Energy Drink Consumption and High School StudentsTuesday, May 22, 2012 By Jessalyn Rogers
Energy drinks are popular with everyone, from middle school to graduate school. The reasons for this are obvious, but with the benefits come negative repercussions that everyone should be informed of. Their side effects are very apparent in high school students. Due to the stresses of personality changes, expectations from parents and teachers, friendships, dating, and jobs, life in high school is like a pressure cooker. Most students simply do not have time to get the nine hours of sleep they need each night (Wolfson). Schools begin the day increasingly earlier, and the homework load is always growing. It’s no wonder that teenagers get less sleep than they used to. However, even with less sleep, teenagers must be able to cope with the high demands of their lives. For a quick way to be alert, students have found energy drinks. Energy drinks such as Red Bull and Monster are very popular. For the most part, their ingredients are the same: water, sugar, caffeine. I wanted to find out what energy drinks do to the human body, what those effects mean for teenagers, and why so many teenagers are buying them. The main active ingredient in nearly all energy drinks is caffeine. Caffeine is a stimulant that comes from many plants, especially coffee, guarana, chocolate, and tea. Although it receives a lot of negative press, it can be good for people in the right circumstances. The most widely used psychoactive, which is defined as a drug affecting the mind or behavior, in the world, bitter-tasting caffeine is used by plants to make themselves unpleasant to things that might eat them. Caffeine is added to the surrounding soil when the plant’s leaves fall, making it inhospitable to competing plants. In the human body, caffeine is ingested within an hour (James). The drug works as a stimulant by binding to adenosine receptors. Adenosine is a hormone that tells the body when it is tired(Brain, Bryant, & Cunningham). However, unlike adenosine, caffeine doesn’t tell nerve cells to slow down. It just prevents adenosine from binding. Caffeine also causes neurons to fire faster, which the pituitary gland interprets as a need for adrenaline (fight or flight). The adrenaline is what causes the “buzz” associated with energy drinks. The heart beats faster, breathing rate increases, pupils dilate, blood flow to muscles increases, and muscles tighten up, resulting in a jittery, excitable feeling. Energy drinks are known for their syrupy-sweet taste. Besides sugar (discussed later), manufacturers add sweeteners such as maltodextrin. Maltodextrin is made from starch, usually that of corn when manufactured in the United States. It has four Calories per gram, the same as sugar. It is used in place of cane or beet sugar because it is cheaper to produce than either of these. It is sweet ,but not overwhelmingly so. Another common sweetener, added to Monster, but not to Red Bull, is sucralose, sold under the brand name Splenda. Although it is seen in all kinds of “healthy” products, some authorities say that it is dangerous to consume. The molecule more closely resembles DDT than food. Both are chlorinated hydrocarbons, a group of chemicals that is manmade. Other chlorinated hydrocarbons are used as pesticides, most memorably DDT. Monster’s advertising slogan is based in truth: Splenda is made from sugar. Three hydroxyl groups are removed from the original sucrose molecule and replaced by chlorine atoms. The resulting molecule is not natural. The body is not able to metabolize it, so it does not affect insulin levels or cause weight gain. That being said, it has been demonstrated that other chlorinated hydrocarbons are stored in body fat, then cause nerve damage years later, when the fat is metabolized (Molinary & Quinlan). Another popular additive in Red Bull is taurine. Taurine occurs naturally in meat and seafood. It is a major chemical in bile, “a digestive fluid that is made and released by the liver and stored in the gallbladder” (Medline Plus Dictionary). This chemical is added to Red Bull because it is, as the manufacturer states, “a detoxifying agent and has various neurological functions (Red Bull).” A can of Red Bull contains one gram of taurine. For comparison, a seventy-kilogram human body contains seventy grams of it. Considering that the human body already synthesizes its own taurine, and that it is already eaten by non-vegetarians, the effects of the gram of taurine in a Red Bull are probably negligible. Monster Energy, has its own signature ingredient: guarana seed extract. Guarana is a South American fruit. There’s nothing remarkable about the fruit itself, but the seeds do have a very high caffeine content: the chemical constitutes three to five percent of the dry weight, compared with one or two percent for coffee. “Guarana seed extract” basically means caffeine. The most nefarious chemicals in energy drinks are not these fancy additives, however. They are the commonplace, cheap, and plentiful chemicals glucose and sucrose: in layman’s terms, sugar. These chemicals’ effects on the body are common knowledge: accelerated tooth decay, sluggishness, headache, weight gain, diabetes, etc. While most adults need seven to eight hours of sleep every night, teenagers need much more: an average of nine hours per night. There is not much time left for sleep after the demands of academics, employment, socializing, and leisure have been met. At the time of the cited study, teenagers’ wasting time on the Internet was not as big a problem as it is today. It is true that on the whole, teenagers are sleep-deprived (Carskadon). But they still need to get through every day. So, when they consume caffeine or other stimulants to stay alert after insufficient sleep, teenagers are “filling in” a larger sleep debt than adults. Because of this, they are likely to drink more energy drinks than the manufacturer intended. Another reason for the popularity of energy drinks among teenagers is the extensive marketing conducted by energy drink manufacturers. For example, Red Bull sponsors several different “adventure” sports teams, as well as conventional ball sports. Red Bull sponsors these teams so that people will equate the Red Bull brand with their projected image: tough, bold, edgy. The types of sports that they sponsor are those that appeal to the teenage and young adult demographic. Red Bull has gone from being a beverage company to being a media production corporation, with movies, television shows, commercials, and Internet content (Bloomberg). The marketing is all directed toward young people, mostly men. This is another reason for the popularity of energy drinks among high school students. Teenagers have the strongest brand-loyalty tendencies of any demographic. They also consume the most content, which is fraught with advertising. Of course, Monster is not about to let Red Bull have the market to itself. Monster has come up with its own analogues to nearly all of Red Bull’s marketing ploys, including sponsored Monster Sports and music concerts. Contrary to Red Bull, which gives some attention to women’s sports teams, Monster’s advertising appeals to an exclusively male audience. A few years ago, there was a lot of news media attention directed towards high school students’ consumption of energy drinks. One of the times that energy drink consumption is an immediate threat is when caffeine is mixed with alcohol, causing someone to drink more alcohol and putting them at a higher risk of alcohol poisoning. Teenagers buy these drinks not only for the buzz from the caffeine, but also because of the marketing directed towards them, especially young men. For high school students, too much energy drink consumption can manifest in trouble falling asleep at night, jitteriness, irritability, and inability to concentrate in school. Many teens may not even be aware of the tremendous effects that caffeine will have on them. If someone hasn’t had much caffeine and suddenly drinks a Monster, the effects on his/her body may be markedly different than those from drinking a Coke. The best thing for teens to do is go to bed early so that they can get a full night’s rest, and eat a balanced diet.