Health experts question merits of energy drinks


Students prepared to pull the typical all-nighter are often seen carrying stacks of books, bags of food and cups of coffee to help them stay awake. But in recent years, students have been turning to a new type of beverage to help them stave off sleep: energy drinks.

Five years ago, college students were relying on caffeine pills to help them stay awake to study. But energy drinks have become the new phenomenon. College campuses across the country are littered with brands such as Monster, Red Bull and No Fear.

Red Bull, launched by an Austrian entrepreneur Dietrich Mateschitz in 1997, has become the face of energy drinks. It is marketed as an energy drink "to combat mental and physical fatigue" but has lately been criticized by many for the health effects it has on its consumers because of the amount of caffeine it contains. 

A recent study by the Institute for Good Medicine at the Pennsylvania Medical Society has revealed that 20 percent of Pennsylvania's high school and college students have used energy drinks to stay awake to write a paper or cram for an exam.

In the study, it was revealed that energy drinks contain three times the amount of caffeine found in brewed coffee.

That is quite an alarming statistic, said Dr. Peter Lund, who hosted a webcast on the topic.

"The human body requires about 250mg of caffeine a day," Lund said in the webcast. "However, one energy drink can contain up to 350mg."

Besides staying up to study, many college students use energy drinks as a boost before they work out or play sports. Lund said this is more hazardous as it can cause dehydration rather than help performance.

"Heavy caffeine and sugar intake for an athlete will slow them down along with reducing the rate at which the body absorbs water," he said.

Cody Magulak, a Livingston College senior, said he has to drink Extreme Shock before he works out.

"I use it as a pre-work out boost, as it gives me a tingle," he said.

Magulak knows that Extreme Shock contains a lot of sugar, but he said it has less than the other energy drinks.

The various convenience stores that line Easton Avenue are prime spots for students looking to purchase the caffeine-laden drinks

Aslam Hafiz, a clerk at Lay-Z Shopper, which sells almost every type of energy drink, said his store runs through about 40 to 50 energy drinks each day.

"Students purchase energy drinks more than any other beverage here, and Red Bull is their favorite," Hafiz said.

The University has vending machines in most of the campus centers that sell energy drinks manufactured by SoBe, which contains less caffeine when compared to Red Bull.

The apparent dependence of some students on energy drinks has raised many questions about labeling their addiction as drug abuses.

But Elizabeth Amaya-Fernandez, a health education specialist with University Health Services, said it's not quite time to classify the over consumption of energy drinks as drug abuse.

"I would still encourage a student who may consider that they need to always have an energy drink to take note as to why it is that they are relying on the energy drink, if in fact, they are drinking it for alertness and energy," she said.

Thomas J. Montville, a professor of the Department of Food Science, said students should look for alternatives.

"Real energy would be to take a calorie instead of a stimulant," Montville said. "[Energy drinks are] just like coffee — if you're drinking eight cups of coffee you will crash."

Students should look to reduce the amount of sugar and caffeine and rely on alternatives for boosting energy, like exercising or eating natural foods such as whole grain wheat and beans, Amaya-Fernandez said.

"These drinks and foods with complex carbs, sugar and caffeine are quick fixes, but [their effects are] short lived," she said.


Farrukh Salim

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