U of C researcher warns parents about dangers of high-caffeine energy drinks

A Calgary researcher is working to warn parents, coaches and doctors about the potential dangers of energy drinks, which contain high levels of caffeine, can be found near sports drinks in convenience stores and are often marketed in a way that appeals to kids.

Drinks are often marketed to children, says researcher

Jane Shearer, associate professor of kinesiology at the University of Calgary has co-authored a study that makes new recommendations on energy drinks. (Jennifer Lee/CBC)

A Calgary researcher is working to warn parents, coaches and doctors about the potential dangers of energy drinks, which contain high levels of caffeine, can be found near sports drinks in convenience stores and are often marketed in a way that appeals to kids.

Jane Shearer, associate professor of kinesiology at the University of Calgary and member of the Alberta Children's Hospital Research Institute, co-authored new recommendations for the international organization, the American College of Sports Medicine.

One of the key recommendations is that kids under 18 years of age should not consume energy drinks because their small body size, combined with the high levels of caffeine, can put them at risk of potentially serious health problems.

Shearer, who also sat on a 2010 Health Canada expert panel on caffeinated energy drinks, says the amount of caffeine in a single energy drink can exceed Health Canada guidelines for children by at least double.

"The amount of caffeine is going to increase if we go to something like an energy shot, and so the levels of caffeine become quite dangerous, " said Shearer.

"If a child has an underlying health condition, maybe a cardiac condition or asthma, that energy drink can exacerbate that condition and lead to adverse events. There's a number of case reports where we've had deaths."

Marketing to kids

One of the problems identified in the recommendations is that energy drinks are marketed in a way that is attractive to kids.

"This is a significant concern," said Shearer. "These products are sold all over the place ... if you look at the packaging ... they're very much kid-friendly and appealing, for example with army logos, or pink for girls," said Shearer, whose own 11-year-old daughter has been offered energy drinks at the Calgary Stampede and in line at a local ski resort.

"You'll see energy drinks set up at sports events. Energy drink manufacturers use lots of social  media. They use a lot of gaming venues. And they'll set up these tables as sampling tables."

The drink on the left contains no caffeine, unlike the drink on the right. (Jennifer Lee/CBC)

Adding to the confusion, according to Shearer, is that many energy drinks are designed to look much like sports drinks, which do not contain caffeine.

That means parents may be buying highly caffeinated beverages for their children, without even knowing it.

"The concern for me is that parents and consumers and even athletes themselves can't effectively differentiate between a sports drink — like your Gatorade or Powerade — and something sitting beside it that looks very similar but is actually an energy drink and has high levels of caffeine."

Doctors worried too

The Canadian Pediatric Society (CPS) released a position statement of its own in October 2017, calling on physicians to educate children and their families about the potential health risks and calling on pediatricians to advocate for tougher legislation to prevent the marketing of energy drinks to children and adolescents. 

According to the CPS, adverse events associated with the consumption of energy drinks have been reported in children as young as 8 years old, including blood pressure increases, heart rhythm disorders and even death.

"The concern with some of these energy drinks is they might even have up to seven times the amount of caffeine that was found in Coca Cola. So they're not your mom and dad's Coca Cola," said Calgary pediatrician Dr. Michelle Jackman who specializes in obesity and sport performance.

High sugar content

Jackman worries about both the high sugar content in energy drinks — which can contribute to problems with obesity — and the caffeine which can cause symptoms including heart palpitations, dizziness and vomiting.

Those side effects can be made worse, according to Jackman, if children are on medications for conditions such as ADHD and asthma.

"A lot of us parents don't really have an awareness of all of the substances that are in these products," she said. "I think we do need to educate parents about these beverages as well as educating them about the potential health risks."

Meanwhile, Jane Shearer says its time to start talking to kids too. She'd like to see the information incorporated into school health programs.

"We just need to get this information into the hands of consumers. And I think the best way to get information into the hands of consumers is to start school based programs where we implement information." 

About the Author

Jennifer Lee

Reporter

Jennifer Lee is a CBC News reporter based in Calgary.