Caffeinated Energy Drinks & Teens

How caffeinated energy drinks are affecting the adolescent population

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Chris Galloway, M.D.

In 1997 the United States got its first energy drink—Red Bull. Since then the unregulated energy drink market has grown to support around 500 different labels with caffeine levels that can be as high as 505 mg per container.

The Mayo Clinic recommends that a healthy adult consume no more than 200-300 mg per day, and that’s only if they show no negative signs of sensitivity. Energy drinks are making headlines in the press more and more regarding health concerns.

Several countries including France, Norway and Denmark have banned certain energy drinks due to health concerns. Are energy drinks negatively effecting America’s youth?


While sodas have between 18-50 mg of caffeine and sugar to give consumers a boost and coffee can have anywhere between 70-150 mg per serving, energy drinks have multiple ingredients to open the eyes. Taurine, ginseng, B-vitamins, Guarana seed, and Carnitine are the most commonly listed ingredients in energy drinks.

However, due to the fact that many of the ingredients can be categorized as ‘dietary supplements’ the FDA does little to regulate them. This lack of regulation can result in unmarked or mismarked ingredient lists.  

Since energy drinks are classified as 'nutritional supplements' they don't have to adhere to the caffeine limits that exist for sodas, which are classified as ' conventional food'.  

Sodas must not exceed 68 mg of caffeine per 12 ounces. Caffeine pills are not allowed have more than 200 mg per pill.  Naturally occurring caffeine levels, like that of coffee, are also unregulated.

 But regardless of its concentration, brewing or roasting method, coffee by itself has yet to cause the amount of health problems in the youth culture that energy drinks have caused.    


The slogans and graphics on energy drink bottles and cans, marketing campaigns, sponsorships and outreach events are predominantly directed at the youth population. They claim to be performance-enhancing, work like a stimulant and help people push their limits.  Slogans like "Party like a Rockstar" for Rockstar energy drink, sponsorships for young sports like the X Games and BMX racing, and celebrity endorsement or ownership make youth a primary target.  This is no different than the way soda companies market their product; however, it would take at least a 6-pack of 12 ounce cans to ingest the amount of caffeine in one 20 ounce energy drink.  

Teens vs. Adults

Adult hearts are different from teenager hearts when it comes to pharmacological tolerance and that includes caffeine intake. While adults also should not consume too much caffeine, teens are at a greater risk for heart problems and even death associated with energy drinks. According to a recent study done by Stony Brook University Department of Pediatric Cardiology, teenagers can have atrial fibrillations from consuming energy drinks, even without prior history of heart problems. Emergency room visits are necessary for these kinds of cardiac arrhythmias and possibly even a dosing of digoxin to restore normal sinus rhythm.

Drexel University in Philadelphia looked at 4,243 kids aged 12-18 for a sleep study.  When surveyed, 33 percent of teenagers reported falling asleep at school, yet their reported caffeine intake was 76 percent higher than the other kids with little or no sleep trouble.  In a study done at the Leonard M. Miller School of Medicine at the University of Miami, 5,448 caffeine overdoses happened in the US in 2007 alone and 46 percent of those occurred in patients under the age of 19.  

Energy Drinks & Alcohol

Energy drinks combined with alcohol used to be all over the market, such as 4 Loko, Rockstar 21 and Sparks. In 2010 the FDA banned several of these caffeinated-alcohol drinks deeming them an unsafe combination. The sedative effects of alcohol are countered by the sugar, supplements and caffeine to allow people to drink for longer periods of time and therefore consume unsafe levels of both alcohol and stimulant.  This doesn’t stop people from making their own combinations of energy drinks and alcohol, Red Bull is often used as a mixer.

A study from the University of Maryland School of Public Health has shown that kids who are more frequent drinkers of energy drinks also tend to consume more alcoholic beverages. They looked at the caffeine and alcohol intake habits of 1,097 college fourth-years students.  Once they were classified as either low or high frequency energy drink users, they were looked at for alcohol consumption.  The results were: low users drank 103.1 days per year with 4.64 drinks per time vs. high users drinking 141.6 per year with 6.15 drinks per time, on average.

The Future

While it is unlikely that energy drinks will be taken off the American market altogether, regulations for content, marketing and advertising to the youth population and even an imposed age restriction may be in the future. Being aware of daily caffeine intake is important and not exceeding daily limits is the best way to keep heart palpitations and other health complications at bay.

Review Date: 
April 30, 2012