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The Dangers of Energy Drinks

Don’t let RedBull’s fancy advertising fool you

Are Energy Drinks Safe for Consumption?  Most health professionals say no.

According to The Toronto Star in an article dated October 23, 2012, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration are investigating five deaths and one non-fatal heart attack following consumption of the highly caffeinated Monster Energy Drink.

The agency acknowledged the adverse reports Monday, but FDA spokeswoman Shelly Burgess says they don’t prove that the drinks caused the deaths.

The news follows last week’s filing in California of a wrongful death suit by the parents of a 14-year-old, Hagerstown, Md., girl who died after drinking two, 24-ounce Monster Beverage Corp. drinks in 24 hours containing 475 milligrams of caffeine.

An autopsy concluded she died of cardiac arrhythmia due to caffeine toxicity. She had an inherited disorder that can weaken blood vessels.

According to the New York Times, other reported reactions include stomach pain, vomiting, tremors and abnormal heart rate.   Information obtained from a Freedom of Information request, doesn’t reveal any mitigating factors such as alcohol or drug use.

What’s in an energy drink that makes it so deadly?

Monster Energy Drink comes in a 24-ounce can and contains 240 milligrams of caffeine.  That’s seven
times the amount of caffeine in a 12-ounce can of cola or 135-milligrams of caffeine in a 237-millilitres cup of brewed coffee and 50 milligrams for a cup of tea.  The packaging usually contains a warning label advising consumers against drinking more than 48 oz per day (16 oz per day in Australia). The UK and Europe do not have these warning labels. The drinks are not recommended for children, pregnant women or people sensitive to caffeine.

There are other nutrients added such as amino acids, herbs and B vitamins which allowed them to be branded and sold as a health drink, but the dose of these nutrients are so low it’s useless and are of little benefit to one’s health.  It also contains a high amount of sugar, which nutritionally is never a good idea.

The Globe and Mail recently reported that the Minister said eenergy drinks will now be regulated as food instead of as a natural health product, allowing officials to adopt a wider range of regulations to help ensure they’re not misused.

But instead of capping the caffeine content at 80-milligram,”Health Canada has decided that energy drinks can contain no more than 400 milligrams of caffeine per litre, or a maximum of 180 milligrams in a single-serve container. That’s equivalent to the amount of caffeine in about five 355-millilitre cans of Pepsi. The 180-milligram figure is more than double the recommended daily maximum for caffeine consumption in children age 10 to 12, which is 85 milligrams”, as reported in the Globe and Mail.

However, energy “shots” are exempted from the regulation. These are small size energy drinks that are frequently sold near the cash register at airports, gas stations and convenience stores, and there are no age restrictions on who can buy them.

Another problem is that there is no agreement upon how much caffeine is too much for people aged 13 and over.  Some experts believe that drinking beverages that contain up to 180-milligrams is dangerous.

What does caffeine do to our health?

Caffeine is a stimulant that speeds up your central nervous system.  Caffeine blocks the receptors for a brain chemical called adenosine, whose function is to stop the release of the neurotransmitters dopamine and adrenalin.  This results in less adenosine activity and levels of dopamine and adrenalin increase, as do alertness and motivation.  Your concentration peaks approximately 30-60 minutes after consumption.  This is one of the benefits that people take advantage of.  However, this is a short-term benefit and the more caffeine you consume, the more the body and brain become insensitive to their own natural stimulants, dopamine and adrenalin.  Then you need more to feel “normal” and this leads to addiction and may eventually lead to adrenal exhaustion which may cause depression, anxiety and an inability to cope.   It also disturbs normal sleep patterns, leading to further exhaustion and creating a cascade of other health problems such as fatigue, headaches, low mood, irritability, muscle twitching, irregular heartbeat, raises cholesterol levels, worsens mental performance, unsteady hands and increases urination resulting in dehydration which further depletes vital nutrients.

The most immediate concern is that some people will be effected with a small amount of caffeine, as little as 250 milligrams, or two cups of coffee a day, but the bigger problem is that in large doses often found in these energy drinks, can cause rapid heartbeat, convulsions and even delirium.

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) states that it’s the most popular drug in the world.  Not only is it found in coffee, tea, chocolate and cola soft drinks, but is added to a variety of prescription and over-the-counter medications, including cough, cold and pain remedies. Energy drinks may contain both naturally occurring and added caffeine.  In Canada, manufacturers of products that contain naturally occurring caffeine (coming from plant ingredients) are not required by law to list caffeine as an ingredient on the label. Only added caffeine must be listed.  Therefore, you are not getting the complete information regarding caffeine content on the label.

But let’s not forget about tea.  A strong cup of tea contains as much caffeine as a weak cup of coffee and is addictive as well.  Tea also contains tannin, which interferes with the absorption of vital minerals such as zinc and iron.  Earl Grey tea contains bergamot, which is a stimulant.

There are many other brands on the market, such as Red Bull, Rockstar, Full Throttle and many more.  They are marketed at sports events and sometimes in bars.

Unfortunately, these drinks are primarily used by adolescents and young adults who are looking for a “brain rush” to elevate mood at parties and dances, and for students that need to stay awake to study for last minute cramming of exams or other academic deadlines, as it postpones fatigue, and are often used in combination with alcohol putting them at increased health risks, despite their youth.

Contrary to popular belief amongst students, caffeine does make you more alert but actually impairs your concentration.

The following are typical amounts of caffeine in products you may use regularly. (A cup refers to a small take-out cup size of 237 mL [8 oz]. Keep in mind that coffee and tea are often served in much larger cups.)

  • cup of brewed coffee: 135 mg
  • cup of instant coffee: 76–106 mg
  • cup of decaffeinated coffee: about 3 mg
  • Starbucks coffee (grande): 500 mg
  • cup of tea: 43 mg
  • green tea (5 fl oz): 20-30 mg
  • can of regular cola soft drink containing caffeine (355 ml): 36–50 mg
  • can of energy drink (250 ml): 80 mg
  • dark chocolate (28 g): 19 mg
  • milk chocolate (28 g): 7 mg
  • packet of hot chocolate mix: 7 mg
  • stay-awake pills: 100 mg

To find out the amount of caffeine in headache and cold medicines, check the label of over-the-counter medication, or ask your pharmacist about caffeine in prescription drugs.

Is caffeine dangerous?

Moderate amounts of caffeine—up to about 400 mg a day (e.g., about three 237mL cups of coffee)—will rarely harm an otherwise healthy adult. But if you regularly drink more than six to eight cups of coffee—or your daily dose of caffeine, from various caffeine-containing products, is higher than 600 mg—you may have trouble sleeping and feel anxious and restless. Higher amounts can cause extreme agitation, tremors and a very rapid and irregular heartbeat. Consuming more than 5,000 mg over a short time can be fatal.   For some people with underlying or unknown conditions, we don’t know how much they can consume until it’s too late. The amount of 5,000 mg is the equivalent of about 40 cups of coffee. Combining high doses of caffeine with alcohol can be dangerous because caffeine can make you feel less intoxicated, so you may continue to drink more or to behave in ways that are risky to you and others.

Energy drinks containing caffeine should not be confused with sports drinks. When used during periods of intense physical activity, sports drinks can help to quench thirst, while energy drinks can cause dehydration.

Although caffeine has not been proven to cause birth defects, too much caffeine can increase the risk of miscarriage and of the baby having a low birth weight. Caffeine is excreted in breast milk. Babies of mothers who drink large amounts of caffeine while nursing may be irritable and sleep poorly. Pregnant and nursing women are advised to limit their caffeine intake to no more than 300 mg a day, or a little less than two cups of coffee.

Furthermore, long-term use of large amounts of caffeine (e.g., four cups of coffee a day) may be associated with loss of bone density, increasing the risk of osteoporosis. Postmenopausal women are especially at risk.

Health Canada reclassified caffeinated energy drinks as food earlier this year and increased safety requirements for them after hearing from 71 submissions in their review of the beverages.

Among the proposed changes: no more than 180 milligrams of caffeine per energy drink, regardless of the size of the container.

Manufacturers would also have to report any incident received through a consumer complaint.

Notwithstanding, 180 milligrams of caffeine per energy drink is still a lot of caffeine and when you consider all other foods that may contain caffeine the amount can add up pretty quickly and wreak havoc on your body.

If you need your caffeine kick, best to consume organic green tea which contains 20-30 mg of caffeine per cup and has the added benefit of the ingredient L-Theanine, an amino acid that helps with focus and attention and reduces stress and anxiety.

By Evelyne Mitskopoulos, C.N.P.

Director of Wellness, Beneplan Inc


Before starting any new health program or before you begin taking any medication, natural medicine, or supplement, always check with your primary health care provider.