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Are sports, energy drinks safe for children?

by Olga Brea Pena, SSM Health Medical Group | August 1, 2022 at 3:00 a.m.
Dr. Olga Brea Pena

Sports drinks and energy drinks are a growing beverage industry now marketed to children and adolescents for a variety of uses. These drinks are intended to optimize athletic performance, give a boost of energy by decreasing fatigue, as well as help with concentration and mental alertness.

Water is the main component found in both beverages, but they have several additional ingredients. It is also important to recognize sports drinks and energy drinks are not the same.

Sports drinks can contain carbohydrates in the form of sugar (such as glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, sucrose), minerals, electrolytes and some flavoring with the goal of replenishing water and electrolyte loss. Energy drinks can contain the same ingredients and add stimulant components to trigger performance-enhancing effects. Some of these stimulants are guarana, caffeine, ginseng, proteins (taurine), and amino acids (L-thiamine).

The American Academy of Pediatrics released a statement in 2011 with recommendations specifically against the use of sports drinks and energy drinks by children and adolescents:

"For the average child engaged in routine physical activity, the use of sports drinks in place of water on the sports field or in the school lunchroom is generally unnecessary ... Caffeine and other stimulant substances contained in energy drinks have no place in the diet of children and adolescents."

The pediatric community acknowledges carbohydrates are the most important source of energy in children and adolescents, but the key is understanding there needs to be a balance. Excessive consumption of sports drinks and energy drinks with carbohydrates can cause increased caloric intake, triggering the risk of becoming overweight and obese.

The body's demands for energy in the form of carbohydrates and other dietary fuel sources are best provided through balanced nutrition. Caffeine has been shown to enhance activity performance in adults by increasing endurance and delaying fatigue. The majority of research is done in adults, and caffeine and other stimulant effects are not well-studied in children.

There is a raised awareness of caffeine use, abuse and toxicity in children and adolescents. In 2005, Poison Control Center nationwide received 4,600 calls from providers with caffeine questions. Of those, 2,600 were less than 19 years old. Some energy drinks can exceed 500 mg of caffeine and can cause serious side effects, including dental erosion, disruption of sleep patterns, increased heart rate, jitteriness and abdominal pain.

In conclusion, water should be the principal source of hydration in children, not energy drinks or sports drinks. The next time you are in the grocery store and given the option of a water bottle, energy drink or sports drink, choose water every time. This choice will be always the best option for you, your children and your family.

Dr. Olga Brea Pena is a pediatrician with SSM Health Medical Group in Jefferson City. Her medical interests include ADHD attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, adolescent health care, depressive disorders, newborn care, pediatric medicine and teen problems.

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