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Some Fears About Energy Drink Safety

With Americans consuming energy drinks like never before, fears are growing among doctors regarding the safety of these popular soft drinks.

As concerns over energy drinks continue to grow, sales continue to rise. According to the American Beverage Association, U.S. sales of non-alcoholic energy drinks are expected to hit $9 billion this year, with children and young adults accounting for half the market. Recently many area colleges and universities have placed a ban on selling energy drinks to their students. Emergency Medicine Physician at Springfield’s Mercy Medical Center, Mark Kenton.

“I think it’s a positive thing, I’m actually the college physician at Springfield College too, and that initiative was even without my input," he says. "It was something the college looked at and said were going to be aggressive with this and we don’t think it’s a good product to be selling on the campus.”

Many manufacturers claim their products will enhance both mental and physical performance. According to Red Bull’s website, its drink will increase concentration and reaction speed, and improve vigilance and emotional status. Dr. Kenton warns against such uses.

“You look at people who think, you know, 'I can take an energy drink and then I’ll go work out or exercise and I’ll have more energy when I go work out,' but they don’t realize the effects that you're taking a stimulant into your system, you're increasing your heart rate, you're increasing your blood pressure and then you're going to exercise, which is further increasing your heart rate, increasing your blood pressure and that can have a deleterious effect on you.”

“The drinks kind of vary with the amount of caffeine in them," he adds. "Sometimes people will think, 'I’ll take an extra one and get a little extra kick,' and then you're actually taking what would be equivalent of four cups of coffee, which again has a compounding effect on your physiological response with your heart rate, your blood pressure, et cetera.”

Graduate student at Western New England University Shawn Fitzpatrick shares his personal experiences with energy drinks.

“I usually buy them when I’m very tired come 3 or 4 in the afternoon if I need something to get through the day," he said. "I don’t find myself that I take naps if I get tired and I’m busy and on the run or if I’m making a long drive coming home from college or going back to college, I find myself drinking them quite a bit.”

Although energy drinks by themselves may seem safe, pairing them with alcohol is something Dr. Kenton has seen far too much of in his emergency room.

“The times that I’ve seen it, it’s usually been paired with alcohol and it's usually weighted to an alcohol intoxication many times with college-aged students who feel it’s a safe drink," he says. "I think part of the thought process behind it is the alcohol kind of acts as more of a depressant but you know consuming the energy drink you get the stimulant effect and you might be able to drink more.”

Shawn Fitzpatrick says mixing energy drinks and alcohol is something he’s seen a lot of in his years living on a college campus. 

“I don’t pair energy drinks with alcohol. I’ve seen a lot of people do it and a lot of problems have arisen from it, whether it be at bars or at house parties or anything, there are instances where people abuse it and that’s where it gets dangerous.”

According to the United States Food and Drug Administration, energy drinks are classified as a nutritional supplement, which means fewer regulations than other drinks on the market. When asked about stricter labeling on energy drinks, Dr. Mark Kenton says the more consumers know about a product they are drinking or eating, the better.

“I think that’s always a good thing. A lot of these companies are in it to make money and you start putting warnings on things and what you're going to sell might go down. I think what’s happened too is with the increased popularity, we also have more research going into this, so you know these drinks are fairly new on the market you know 10 years ago we didn’t see these things, so anytime there’s something new and you start to see negative consequences of it, research comes out and kind of proves that this is a real problem now and we have to deal with it.”

As energy drinks continue to grow in popularity, so too will the research -- and possibly the warnings to go with the new products we drink.