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Energy drinks getting classroom scrutiny

Energy drinks contain large amounts of caffeine, sugar and legal herbal stimulants that health experts say aren't safe for children.
Energy drinks contain large amounts of caffeine, sugar and legal herbal stimulants that health experts say aren't safe for children.

Increasing concerns over the possible ill effects of energy drinks and other popular dietary supplements on teens – particularly young athletes – has prompted the Colorado Springs-based United States Anti-Doping Association to call on health and PE teachers nationwide to specifically address the issue with their students.

The organization – a non-profit group that monitors U.S. Olympic athletes as well as promoting clean sports at all levels – has developed a set of age-appropriate teaching materials to help teachers explore with students the dangers posed by these substances. At least one Colorado school district – District 11 in Colorado Springs – intends to roll out the curriculum across the entire district come spring.

“We need to start having those conversations with our young athletes about what’s appropriate and what isn’t,” said Peggy Vigil, P.E. and Health Curriculum Facilitator for District 11. “There are so many myths out there about diet supplements, sports drinks, steroids. We need to give them accurate information. And as a former coach, I really see the need to introduce this as early as the elementary grades.”

Caffeine, sugar considered excessive for youngsters

Popular energy drinks such as Red Bull and Monster contain large amounts of caffeine as well as sugar and legal herbal stimulants – often in amounts considered excessive for children. Labels on the drinks warn that they are not meant for consumers under 18 – which practically guarantees teens will be drawn to them, say health educators.

Young athletes often consume these drinks before workouts, thinking they will enhance their performance, or they take them to help lose weight. But the results of that can sometimes be catastrophic. Energy drinks consumed before or during a workout can lead to dehydration, tremors, heat stroke and even heart attacks. More than one high school coach has stories of players vomiting up recently-consumed energy drinks in the midst of workouts.

“My husband is an EMT, and he’s treated even very young children who were drinking Rock Star,” one particularly potent energy drink, said Judy Sandlin, a professor of Education and Human Development at Texas A&M, and one of the leading proponents of teaching children about the potential dangers of energy drinks and diet supplements. “He sees a lot of irregular heartbeats in those kids.”

Drink was banned at one Colorado Springs school

Colorado Springs was Ground Zero for this issue three years ago when a spate of incidents involving the energy drink Spike Shooter prompted officials at Doherty High School to ban the drink on campus and to convince nearby convenience stores to remove it from their shelves. Students reported experiencing shortness of breath, heart palpitations and nausea after consuming the drink, which contains more than three times the caffeine of a cup of coffee, plus several herbal stimulants.

Vigil says she’s aware of no such incidents since then. “But I think the incident at Doherty was a big enough scare that it’s still in the minds of people,” she said. “And that’s what it takes to get the attention of teen-agers and decision-makers. As a whole, we need to be more pro-active rather than waiting for something else like that to happen.”

Alcohol-laced energy drinks – especially popular with college students – have been in the news lately with the FDA issuing warning letters to the drinks’ makers that the combination of caffeine and alcohol is a public health concern and can lead to “a state of wide-awake drunk.” At least four states have banned the alcoholic energy drinks.

But recent research indicates that even the non-alcoholic energy drinks may increase the risk of alcohol abuse among teens and college students. Researchers in Maryland found that students who frequently consume energy drinks were also more likely to imbibe more alcohol and to consume it more often than those students who rarely or never used energy drinks.

Equally concerning to health experts are diet supplements, which many young athletes consume in hopes of bulking up and boosting athletic performance. Unfortunately, there is little regulation of the diet supplement industry, and consumers can’t always be sure just what’s in such supplements.

Diet supplements often contain unknown ingredients

“That’s the thing that’s scary: you don’t know what’s in them,” said Sandlin, who recently briefed a gathering of Colorado P.E. teachers and coaches on the issue. “And (the manufacturers) don’t have to tell you.” She noted that some unregulated supplements contain steroids and other dangerous drugs. “Is that cheating?” she asked. “I certainly don’t think it’s healthy, particularly if you have to rely on it, game after game after game.”

The inadvertent – or maybe not so inadvertent – consumption of steroids by teen-age athletes is especially troubling to USADA. “This is a hot topic for us right now,” said Laura Wilcox, USADA outreach coordinator who is promoting the new middle- and high school curriculum. “We’ve had athletes test positive for stuff found in supplements. Because they’re not regulated, they get sloppy. So we’ve found things like lead, which is toxic. And we’ve found steroids.”

She said that high-risk products are those that are marketed to body builders, who make outlandish claims about increased muscle mass with no proof. Lower risk are those products that can offer third-party testing of their claims, engage in good manufacturing practices and guarantee purity.

Students tempted to consume these dietary supplements need to be educated on how to research their claims, and to be alert for those that are misleading or dangerous.

“Educating them about the products is a lot different than just telling them not to do it,” said Vigil. “You’ve got to remember, these young kids are ‘digital natives.’ They can get on the internet and research things in a matter of seconds – much faster than some of our teachers and coaches. This is a new generation of kids. You have to give them a reason, and you have to follow up with why these things are dangerous and how they can affect you.”

For more information:

Check out the USADA’s education resources for young people – including the new “100% Me” curriculum for youth ages 10-14 and “That’s Dope,” for ages 15-19. complements the “That’s Dope” curriculum, and includes information on improving athletic performance, the dangers of anabolic steroids, dietary supplements, energy drinks and ethical decision-making. is a youth website filled with interactive activities appropriate for ages 10-14.

The American Academy of Pediatrics hosts a site dedicated to information and education on steroid use in sports.

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