energy drinks range depending on the brand. A Red Bull or Monster, for example, has between 80-160 milligrams of caffeine in a serving, which could be comparable to a cup of coffee brewed at home that would have approximately 120 to 180 mg.
Some energy drinks have been found to contain 300 mg of caffeine or more.
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In the U.S., it’s advised by the Food and Drug Administration that an adult can consume about 400 mg of caffeine a day. The FDA does not have a recommended limit for those under 18, but the American Academy of Pediatrics advises against caffeine consumption by the age group altogether.
Health Canada advises children and adolescents under 18 should keep caffeine intake to 2.5 mg per kilogram of body weight per day. As an example, an average 16-year-old male weighing 60 kilograms, or 132 lbs, should consume no more than about 150 mg of caffeine per day.
Dr. Jean-Philippe Chaput, a senior scientist with the Healthy Active Living and Obesity research group at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO), said that while youth should focus on drinking healthy beverages such as water, youth often turn to caffeine and energy to stay alert through the day.
According to the 2016 ParticipAction Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth, almost a third of school-aged Canadians are not getting enough sleep.
“We have a sleep deprivation epidemic in Canada and one way to cope with lack of sleep is maybe to have a stimulant like Red Bull or energy drinks,” Chaput said.
He recommends a mix of education and new policies to form the solution. Parents as well as schools and health-care providers should also discuss proper sleep habits and avoidance of energy drinks.
“Everyone should sing from the same song sheet saying that energy drinks are not good for you,” he said.
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In terms of policies, Chaput said one option would be to look into further restricting the amount of caffeine in these beverages.
Putting in policies surrounding energy drinks may be difficult, Banerji suggested, as it’s not like restricting items with carcinogens like tobacco. She also takes issue with how energy drinks are marketed.
“Even though they say it’s for people who are adults, it really is marketed for the youth,” she said, noting the loud logos and brightly coloured packaging common among the products.
Marvin Ryder, an associate professor of marketing at McMaster University’s DeGroote School of Business, said social media has become a benefit to energy drink makers without them even having to do promotions on the platforms.
Seeing someone, such as a close friend or an “influencer,” post on social media consuming an energy drink can have a greater impact than a promotional video posted by the company.
“To younger people, those social media posts, not formal advertising from the company, but simply peer-to-peer communication – me telling you that I have one of these before I go to the gym or I had one of these before the game, or I had one of these to get ready for a test – carries so much weight,” he said.
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Ryder said it’s unlikely much will change without potential government intervention, which could come in a variety of ways. He suggests making warning labels bigger or removing colours and logos, or potentially changing how the products can be sold.
Recently, Canada recalled six brands of energy drinks including Logan Paul and KSI’s Prime Energy, and the well-known 5 Hour Energy over concerns of caffeine exceeding the allowable 180 mg amount in Canada, as well as labelling issues.
Ryder said it’s important such rules are enforced.
“When a product is improperly imported into the country and violates the rules, you must pull it off the shelves and destroy the product,” he said. “You can’t have any product of any kind on our shelves that violate our rules.”
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