197738_10150134064788407_1313366_n copy.jpgThere have been very disturbing reports about energy drink consumption for more than a few years now. FoodFacts.com has blogged about the concerns we should all have regarding the ingredients and the marketing of these controversial products. Hospitalizations and deaths have been linked to these beverages, and marketing efforts from several brands have targeted teens.

With the appeal of increased energy, better athletic performance and better focus, it’s easy to see why energy drinks have become incredibly popular for teenagers. Sadly, because the drinks are sold everywhere and aren’t regulated, many parents aren’t aware that they may not be as harmless as they appear. And we’re all aware that no brand has actually been implicated in any hospitalization or death. There have been lawsuits and news about the possible connection (not specific cause) of a particular energy drink with a tragic situation.

In a recent study published in the Journal of Addiction Medicine, it was shown that consuming energy drinks was strongly and positively associated with alcohol, cigarette, and illicit drug use in the preceding 30 days by adolescents. The observed associations between energy drinks and substance use were significantly stronger than those between regular or diet soft drinks and substance use.

The report suggests that personality traits that make a young person more likely to consume an energy drink—such as being a risk taker—may increase the chances that he or she will try addictive substances.

Researcher Yvonne M. Terry-McElrath and colleagues at the Institute of Social Research at the University of Michigan studied U.S. secondary school students in 2010 and 2011, looking at energy and soft-drink consumption and its associations with substance abuse. As part of the Monitoring the Future (MTF) study, surveys were administered to students in the 8th, 10th, and 12th grades.

Approximately 30 percent of student respondents reported consuming energy drinks or shots. The study also found that 8th graders reported a significantly higher frequency of consuming energy drinks than 10th or 12th grade students, and that the consumption frequency was significantly higher for adolescent boys than for adolescent girls. Consumption of both soda and energy drinks was highest among adolescents in families with low average parental education as well as in single-parent households.

Cautioning that this study does not establish causation between the behaviors, the researchers recommend education for parents and prevention efforts among young people. This includes information on the masking effects that the caffeine in energy drinks can have on alcohol- and other substance-related impairments, and recognition that some groups may be particularly likely to consume energy drinks and to be substance users.

Energy drinks generally contain extra-large doses of caffeine and/or other legal stimulants. An energy drink may contain between 75 milligrams to more than 200 milligrams of caffeine per serving—compared with the 34 milligrams in a Coke. Some energy drinks list additives such as guarana, which can contain about four times the amount of caffeine that coffee beans have; however, many consumers don’t recognize this ingredient as a source of caffeine.

Commenting on the study’s findings, Janet P. Engle, PharmD, FAPhA, head of the Department of Pharmacy Practice at the University of Illinois at Chicago (who was not involved in the study), advised, “Everyone wants the magic bullet for getting energized and staying awake. However, energy drinks are not the best answer. There is a lack of research and regulation associated with energy drinks, and they may cause dangerous health consequences in users.”

While there are no official recommendations for caffeine intake for adolescents, the American Academy of Pediatrics has stated that adolescents should not consume more than 100 mg of caffeine a day. The idea that different energy drink products contain different amounts of caffeine and that various ingredients in those energy drinks may have stimulant effects themselves, we can easily see how teens consuming these drinks are ingesting far too much of the substance. That’s scary.

So while we wait for the FDA to investigate the drinks further and consider regulations, it’s important for adults to take note of the new research regarding alcohol and drug use as it may relate to energy drink consumption. It’s a good idea to be add energy drinks — and caffeine consumption — to the list of things we need to be vigilant about regarding our teenagers.